INDIANAPOLIS — In 2017, Lori Locust once sat in the same chairs as the 41 women who took part in the seventh annual NFL Women’s Forum held Tuesday afternoon at the JW Grand Ballroom in downtown Indianapolis.
The event looks much different than it did in its inception, and instead of being one of the participants aspiring to be in her shoes, the new Tennessee Titans defensive quality control coach sat on a panel as one of six female coaches in the NFL, hoping to inspire the next generation.
“When we did the first forum, and even before that, it was a very isolating experience,” Locust told The Inquirer after participating in the panel. “I never saw another woman the first five or six years of coaching; I went to a Glazer Convention in Baltimore, and I went there with a high school staff, there were so many men that they had literally changed the women’s bathroom on the conference floor to a man’s bathroom as well because there were no women.
“I was so used to being on my own island, and then you come to the [women’s] forum, you’re like ‘Wow, there are women that do what I do, who think how I think, who feel like I feel about football.’”
‘It makes you stronger’
The Philadelphia native and Temple alumna was one of 15 women who took part in the first NFL Women’s Forum, and her career trajectory only continues to rise.
After spending the last four seasons as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant defensive line coach, Locust was one of several cuts from the staff this offseason. But she wasn’t out of work for long, joining Titans head coach Mike Vrabel’s staff on Feb. 4.
A Super Bowl champion with the Bucs following the 2020 season, Locust experienced the highs and lows of NFL coaching business while recognizing and leaning on the value of relationships in the industry to help her land another coaching opportunity.
“I had all this experience going in, but learning it and being able to translate it at the pro level is something entirely different,” Locust said. “Having relationships with coaches in the building who were willing to get me references … seeing what it took to get to that [2020 Super Bowl] level, get to that pinnacle of sport, it was a year like no other. We had COVID restrictions. We had things on video; we did everything we could to stay on track with normalcy.
“It makes you stronger. It makes you more resilient; it makes you more resourceful, getting the job done in different ways and thinking outside the box.”
The early transitions to Nashville have proved difficult personally for Locust, who has a son and dog back at their house in Tampa, Fla., as she grasps how quickly things can pivot in the coaching community and the affect it can have on a family.
However, a strong support system in her agent, Nicole Lynn, who also is Eagles star quarterback Jalen Hurts’ agent, Sam Rapaport, the NFL’s senior director of diversity, equity & inclusion, and those relationships she built over the years allowed Locust to quickly land her next opportunity in the NFL.
“Having that support system — it was organic, once they knew, I’m coming to you, they knew they could run with it, and I think that’s why helped solidify things in Tennessee,” Locust said, echoing the sentiment from Tuesday’s panels.
Listening more than talking
Before becoming a full-time NFL coach, Locust made several stops before rising up the ranks. Growing up a Steelers fan, the now-58-year-old played women’s semipro football as a defensive lineman with the Central Penn Vipers in 2004 and started coaching a few years after after winning the team’s MVP award in 2007.
Her coaching journey started at Susquehanna Township High School, her alma mater, in 2009, and after stops as a coach for the Central Penn Piranha men’s semipro team, an internship through the Bill Walsh Coaching Fellowship with the Baltimore Ravens in 2018, and a quick stop with the Alliance of American Football, she landed the assistant defensive line position with the Buccaneers in the spring of 2019.
Staying close to the game by coaching after playing her women’s semipro football became a passion for Locust, something she cherishes and for which she has developed an appreciation.
“I learned to love the game from a whole other aspect, and it’s just that teaching, that development and the translation of a skill set to somebody and watching them execute it, it was like this thing I couldn’t get away from,” Locust said.
During the 2022 preseason, the Titans and Buccaneers had joint practices, an opportunity that allowed Vrabel and his staff to connect with Locust during the week. Their first meeting, which dates back the first ever NFL Women’s Forum six years ago, built the foundation of their continued professional relationship.
While talking on the first of two panels on the first day of the 2023 NFL Women’s Forum, Vrabel stressed the importance of respect and having a team environment focused on bringing out the best in his players.
“Lori is a coach who loves football, who is going to find ways to teach, develop, and inspire by making connections,” Vrabel said, when asked by moderator Rapoport if he would need to address his team after hiring a female coach. “The respect is very, very critical, whether it be for Lori, whether it be Ms. Marilyn, who is in every morning at 4:30 in the morning in the cafeteria, that’s important to me, and those are the things I would be responsible for.”
“I’m going to sit back and see how the chemistry is,” Locust said of her approach to joining Vrabel’s staff. “I never wanted to go onto a staff to disrupt chemistry. … I listen more than I talk in the beginning, because one of the things you have to realize is that guys at this level, you can’t over-coach them.”
The investment of Locust on Vrabel’s staff extends far beyond the facility buildings. As part of the NFL Women’s Forum, participants were offered breakout sessions with positional coaches to learn about the NFL’s culture and terminology in coaching.
Along with outside linebackers coach Ryan Crow, Locust and Vrabel took part in the sessions late Tuesday afternoon, finding new opportunities for the coaching staff to push each other to learn and grow.
“He feels as though if we’re not doing that internally for each other, we can’t possibly be growing as coaches to be able to help the players better,” Locust said. “I’m very excited for the next few months and hopefully to continue to be on the staff in Tennessee.”