BUFFALO, N.Y. — Competing in lacrosse, swimming and bowling in high school wasn’t enough for Kathryn Smith.
Come fall, she would spend most Friday nights on the football sideline helping her father, Robert, track statistics for Christian Brothers Academy in Syracuse.
Little did anyone envision some 15 years later that Smith’s passion for sports would lead her to become the NFL’s first full-time female assistant coach.
"That’s just her nature that whatever she’s doing, she’s certainly going to jump in head first," Christian Brothers athletic director John Wleklinski said Thursday.
"She goes from being someone hard-working, doing the right stuff, to all of a sudden being the answer to a trivia question. And it couldn’t happen to a nicer person," Wleklinski added. "You couldn’t have foreseen this happening. I don’t think anybody could. But all that we are is just proud in knowing that she worked hard to get to where she is. She earned this."
Wleklinski spoke fondly of Smith a day after coach Rex Ryan and the Buffalo Bills broke the league’s gender barrier by promoting the 30-year-old to be their special teams quality control coach.
Smith welcomed the opportunity while saying she’s not sure if she’s blazing a trail.
"I don’t want to downplay it, but at the same time, I don’t really know," Smith said on WGR-Radio on Thursday night. "We have Kim Pegula as an owner here. That’s as big as it gets really. Maybe we’re getting more recognition, but there’s definitely a lot of women holding pretty important roles. I have an entry-level position."
Smith has 13 seasons of NFL experience, starting in various internship roles with the New York Jets.
And she got her coaching break because of Ryan, who first recognized Smith’s potential when he was hired as the Jets coach in 2009. Ryan brought Smith along with him to Buffalo last year, and she spent this season as an administrative assistant for the Bills assistant coaches.
She fills the job left after the Bills elected to not retain Michael Hamlin.
"Kathryn has been a part of Rex’s staff for the past seven years and has proven that she does excellent work," Pegula said in a statement first released to The Associated Press on Thursday. "While we understand the significance of this announcement, it’s important to understand that Kathryn earned this position because she has shown she is qualified, dedicated and puts in the work needed for this role."
The move generated plenty of buzz and attention from within the sport and beyond, with even Chelsea Clinton posting a note on Twitter. The daughter of Bill and Hillary Clinton wrote " NoCeilings" in posting a link to a story about Smith’s promotion.
"Oh my gosh," said Smith’s mother, Ann Smith. "We’re terribly proud."
Bills centre Eric Wood favoured the move.
"I think it’s a great opportunity for her and pretty monumental in the grand scheme of things to be the first woman in her position," Wood wrote in a text to The AP. "I’m excited to work with her and see what she brings to our team."
Smith becomes the latest female trailblazer in North America’s male-dominated professional sports.
In August 2014, former WNBA player Becky Hammon was hired by the San Antonio Spurs to join coach Gregg Popovich’s staff, making her the NBA’s first full-time paid female assistant coach.
Last summer, Jen Welter served a six-week training camp internship coaching inside linebackers for the Arizona Cardinals.
"I think it’s fantastic," Welter told The AP of Smith’s promotion. "What we started in Arizona has had an impact and opened doors for other women in the NFL."
Ryan promoted Smith after consulting with Cardinals coach Bruce Arians.
"I was happy for Rex that he did it," said Arians, noting that he recommended Welter for the Bills job. "And I think more women should be in the league coaching."
Smith’s job is not the NFL’s most appealing.
The quality control title is essentially a jack-of-all-trades designation in which coaches work long hours breaking down game and practice film, scouting opponents while also spending time on the practice field.
Smith sees this as the next step in her career.
"I got into sports, I got into football, so obviously, you want to grow in your role," she said. "I’m going to start here on the coaching track and just go from there."
Smith has had low-profile jobs in the past.
While studying sports management at St. John’s University from 2003-07, Smith was a manager for the Red Storm men’s basketball team.
"It’s not one of those jobs where you get the pat on the back," recalled Matt Abdelmassih, who worked as a team manager with Smith. "When she was a manager, it was her work ethic. She just got the job done."
Abdelmassih has made a significant jump of his own. He’s now a Red Storm assistant coach.
"You knew she was going to be successful with whatever she did," Abdelmassih said. "To get that call, to be a pioneer, is something special. And I know it’s just the start for her in terms of working up the coaching ranks. There’s no question that she’ll continue to grow."