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Seahawks coaching intern uses football smarts to break barriers: ‘I can do this’ - FlagSpin

Seahawks coaching intern uses football smarts to break barriers: ‘I can do this’

RENTON, Wash. — Amanda Ruller has been busy, constantly on the go.

Less than a year ago, Ruller was a coaching apprentice at the university-sport level of American football in Canada. Not long after that, she was on an impromptu trip to the NFL combine in search of an opportunity. And only a few months ago, she was an assistant coach in the Canadian Football League. There hasn’t been much time for the 34-year-old football coach to reflect on her journey from a young Canadian football fan to interning at the highest level of America’s most popular sport.

So, why not now?

It’s a sunny Tuesday afternoon and Ruller is on a walk to the Virginia Mason Athletic Center, the Seattle Seahawks’ headquarters and her workplace for the summer. Ruller, Seattle’s temporary assistant running backs coach, is one of three interns on the staff via the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship. She will be with the Seahawks through training camp and all three preseason games — and one step closer to achieving her longtime goal of becoming an NFL coach.

“In some way, I made it,” Ruller said during her afternoon stroll, at last taking that chance to reflect. “I’m doing an internship that is so cool. I get to be with the Seahawks. I get to play scout defense against the Seahawks. I get to be around and inspire them to be great. That is so huge for me.”

Ruller’s story is not only one of individual grind, but also of what’s possible when diversity and inclusion are priorities. Making it to this point required the creation of opportunities and inclusive, welcoming spaces for coaches who may not receive those jobs otherwise. On Ruller’s part, it required perseverance, going the extra mile, commanding respect, finding her voice as a coach and being inquisitive.

“Everything I’ve done in my life, I have earned,” Ruller said at the podium on June 14 after Seahawks practice. “Me standing up here, I’ve earned this spot today.”

A native of Regina, Ruller grew up attending Saskatchewan Roughriders games with her family. She’d ask her father, Edward, if women were able to play football with the boys.

“You can do anything the boys could do,” he’d reply.

Ruller believed this to be true — then soon learned it’s not that simple. She recalls being made fun of by boys at school as she attempted to play flag football or compete with them in general.

“I remember specifically into high school, that was the moment I was like, ‘I don’t know if I belong,’ because I felt uncomfortable,” she said.

Undeterred, Ruller kept pushing. Ruller never wanted to feel like she didn’t belong in football, so she diligently studied the game and racked up other credentials: She’s a certified physiologist and strength and conditioning specialist with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology. She became a sports performance coach. Away from football, Ruller has a diverse athletic background. She holds Team Saskatchewan Olympic weightlifting records in snatch and clean and jerk. She competed on the University of Regina soccer and track teams, her skills on the latter squad earning her a stint with the Canadian skeleton team.

“You go headfirst down on (the) ice track around 90 miles per hour, so your chin to the ice,” Ruller said of her skeleton experience. “It actually takes a lot of guts and that’s the type of person I am.”

On the gridiron, Ruller picked up years of experience as a running back in the Legends Football League with the Atlanta Steam and the Los Angeles Temptations. Then came a tryout with the Canadian women’s American football team.

But that came with a setback. “You’re fast, but you don’t have hands,” Ruller was told. “You can’t be a good running back.” Then she was cut. Ruller’s response: “Just watch me.”

They were forced to, ultimately, because Ruller kept showing up to practice until she made the team.

“I got that grit and whenever I put myself in something, I go all in,” she said. “Every time somebody told me no, I came back full force.”

Eventually, Ruller said, “They had to put me in. They had to let me practice.”

Ruller then helped Canada win a silver medal at the International Federation of American Football Women’s World Championship.  

“My confidence grew,” Ruller said. “I felt like I belonged after that.”

Persistence is one reason Ruller landed with the Seahawks. She participated in a women’s coaching apprenticeship program with the McMaster University football team during the 2021 season. When that ended, Ruller attended the 2022 NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in search of face-to-face meetings to expand her coaching network. Simply submitting her résumé for NFL gigs wasn’t cutting it. Because the NFL is a who-you-know business, Ruller needed a more personal touch.

“When you’re hiring a coach, you have to trust them, and you have to gain their trust and attention,” Ruller said. At the combine, “I worked my magic.”

Ruller is confident and ambitious, while also aware of what she doesn’t know. Or, in this case, what she doesn’t have.

“I need more experience,” she said. “I want you to judge me based on my ability, not who I am or my gender.”

That’s where the Seahawks come in. She met with the team in Indianapolis and earned herself a spot beside fellow coaching interns Akeem Dent (special teams) and Jonathan Saxon (defense). Ruller dropped her gig with her hometown Saskatchewan Roughriders after just a few weeks to spend the summer learning from coach Pete Carroll and his staff.

