Women are rising up the ranks throughout professional football, earning positions of power in a space that for too long was ruled almost exclusively by men. We're seeing more and more women breaking barriers in the sport, but what are the stories beyond the headlines? Who are the women shaping and influencing the NFL today? Answering those questions is the aim of the Next Woman Up series. While the conversational Q&As are edited and condensed for clarity, this is a forum for impactful women to share experiences in their own words. Without further ado, we introduce:
Kelly Kleine, Denver Broncos
Position: Executive Director of Football Operations/Special Advisor to the General Manager
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How did you get your start in a career in football?
I started as a public relations game day intern with the Minnesota Vikings in 2012, when I was in college at the University of Minnesota. After that season, I was still trying to figure out what to do next, and the scouting intern happened to quit two months before the draft. They asked me to help leading up to the draft, and that's how I fell into scouting. To be completely honest, I didn't even know what the scouting department really did.
What did your role look like when you first started in scouting? And how were you able to climb the ranks?
During my year-long scouting internship, I did a lot of administrative duties and learned what went into the scouting department. There is so much that goes into it behind the scenes. I gathered a lot for our college scouts, too, like the college football calendar for the fall and school restrictions for scouts who were traveling. Then I started learning how to evaluate players. I would sit one-on-one with one of our scouts, and he would slowly teach me how to evaluate each position. That was the entire first year and the second year – I was hired full time that season. I worked on the college side more than the pro side, as I was hired as the college scouting coordinator for a while, and that's when I started going out on the road. I was eventually given an area of five states: North and South Dakota, Montana, Minnesota and Wisconsin. I did that for a few years, and the whole time I have continued to learn more and more. Then this opportunity to come to Denver opened up. I knew it would be a huge jump for me and would take me out of my comfort zone, trying something else with a new team. I am very glad I took this opportunity.
Now in Denver, I still do some scouting, help manage departments and work closely with our general manager, George Paton. I'm more involved in the entire scouting process now. George includes me in everything – meetings about tracking data at practice to interviewing head-coaching candidates to pro scouting. It's been really cool to be part of the entire process, to see the big picture and learn more about what a GM does.
What were the some of the challenges you faced when learning how to scout and evaluate players?
It was really tough and there were times when I'd ask myself, "Can I even do this?" You have to put in the work, and that's when I learned to really love it. But it was hard to see it come so naturally to the scouts who had played football. They know exactly what they are seeing because they've done it. For me, I'm a big golfer and I can tell you how to swing and what adjustments to make because I play it. I know it. I had to keep reminding myself that it was similar to that and to keep studying and learning. I also had to learn the language and lingo. It's one thing to watch a player and know what you're seeing. It's another to put it into words – specifically the words coaches and players use. I didn't know what half of the words meant. It was tough and very frustrating at times, but I had incredible scouts and coaches around me in Minnesota. So many people sat down with me to watch film and help me break down what I was supposed to be looking at and how to put it into words, as well.
Are there any stories you'd like to share about what it was like when you first went out on the road?
The first pro day I went to, I shadowed one of our scouts, so I did everything he did. At the end of the day, all of the scouts lined up and one player shook everyone's hand. I was at the end of the line and when he got to me, he looked at me and walked away. He assumed I wasn't a scout. That always stood out because it made me so mad.
Another was on one of my first trips out on the road, I was able to go with Scott Studwell, who's a Vikings legend and a father figure to me. The trip was about a week long, and we went to Marian University, Notre Dame, Northwestern and finished up at Wisconsin. Just to be on the road with him and see how he conducted himself was great. He's the most respected person on the road and everyone loved him. I learned so much from how to interact with people at the schools, how to handle yourself, what questions to ask, what to watch for at practice, etc. That was just the best experience.
What has it been like changing coaching staffs less than a year into this job?
When George first got to Denver, a few months before I arrived in May 2021, he did things the way the organization had been doing them. Once I got there, we changed everything to George's way, so we put in a new grading scale, position standards, manuals and all of that. We adjusted a lot of things to the way George likes it done. It was obviously a very busy first couple of months and then the season came, which is just an insane time of year. I was still figuring out my role in terms of what George needs from me and what other departments need from me. Fast forward to letting go of coach Vic Fangio and hiring Nathaniel Hackett, and it's been nonstop change. It's been tough at times.
