January 29, 2018

Popp, Raiche among those on a mission to break barriers

Jim Popp during the CFL Draft Day at the Argonauts office downtown Toronto on Sunday, May 7, 2017. (Photo: Johany Jutras)

Samantha Rapoport forged her own path to the NFL. Now, the Ottawa-raised NFL executive is trying to help other Canadian women find their way in the football world.

The Vancouver native is the NFL’s director of football development and has built a career out of opening doors for women in football. As she prepared to give the opening remarks at this weekend’s Women’s Careers in Football Forum at the Pro Bowl in Orlando, she thought back to where she was in the early 2000s, as a student at McGill University in Montreal.

On the phone from her office in New York City, she remembered how much she could have used a conference like this one.

“I think my biggest challenge was that I had absolutely no connections into the game,” she said.

Rapoport grew up in Ottawa. She started playing touch football at 12-years old and when she was 18 she started playing tackle football. As a kinesiology and business management student at McGill, she played quarterback for the Montreal Blitz. She knew her entire life that she wanted to work for the NFL. She just wasn’t sure how to get there.

“I think a lot of men growing up in my position have so many connections into the game and they develop those organically because they play college tackle football or their high school coach knows someone in college that can help them get that first opportunity. I didn’t have that,” she explained.

“For me, it was NFL or bust. I put every possible thing I could into my application. I made it unique. I ran it by several professors . . . and I was fortunate enough to get it and I never went back.”

NFL Director of Football Development Samantha Rapoport on her path to a career in sports

Of the 50 women at the forum this year, four will be Canadian, Rapaport noted. The CFL will be represented, with commissioner Randy Ambrosie, Toronto Argonauts GM Jim Popp and the organization’s newest hire, Catherine Raiche — who was named director of football administration on Jan. 18 — attending. Football ops officials from the CFL will also be attending the forum.

“We will be pairing (the Canadian women) up with Randy, Catherine and Jim and there are several breakout sessions for them to meet,” Rapoport said.

“These women are not only great women for the CFL pipeline but they’re also very well-connected to females that love football in Canada. They can help expand their pipeline for females entering into football in Canada.

“I think it’s incredible for them to see Catherine Raiche in that position and to have someone to speak to at that level. But I think it takes incredible men too, like Jim and Randy who believe in the power of diversity and giving people opportunities that don’t necessarily look like everyone that’s been hired in the past.”

Rapoport applied for a marketing internship with the league in 2003. To make sure she caught people’s attention, her application had a picture of her in pads, wearing her Blitz uniform. With the application, she told ESPN in 2016, she sent a football with a note: What other quarterback could deliver a football 386 miles?

“For me, it was NFL or bust,” Rapoport said. “I put every possible thing I could into my application. I made it unique. I ran it by several professors so I made sure that all of my T’s were crossed and I was fortunate enough to get it and I never went back.”

Being somewhat out of her realm in marketing didn’t slow her down.

“When I started I was in marketing on the creative front. I had no background in creative. Marketing is not a forte of mine,” she said. “But for me it was, ‘Get your foot in the door and be the best intern you can possibly be, (meet) as many people as you possibly can’. That led to my next internship at the NFL, which was in football operations.”

When she gets random emails and tweets from women looking to get a foot in the door (which she welcomes), she encourages them to take the same approach. With the Women’s Careers in Football Forum, she’s trying to multiply the number of doors and feet in them, to give others what she would have loved to have had all of those years ago.

Last year’s inaugural forum ended up landing nine women with NFL jobs and 22 of the attendees with work in football, either at the pro, college or high school level.

“We were excited about those results,” Rapoport said. “What it showed was if you give women those opportunities, the same as if you give them to men or you give anyone the same opportunity as someone else and they love the sport enough, they’ll take advantage of that and they’ll take the steps needed to get a foot in the door.

Catherine Raiche speaks during the first day of the careers in football forum (Matt Twohig/Cultivator Lab)

“That’s really what happened last year. We were able to educate and inspire and connect women at the forum and give them the opportunity to speak with higher managers in the NFL. We inspired them to let them know that this path could be there for them, too. They accepted the challenge and 22 have started the career path. It proved that the model we had worked and we’re looking forward to implementing that this year, in three days.”

With each face she sees at the forums and increasingly in and around the game and league she’s always loved, Rapoport thinks back to the first steps into the journey that became her career. It was a single door open then, with just her foot in it.

“I fought my way into this place, I wanted it that badly,” she said. “I would personally like to make it easier and give women the same opportunity that men have to gain entry in here.

“That’s what we’re trying to do during this forum, is create opportunities for the women to interact with our head coaches, general managers and owners, at the college, NFL and CFL levels.”