New Game Plan
Some SJ football teams are changing the face of coaching
By Kate Morgan

Coach Mila DeGregorio, photo: David Michael Howarth

Mila DeGregorio remembers the exact moment she fell in love. “It was the 2012 Super Bowl, the Giants and Patriots,” the 21-year-old Voorhees resident says. “I realized how intricate it all was. I started watching and was like, ‘This is the greatest sport to ever exist.’”

Though she would’ve liked to play football herself, DeGregorio says, she’s “not really physically built for it. Plus, women in football wasn’t really a thing yet, and I would have been the only girl on any team I could have played on.” Still, when she started high school at Eastern, DeGregorio wanted to be a part of the team.

“I talked to the head coach and said I’m really interested in learning. I would love to just watch what you do.” The coach offered her a manager position. “Basically, they fill water and do equipment, and I was like, respectfully, that’s not what I want to do. So instead he helped me chart plays, upload and download film, stuff like that.”

After she graduated in 2018, DeGregorio joined the coaching staff of the junior Vikings, the team of 8th graders that serves as a feeder program for Eastern’s team.

“I’ll take help any way we can get it,” says Jamie Russen, head coach of the junior Vikings and president of the organization. “But I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know the level of football knowledge she’d have. She jumped in with both feet and has been by my side the last 2 years.”

DeGregorio quickly climbed the ranks. “I started slowly giving input, and soon I was calling plays in games,” she says. “By the second season, I was running practices when Jamie wasn’t there.”

Karen Rau during warm-ups before a game, photo: Soundgirl Photography

For Karen Rau, a freshman offensive and defensive line coach at Delran High School, being a football coach was never something she ever considered. “It never occurred to me I could be a football coach,” she says. “It goes to show you how everything is changing. I’m 42 already and it’s only my second year. I wish I’d tried to push sooner.”

Rau grew up in a football-loving family in upstate New York. “We’d go to Giants games as a family,” she says. “It was part of who we were growing up.”

Her kids have always been involved in sports, and with her “husband working very long hours,” Rau says, “I was always the one who did things like coach my daughter’s basketball team.”

Last year, when one of the freshman football coaches at Delran High School had to step down halfway through the season, Rau, who teaches history and special education, stepped in.

“I was the freshman class advisor,” she says. “I knew those guys, I just liked football, and I thought ok, cool, this is a great way for me to get involved. I just kind of volunteered.”

Rau is the only woman on the school’s coaching staff. DeGregorio’s alone on the junior Vikings’ staff too. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, there have been some awkward moments – but not from the teenagers on the team. More often, it’s the adults who are the problem.

“He kept asking, ‘Why were you on the sideline?’ I was like, ‘I was coaching.’ He was like, ‘Why were you not with the parents?’ I said, ‘I was coaching the game.’

“I’ve gotten some looks. That’s pretty normal,” says DeGregorio. Recently, when she went back to the field to grab the keys she’d forgotten during an earlier game, the coach of another team confronted her. “He kept asking, ‘Why were you on the sideline?’ I was like, ‘I was coaching,’” DeGregorio says. “He was like, ‘Why were you not with the parents?’ I said ‘I was coaching the game.’”

The guy refused to believe her, she says. “I’ve had some people not shake my hand,” she adds. “I’ve had people try to quiz me – trying to stump me. That actually happens a lot. They hear I’m a football coach, and they start with the football trivia, like they want me to prove it.”

But DeGregorio and Rau are quick to note that the comments and insults almost always come from adult men. The behavior of the players gives both of them reason to hope that the norm is shifting.

“From this team, from these boys, not one time did I feel less-than because I’m a woman,” Rau says. “I think that speaks volumes.”

Add to that the fact that female football coaches are becoming much more common, even at the sport’s highest levels. There are now 8 women on the sidelines of professional games, and 6 of them accompanied teams to this year’s playoffs.

“It’s a really cool feeling to know I’m part of something larger than myself,” Rau says. “Delran’s a small town, but when you put it in context and realize you’re part of creating a new norm that girls can do whatever they want in whatever sport they want…other girls are going to be able to say, ‘Hey, we could do that!’”

As Russen sees it, a diverse coaching staff has significant benefits for his players.

“I think to have a female point of view on things is great,” he says. “There’s a calmness about it all for Mila, and we’re used to being like macho dudes. For me, it helps to have that analytical, deliberate mind to balance mine out, because I can be more emotional.”

DeGregorio agrees that she does have a tendency to go about things somewhat differently.

“When a kid’s upset, I tend to handle it in a different way,” she says. Whether or not it can be attributed to her gender, DeGregorio’s not sure, but she does prioritize the emotional well-being of her players. “If your head is not in it, I think that takes your body out of it,” she says. “If you’re not mentally right, you’re not playing to your full potential.”

Rau agrees that football is as much a mental game as it is a physical one, and as their coach it’s her job to build the players’ confidence.

“I tend to have more of a back and forth with the kids. I guess part of it is the special education teacher in me,” she says. “Before I criticize, I want to see if the kid can identify what he did wrong; there’s no sense in me nagging about it. Kids are smart. They don’t need to be pushed down. They need to be built up.” But in the classroom or on the gridiron, Rau’s still in charge.

“I yell less than other coaches, sure, but they know if they curse in front of me that’s 10 push-ups,” she says. “I do that in my classroom too. I say, ‘You’re either going to get smarter or you’re going to get stronger.’”

DeGregorio, who’s enrolled in a sports management degree program at Moravian College, has big – but totally attainable – football dreams. “I want to coach for the NFL,” she says. “That is the big-time goal. I want to be a general manager or a head of operations. I am going to work in football, either for the NFL or for a college.”

Her advice to other young women interested in coaching is simple: never give up, she says, “and don’t let anybody, girl or boy, tell you that you can’t do something, ’cause that’s just not true. Just don’t let anybody, even yourself, get in your way.”

May 2021
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