Carroll said the team isn’t shy about putting the coaching interns to work.

“I want them to see us. I want them to know what it’s like to be here. I want them to know what our expectations and standards are all about so that they can take that with them as they move ahead,” Carroll said, adding: “I’ve always believed in growing our coaches, so we don’t treat this experience lightly because this may be somebody that’s on our staff down the road. It’s always been something that we’ve taken very seriously.”

Ruller does as well.

“I am learning so much and going forward,” she said, “I’m going to be the best coach you’ve ever seen.”

Amanda Ruller runs a drill with Seahawks wide receiver Dee Eskridge. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Coming up as an athlete, Ruller didn’t feel empowered to discuss her mental health. If something was bothering her mentally, her coaches encouraged brushing it aside. This was especially difficult when her father — “My biggest supporter,” she said — died of brain cancer while she was at the University of Regina.

“Push it down. Don’t think about it,” she remembers being told. That’s a tough pill to swallow when, as she prepares for a track meet, she’s thinking, What am I going to do if my dad is not there?

“He was struggling for about two years there,” Ruller said. “I was holding his hand and he passed away right in front me. That really, really impacted me going forward.”

Ruller sought mental-health counseling for sports performance and developed methods for coping in tough times. She brought those methods to her first position-coaching role when she joined McMaster University in Ontario as part of a women’s apprenticeship program in July 2021.

Ruller came to McMaster at a time when pleas for an equitable, inclusive environment were too loud for the university to ignore. In the wake of George Floyd’s death in May 2020, the plight of the Black student-athlete took center stage on the McMaster campus. An independent review of the Black athlete experience at McMaster revealed a culture of racism and inaction on the part of coaches and faculty. The review had a “massive impact” on the school’s culture, former McMaster running back Justice Allin said, offering a platform for people of color and women to say: It doesn’t matter your gender or race, you can still apply to become a football coach anywhere, especially at McMaster.

At the same time, McMaster offensive coordinator Corey Grant was attending Zoom calls with women in football, including one with Buccaneers assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust.

“It was just so powerful to me,” said Grant, who became the department’s equity, inclusion and anti-racism lead. “There were different women and ADs on these calls speaking and I was like, ‘Why can’t we do that up here? Why aren’t we doing that up here in Canada?’”

That led Grant and McMaster athlete services coordinator Claire Arsenault to create a women’s apprenticeship program with the purpose of providing opportunity while creating a safe space for the female coaches to thrive. This meant, among other things, ordering school gear specifically designed for women, handling the logistics of lodging and changing rooms on road trips, ensuring equitable pay and allowing two women to join the staff simultaneously so they wouldn’t be alone in a predominantly male space. Ruller was chosen along with Taylor MacIntyre, who worked with receivers.

“Coach Lo said it and I’ll never forget it: This isn’t a male-dominant sport, it’s a male-prevalent sport,” Grant said, “and we can change how prevalent males are in it.”

Ruller in her first position group meeting broke the ice immediately, acknowledging the unique dynamic as a woman coaching male football players. She listed the accolades that made her qualified for the role, including the high football IQ she spent years developing. Feeling that she needed to not just talk the talk but also walk the walk, Ruller demonstrated most of the exercises so the players could see that not only did she know what she was talking about, she could complete the tasks herself.

“She came in with things and knowledge and ideas that, playing football for nine years, I’d never heard of,” Allin said. “It was great to have a new voice and a new mind in the locker room.”

Ruller had typical assistant position coach duties. Run individual drills. Prepare the scout team. Chip in on special teams. But what made Ruller stand out was her extra effort. Her never-ending supply of enthusiasm. Her unique approach to connecting with her players on an emotional level.

She not only sat in on offensive and special teams meetings but would pop into defensive meetings as well. She peppered the other coaches with questions “all the time,” Grant said.

“What does this mean? How do we get this? How do we draw this? What running back drills can we do?” Grant said she would ask. “Always wanting to get better. That’s why she is so good at what she does right now.”

Ruller was always a one-woman hype machine. “She always had that energy,” former McMaster fullback Chase Arseneau said. “She was excited to be there every day and never going through the motions.”

This was the case on game days, too. “It’s as if she drank a couple of energy drinks,” Allin said, adding that even in a scenario where McMaster was down two scores in the rain, Ruller would joyously parade up and down the sideline with a smile on her face.

“She brought the fire,” he said.

