Girls Sports Month: NFL Director of Football Development Samantha Rapaport on growing the game and following passion in your profession

March is Girls Sports Month, and as part of USA TODAY High School Sports’ third-annual Girls Sports Month celebration, we’re speaking with some of the most influential female athletes, coaches and celebrities in the sports world.

NFL Director of Football Development Sam Rapoport still plays the game in all forms (Photo courtesy Samantha Rapoport)

NFL Director of Football Development Sam Rapoport still plays the game in all forms (Photo courtesy Samantha Rapoport)

Samantha “Sam” Rapoport grew up in Canada but fell in love with the most American of sports, tackle football. She grew up playing football of every type at every level; touch, flag and eventually tackle football, in which she still competes as a quarterback today. Rapoport eventually decided she wanted to work in the sport due to her passion for playing it, and earned a role as an intern with the NFL.

She has risen from those humble beginnings to her current role as Director of Football Development, where she’s one of the highest ranking officials responsible for growing the grassroots of the game. She also serves as an advisor for the Ernst & Young Women Athletes Business Network and sits on the Board of Directors of the first ever girls tackle football league in the country- the Utah Girls Tackle Football League. In addition, Sam is currently chair of the International Federation of American Football’s Female Football Development Board.

USA TODAY: When did you first know that you wanted sports to be a critical part of your life?

SAM RAPOPORT: I first knew when I was 12 years old. I grew up in Canada, and my Dad and I found an ad for a girls touch football league. I took to the sport right away. I felt like I was good at the sport and I never looked back. I’ve played touch, flag and tackle every since and still play today.

USAT: Why is participation in sports so important for girls today

SR: I think if you look across the board at all the benefits that can be taken from sports, it’s confidence, teamwork, cohesion, but also some products of it that I experienced in my career after playing sports. That’s being ok with others getting credit, being able to work with people you may not be friends with. There are so many positive attributes that come from it. At the youth level it’s an incredible way to build confidence and feel good about something. I think as a young girl and as an adolescent there are challenges about self esteem, and playing sports helps drive confidence which transfers to other areas of your life.

USAT: What was your favorite sport growing up, and why?

SR: My favorite sport was football. Hockey was king in Canada, but I wasn’t a hockey fan, I didn’t curl. I lived, breathed and slept football. The thing that I think differentiates football is that there’s no success point on the field that can be down to a single person. There’s no one touchdown, interception, big play where you can’t credit a teammate. You need to develop this incredible cohesion with your teammates, because if you did something well, it’s like attributable to 10 other people.

USAT: What is the biggest life lesson you took away from your own competition?

SR: Since I played quarterback, at a young age I was a play caller. When I was playing touch my coaches had me call a lot of plays, and that made me a leader at a young age. I loved having 10 other people look me in the eyes and gauge my fear and see if we were going to be successful. It’s an incredible skill to learn as a young girl, to be put in that position. Even if you’re nervous, you have to show everyone that you’re not. I think that’s a great attribute to learn both as a girl in sport but also as an adult female in business.

USAT: In what ways has sports made you prepared to be a better leader in sports business and development?

SR: I think it’s handling adversity. At a young age, if you have to handle adversity, whether it’s something negative on the field you have to handle or a comeback in a game, not giving up when things aren’t going well is crucial. Sports teaches you to not get too low in the lows and not get too high in the highs. Sports has taught me the short term memory in terms of failure. When you throw a bad pass, you have no choice but to forget it and move on. There are many work days where I feel that I didn’t do something properly, but my muscle memory tells me to forget it and move on. I think that’s a great attribute that anyone can take, and I use it frequently.

Sam Rapoport with a group of female pee wee football players (Photo courtesy of Samantha Rapoport)

Sam Rapoport with a group of female pee wee football players (Photo courtesy of Samantha Rapoport)

USAT: Why is being a role model for younger girls so important to you?

SR: It’s extremely important to me because a lot of people assume that girls don’t play football. For a lot of girls, I want to show them that there are 1000s of girls who play football, and tackle football, and we come in all shapes and sizes and races. There are thousands of girls who play this sport and it’s very important for them to see playing this sport.

I think that transfers to careers as well. We’ve seen a lot of young girls and adolescent girls in college when we talk about careers in football, and until we present it to them they don’t even think of it as a possibility to shoot for. If girls love football as much as I do or the next person does, they can pursue a career in it. It’s not just coaching and scouting like I focus in, it’s also IT, analytics, marketing. There’s a place for you in football if you are interested in it. Having a position at the league office and being in charge of a division certainly inspires other girls to try and do the same.

USAT: What should girls do who don’t have access to sports they want to play?

SR: I think in particular there are a lot of non-profit organizations that pay for budgeting and the additional costs it takes. Those non-profits exist everywhere, so look for those. In football, I’ve worked in football and we have an NFL flag football program for young girls and boys across the country, so you can put in your zip code and play. There’s also opportunities with YMCAs where you can be involved with low or no costs, develop a relationship with a coach who can help you continue to be involved. You have to find those organizations and be involved in whatever way you can.

USAT: What else do you think is important for girls to know about sports and participating in them?

SR: I think its important for them to know that girls all over this country play. They play tackle football, where there are three or four leagues that are girl only tackle leagues, but there are thousands who play all over the country. Football is the most popular sport so it stands that there would be many girls who are interested in it.

I got an internship with football because I played football. When I walked in and met with all 32 coaches, I could relate to them because I played. If girls are interested in football, and we know they are, why not procure a career in football? We’re doing a lot of work to show them that they can.

At the Pro Bowl this year, we hosted the women’s careers in football forum, which was an opportunity for us to bring in tackle players in their late teens and 20s, and we had the owner of the Bills and Bengals and Ron Rivera come out and talk to them. The idea was to inspire these young women to consider careers in football if they love the sport as much as they do. They still didn’t think careers in football was for them, but this hopefully made them consider that differently. We also did another event for women currently in the NFL at our meetings this week. Within the NFL league office about 30 percent of our work population is female, and at that event at the meetings it was one NFL team and a bunch of women from college football. The idea was to connect these women and educate them with lectures on salary cap management, taken them to the pro combine. That was called the Women’s Career Development Symposium.

I think an interesting point that pertains to playing, I sent in a football with my resume when I applied for my first internship, wrote something on the football and then got in. Once I was in, our then head of officiating Mike Pereira brought me in and I threw a football while running left and throwing right. I walked out and one of the people in the audience offered me a job. Because the development of girls in football is still on the rise it sometimes gives them an opportunity to really stand out if they’ve played the game, and more and more of them have.

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