It was just last year that the Super Bowl's doors cracked opened for women, insomuch as one was actually able to have an indirect impact on the game.
But this year? Women are running through that opening – not that any of them are seeking attention or want the spotlight focused on the NFL gender barrier that they continue to incrementally dismantle. But there's no denying the significance of Super Bowl 55, which will feature two female assistant coaches, Maral "M.J." Javadifar and Lori "Lo" Locust of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and down judge Sarah Thomas, who will be the first woman to officiate on Super Sunday.
“I feel extremely blessed to have this opportunity, and I know that Coach Lo and, I'm sure, Sarah, feel the same way,” Javadifar, the Bucs' assistant strength and conditioning coach, said this week. “I do look forward to the day when it’s no longer newsworthy to be a woman working in the pros, or making the Super Bowl for that matter.
"I hope we get to a point where all people are afforded equal opportunities to work in professional sports, because there are a lot of great qualified coaches out there. … It doesn't matter your gender, or your race, your ethnicity. I'm proud to work for a head coach like Bruce Arians and be part of an organization like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where all of the characteristics of gender/race equality, all that stuff, doesn't matter.”
Buccaneers assistant strength and conditioning coach Maral Javadifar in 2019. (Photo: Paul Sancya, AP)
Locust, Tampa Bay's assistant defensive line coach, struck a similar tone.
"You have to understand there's a blessing and a curse to media coverage in regards to women coaches," she said, "because what it looks like sometimes is that we've just sprung up out of nowhere. Whereas there's hundreds of women that are at various levels of football – whether at high school, college, semi-pro – and they've been out there kind of doing it on their own, and they've been earning those positions on their own without any help from anyone else."
But Locust and Javadifar got a helping hand from Arians, who has long championed diversity on his coaching staffs but got a nudge from his wife to extend opportunities beyond internships to women. Arians, who returned to the sideline after a one-year hiatus to take over the Bucs in 2019, immediately hired Locust and Javadifar as full-time assistants.
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“Inclusivity and diversity are great ways to teach.” he said. “I mean, the more input from different types of voices, the better output you get.”
One of his best players agreed.
"People might think like, ‘Oh, they’ve got women on the staff but they’re on there just to say they’re on there," said Bucs linebacker Devin White. "I learn from Coach Lo every day. … Sometimes I need help on something and she’s always willing to help me and she keeps good spirits at practice.
"M.J. is a person that is one of the main reasons that my body feels so good going out there. She stretches everybody, she gives everybody new techniques on things to do. I feel like they all play a huge role in the success that we’re having. I’m so thankful for them to be on our staff because they’re great people off the field, and that’s what means the most."
Locust and Javadifar reached the league despite non-traditional backgrounds.
Javadifar is the daughter of Iranian parents who left their home country in the 1980s in the midst of a protracted war with neighboring Iraq. She played basketball at Pace University and studied microbiology before getting a doctorate in physical therapy. Her PT background caught the eye of Anthony Piroli, Tampa Bay's head strength and conditioning coach, who was looking to diversify the principles of his program.
“My physical therapy background allows me to kind of hone in on movements for assessments that we see with these (players) that will target things that they need individually in order to make them most successful on the field," said Javadifar, who strives to fine-tune each player from a performance and recovery standpoint.
"That’s our primary goal: ‘How do we get this player to excel at their craft?’ "
The Bucs are reaping the benefits.
"It's been really, really cool working with M.J. these last couple years," receiver Chris Godwin told USA TODAY Sports, emphasizing how her approach has helped. "She's so smart, but also she's so passionate about what she does. … I know there are a lot of guys that have worked with her to get their bodies right."
Arians received a recommendation on Locust, 56, for her work with the Birmingham Iron in 2019 with the now-defunct Alliance of American Football. She'd previously coached with semi-professional teams, an arena club and had been an unpaid assistant for nine seasons at her alma mater, Susquehanna Township High School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. She even continued playing until she was 40.
Buccaneers assistant D-line coach Lori Locust offers advice prior to a 2019 preseason game. (Photo: Tori Richman, Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
Thanks in part to her contributions to the men in the trenches, the Buccaneers have had the NFL's top-ranked rush defense each of the past two seasons.
"She's done an amazing job with us the last two years," veteran defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh told USA TODAY Sports. "She definitely is a stickler on the details and making sure each and every one of us in the room is accountable."
Locust and Javadifar follow Katie Sowers, an offensive assistant for the San Francisco 49ers the past two seasons, as Super Bowl-experienced assistants.
“M.J. and I are here to help Tampa Bay win. It wouldn’t matter if we’re second in or 273rd in," said Locust, who also interned for the Baltimore Ravens during their 2018 training camp. "We acknowledge the fact there hasn’t been many before us, but it’s not anything that we keep in the forefront of what we do on a daily basis."
Thomas, who was hired by the NFL in 2015 and already has four postseason games on her résumé, echoed that sentiment in a video shown Monday as part of the Super Bowl festivities on NFL Network.
"Being selected for this year's Super Bowl in Tampa, it means a lot to me," she said.
"I never set out to be the first in any of this. But knowing the impact that I'm having on not just my daughter – but young girls everywhere, women everywhere – when I get on that field, and I take it all in, I know that I'm probably gonna get a little teary-eyed."
So what's next? Hopefully a widening pipeline of female coaching talent and a new normal when their roles with NFL teams aren't viewed as a novelty.
“It felt very isolating at times to be doing what I was doing," said Locust, who maintains a group text with other women coaches, including Sowers and Washington Football Team assistant Jennifer King.
When the Bucs defeated Washington in the wild-card round, it was the first time in NFL playoff history both sidelines featured women coaches.
Locust, left, Washington's Jennifer King, center and Javadifar all met prior to last month's NFC wild-card game, which the Buccaneers won at FedEx Field. (Photo: Tori Richman, Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
Amy Trask, a longtime executive for the Oakland Raiders (including their CEO from 1997 to 2013), hopes what's so often been halting progress league-wide, in terms of the emphasis on diversity, finally gains protracted momentum.
"They have earned this, they deserve this, and they should be excited," Trask told USA TODAY Sports in reference to Thomas, Locust, Javadifar and even King, who was just promoted in Washington.
"But won't it be exciting for all of us when people are hired without regard to race, gender or any other individuality which has no bearing whatsoever on whether one can do a job?"
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis
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