Now with new coaches in place, we were in meetings every single day at the end of February. We went through draft prospects and free agents and they taught us the new scheme. In less than a year, I have learned two new schemes. There's been so much adapting, and while it's good to learn, it's been a lot. Hopefully by this fall, everything is set in place and we can just let the machine run because it's been nonstop.
We haven't had any down time and have put in a lot of extra time. After the season, you usually get a little break, but we jumped right into the coaching search. Hopefully that's not something we'll have to do often but it was a fun and interesting process to see how that all works. There are so many philosophies and good candidates out there.
What are the most challenging parts of your position?
Scouting will always be the most challenging part for me. It's more natural for me than it was when I started, but it'll always be an area where I need to put in the most work.
The second thing is everyone in Denver has been there for a long time, including the scouts. I used to do a lot in Minnesota, so I learned when I came to Denver that there are so many other people who have the roles I used to have. It's a hard adjustment from doing everything the way you want it done to delegating and watching others do it. Don't get me wrong, everyone does a great job. But learning how to not overstep takes time.
How have you been able to adjust to being a high-ranking female in an area that's predominantly male?
The biggest struggle as a female is we are so organized and on top of things and willing to do anything to help. Sometimes people just come to me because they know I'll get it done. That's what females do. Not saying men don't do that, but in my experience, women will do whatever is asked and make sure it's done the right way. Especially in this industry, administrative duties come more naturally to us and at times, women fall into those roles. I have thankfully fallen out of that over my 10 years, but I know a lot of young women still struggle with that. But I do think it will change over time.
That said, I have never seen so many women at the Senior Bowl and the NFL Scouting Combine than I have this year. It's awesome. In my first year, there were something like three women for 32 teams. We really stood out. The number of women has grown and this year, women are everywhere within the club scouting departments. It's incredible. It's only going to continue to evolve and now we need to keep elevating the women who are in.
What advice do you have for women who want to get into scouting?
The No. 1 thing to know is it's a lot of work. Be organized. Be detailed. Be ready to work your ass off. If you do all of these things, you'll have a job and find success. The second is to be confident and know you can do it. A lot of men who are scouts didn't play football. Anyone can learn it if you put the time in. That was a big thing for me, realizing that men who didn't play football learned how to scout. If they could learn it, why can't I? There are general managers and coaches out there who never played either, so what's holding us back?
Do you have any mentors who have helped you along the way?
When I first got to the Vikings, Anne Doepner was a huge mentor for me. I don't think I would've gotten into scouting or stayed in it had it not been for her. She had the family and was doing the football thing. She's such a badass woman. She's confident and knows what she deserves. She always had my back, and I really needed her at the beginning of my career. She was like a mother, a friend and a mentor all in one. She was everything to me there.
Scott Studwell was huge for me as well. I was this young girl, and he took me under his wing. He didn't have to do that, and I got a lot of respect from other people because Stud took me in. That helped me out a ton. He's an unbelievable human being who's also great at his job.
What are you most proud of?
I think I'm most proud the number of women getting into football. It's so cool to see. I don't know if I had any part of that, but if I did, that's what I'm most proud of. Young girls can see women working in the NFL and know it's an option for them. When I started, I had no clue what scouting was or that I could even do it. The progress that's been made is what I'm most proud of, and hopefully that continues to grow.
And finally, what's next for you?
Right now, I want to help get this year's roster built and just let this machine run. I'm still trying to grow personally and in my career -- be the best version of myself and continue learning about the whole picture. There is so much that goes into being a team president or general manager, and watching George Paton and Rick Spielman has taught me so much. I'm building toward being a general manager one day and the way to do that is by improving the everyday aspects of being a leader, manager, evaluator, etc. I have already grown so much in the last year. I'll take those steps toward my goal of being a GM when they come, but I just want to keep helping whatever team I'm with and hopefully that's the Broncos for a long time. It would be very cool to have the department be yours. I think everyone dreams of that.