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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:
Kristi Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
Position: Director of Security
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How did you get your start in a career football?
I was a state trooper for the Arizona Department of Public Safety for 25 years. I started out on the road in a patrol car before being a motor officer for a couple of years. There were two of us at the time, so it was kind of a big deal for a female to do that job. It took a lot of practice to be a motor officer because those bikes are big. I'm 5-foot-5 and a strong girl, but it wasn't easy. Because of my stature, I had to practice more. That was the first time I realized that being a woman in law enforcement was a little different. I was treated well, but there were definitely parts that were more challenging than others. Being a motor officer was one.
From there, I went into recruiting and was a background investigator. I also went to the academy and trained officers. Throughout my last 15 years in law enforcement, I was a defensive tactics instructor and there was a very small group of females who did that.
I then became a detective for five years and loved it. I was asked to be on the threat assessment unit, which was a group of five of us at the time from multiple departments. If there was a threat on the governor, secretary of state or any officers, we would meet once the threat came in and assess what our next steps were. I did that for 10 years -- and that plays into what I'm doing now with the Cardinals.
But my final seven years in law enforcement, I was in the governor's protection detail -- for Governors Jan Brewer and Doug Ducey -- and was the only female in the unit. With that, there was a lot of international travel, logistics and moving parts and threat assessments. Essentially, we were making sure it was safe wherever they were going.
I retired in 2016 from DPS and took a year off. I realized I was far too young to be retired because I was bored out of my mind. I went back to work at the attorney general's office doing more of the same: investigations, threat assessments, etc. About six months later, my former co-worker who worked at the Cardinals was approved to bring in a second director of security and asked if I'd be interested. I said yes, but was unfamiliar with what the job looked like.
At first, I didn't know if it was a good fit because I had never made time to enjoy sports because I was always working. My former co-worker said, "Well, it's good that you're not a super fan because I don't want you watching the game. I want you protecting the team." I interviewed with him and owner Michael Bidwill, and I was very impressed with ownership and the organization. I had always worked for the state or county, never for a private sector, so that was a little different. But I was ultimately considered for this job because of my résumé and work in dignitary and executive protection and threat assessment. It fit extremely well into what a director of security does.
Once I had been in this role for six months or so, I started reaching out to other security directors around the NFL and asking what their staffing looked like. I was trying to get more familiar with how everything works, and I learned that I'm the only female right now in this position for a team. Of course, there is Chief Cathy Lanier, who is the NFL's chief security officer. She's kind of an idol when it comes to female law enforcement.
You've certainly had an impressive career to this point. Can you describe what being a director of security entails?
I oversee the security at our team facility, and my position has morphed into more fan conduct because our owner said he wanted a greater emphasis on that. When you're dealing with 60,000 people, there will be issues, but he wanted to try to de-escalate those, and it's something I do well.
On game days, I help our VP of security Patrick Foster with whatever he needs, whether that's getting the players into the building safely or helping friends and family. Once the game starts, I work the concourse as a liaison between law enforcement and our S.A.F.E. security. If there are any issues, I try to respond as quickly as possible to de-escalate them. After the game, I often help with friends and family.
I travel with the team to away games. It's a lot of transportation and making sure players are getting on and off the plane or bus safely. It's everything travel-related, from logistics to credentials to guarding all areas where fans could show up.
It all starts with training camp. I'm here every day, all day. During the offseason, it's still 40 hours a week working on projects or things for the next season to make security better. It's always busy.
With the Super Bowl being in Arizona this season, are you involved in any way in terms of security?
The Super Bowl committee figures all of the logistics out. As of now, I will be assisting with security operations for some events leading up to the Super Bowl. It would be great if we were hosting the Super Bowl and in the Super Bowl, though I'd be very busy. If the Cardinals aren't in the Super Bowl, of course, we will do whatever the league needs us to.
How do you build relationships with the players to gain their trust?
That's a great question. Once the players get to know security, they realize we are here to protect them. Sometimes I wonder if they think we're watching them with a magnifying glass, and we're definitely not. We're here to protect the team. Now that they've seen me around, helping them and their families, they know I'm on their side and that I'm looking out for them.
One player's wife blew a tire one day when he was at the facility in meetings. He couldn't help, so he texted me and I was able to help her. I know a lot of law enforcement in the area, so I texted a friend and that person went to change the tire. It's little things that help build relationships and trust, and you have to have that. It's built over time.
What would you say is the most challenging part of your job?
In law enforcement, I was shot at, responding to fatal incidents or trying to break up physical fights. It was real challenging, life-or-death stuff. Working at the Cardinals, there is a different level of "Oh, no" and importance. But my most challenging thing to get used to was the schedule. It's seven days a week, from training camp until the end of the Cardinals' season. Luckily, I have a great boss who will split some days, but it is challenging for everyone, especially when you have a family. It's not necessarily a bad problem, it's just different.
Do you have any mentors? And what advice have you received from them?
My mom, Patricia, is one. She raised four of us who are all in law enforcement. She's a bit of a hero to me. I remember her changing a faucet out in the kitchen or a tire. She really was the definition of "women can do anything" for me. As I got older, I really wanted to emulate my elder sister, Kerry, who was also a DPS officer, a sergeant. She was always very independent. I have followed her footsteps and I'll never forget what she told me when I was first getting hired as an officer in training at 18 years old. She said, "Don't ever ask for help." I thought that was pretty scary, but what she meant was, "Don't ever ask a man to help do a job you can do." If you have to change a tire, change it. If you have to push a stranded car off the road, don't sit in your car and call a male officer to come push the car. That's how I was raised, but I've always had long hair and have worn makeup. I try to keep a balance on that.
Chief Lanier is pretty epic with what she's done. To see someone like her be in the position she's in, and the respect she has throughout the league, is awe-inspiring. This is my fifth season, so I haven't known her that long, but she's someone who is inspirational to me and a lot of people -- male or female -- who work in security. She's great and knows her stuff.
Being someone who's paved the way for women in your field, what advice do you have for women interested in working in law enforcement or security for an NFL team?
With law enforcement, you really need to make sure it's the right fit by doing your research and going on some ride-alongs. It's a difficult job and there's a lot that goes on. As far as security for the NFL, start modeling your career while working in law enforcement to build some marketable skills, such as any sort of executive protection, because we're protecting a lot of high-dollar assets, so to speak. When I was a trooper, I worked a lot of off-duty football games and kind of got a feel for what this type of work looked like. There are always opportunities for law enforcement to volunteer or work big events.
You have to know what to be on the lookout for, a stalker or superfan sometimes. You have to work those Spidey senses and know how to recognize things that are out of place. That definitely comes with some training.
What would you say is next in terms of things you want to accomplish in your career?
I've really taken ownership of our fan conduct. I work closely with ticketing and event management, and I want our fan conduct program to be the tip of the spear, the best in the league. I want the Cardinals' fan conduct, and the way we handle it in our compliance class, to be the best. I'm working really hard to make sure it is.
And lastly, what are you most proud of in your career?
I'm proud of the relationships I've made and camaraderie that I'm a part of in NFL security. It's a special area to work in, and I'm proud that my career has led me here. I'm also proud that I'm the only female in this spot other than Chief Lanier.