After games, Ruller would have her players answer questions on a worksheet about how they were feeling. How fatigued do you feel after games? Why do you think you feel fatigued? They’d take deep breaths, decompress, analyze their performance and spend 10-15 minutes with their coach going over the answers and tapping into how their life was going off the field — relationships, family, friends, girlfriends, school, etc. — and how that affected their on-field play. Ruller wanted to address her players’ physical state and their mental well-being, providing support she didn’t receive coming up.

“She actually helped me discover more about myself,” Allin said. Now, when he has problems, Allin is more likely to write them down or talk it out. “She introduced that to me. She made me learn more about myself and made football fun again.”

By the end of McMaster’s season, it was clear Ruller made a lasting impact.

“Her knowledge in football, teaching the specifics and the drills, grew from Day 1 to the last day,” said Grant, who’s now the head coach at Carleton University in Ontario. “I was like, ‘Coach Rulls I need you back. I need you because the knowledge and growth I saw was unbelievable from Day 1 to the last day.’”

Ruller in April was hired by the Roughriders as an assistant running backs coach. The position came by way of another first-time initiative dedicated to inclusion: the CFL’s Women in Football Program. But head coach Craig Dickenson was already a fan and planned to hire Ruller anyway due to the reputation she developed in the area.

“She just has the ‘it’ factor,” Dickenson said. “You just knew she loves the game of football, and she was just highly intelligent and highly motivated to do whatever it took to be successful. It was pretty easy to see, if you were paying attention, that she was going to be a good coach. It was just a matter of giving her an opportunity.”

Acceptance into the Bill Walsh fellowship prompted Ruller to leave Canada for Seattle after just a few weeks. But in that short time, her impact was felt.

“It’s hard to be around Amanda for very long without liking her as a person and respecting her as a coach,” Dickenson said. “She just makes a real strong impression from the moment you meet her. I think she’s going to do the same thing in Seattle.”

“She just has the ‘it’ factor,” Roughriders coach Craig Dickenson says of Ruller. (Heywood Yu / The Canadian Press via AP)

Ruller already feels right at home in Seattle in part because she has joined one of the more energetic position groups on the team. Running backs coach Chad Morton is often chirping with the defense during competitive periods and loudly encouraging offensive players during drills. Now he’s doing it with Ruller by his side.

“We have the same energy,” said Ruller, who’s already picked up on Morton’s routine of racing his players across the practice field between drills. “I’m pretty fast so I just to try blow by him and yell, ‘Keep up!’”

Ruller said she’s already developed a strong working relationship with Seattle’s players and plans to continue her mental check-ins with them as well.

“I’ve just felt I belong here,” she said, “and I’ve never felt so attached to a group in my entire life.”

Ruller tries not to read the negative comments she receives from folks displeased with a woman trying to become a coach in the NFL. But it’s hard to break into this industry without encountering detractors, just as she did in her youth.

“I try to move on with my day,” she said.

The NFL has five full-time female coaches: The Giants’ Angela Baker (offensive quality control), Washington’s Jennifer King (assistant running backs), Cleveland’s Callie Brownson (assistant wide receivers), and Tampa Bay’s Maral Javadifar (director of rehab and performance) and Locust (assistant defensive line). In hopes of joining them soon, Ruller tries to focus more on the positive comments she receives from people who believe in her.

“The top one percent of people who work in football in the country, in the world, say I can do this,” Ruller said. “They have hired me on. They have taken me on for internships. Their opinion matters the most to me.”

Ruller also focuses on the people she hopes to inspire.

She recently attended a local flag football tournament and introduced herself to the young female participants. These are the type of girls who will see Ruller racing Morton on the practice field during training camp this summer. They’ll see her on the sidelines during Seattle’s three preseason games, working with players such as Rashaad Penny and Kenneth Walker III. This summer, those young girls may have even seen pictures and videos on social media of Ruller coaching U18 women’s tackle football in Canada. Those are the girls who push Ruller to keep going.

“They were like, ‘Oh my goodness, I’ve never seen a woman coach before,’” Ruller said. “Lots of them reached out to me after on social media saying, ‘Thank you for being an inspiration.’ That motivates me. That drives me the most. Every time I hear that or see that I’m like, ‘I can do this. I can keep going even if I’m having a not-so-good day.’ Somebody outside of here believes in me and thinks I’m on my journey for a reason to be a pioneer. That’s huge.”

(Top photo: Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

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Travis Burnett

Travis Burnett

A pioneer in the flag football community, Travis helped co-found the Flag Football World Championship Tour, FlagSpin and USA Flag. Featuring 15+ years of content creation for the sport of flag football, creating and managing the largest flag football tournaments on the planet, coaching experience at the youth and adult level as well as an active player with National and World Championship level experience.

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