TAMPA, Fla. — As two 300-pound defensive linemen prepare to charge at her, Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust, 55, launches her body backward and lifts both arms up and across her face. Although the players are easily double her size, Locust does not flinch. Before getting set for the next rep, she reminds one player, “Show me your hands,” and he nods in approval.
On the other end of the practice field, assistant strength and conditioning coach Maral Javadifar, 29, stands on the sideline, monitoring a scrimmage.
They are the first tandem of female assistant coaches hired by one NFL team. Although their journeys to Tampa have been different, both are hoping to have the same type of impact — not only for the Buccaneers, but for the NFL and women coaches hoping to follow in their footsteps.
‘You’re going to break down barriers’
It was never Locust’s dream to become an NFL coach, although her love for the game began when she was a 5-year-old in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, idolizing Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert. But the more connections she made at events like the NFL Women’s Career Development Symposium, and the more opportunities she earned, the more it became a goal — one that she realized the day she packed up her Toyota Corolla and made the trek to Tampa.
When she was 40, Locust began playing in a women’s semi-professional tackle league before injury forced her to retire four years later. From there, she coached with Susquehanna Township High School, two semi-professional teams (Central Penn Piranha and the DMV Elite) and the Keystone Assault of the Women’s Football Alliance. Then came an internship with the Baltimore Ravens, followed by a stint with the Alliance of American Football’s Birmingham Iron.
Colleagues heard Bucs coach Bruce Arians’ comments at the Super Bowl about looking to hire women and urged her to apply. Locust sent Arians, whom she met when she was a student at Temple University — where her ex-husband played for Arians and alongside Todd Bowles — an email reintroducing herself.
“Thirty-six years later, I’d love to work for you,” she said.
For Javadifar, who went to the NCAA tournament three times as a forward for the Pace University women’s basketball team, it was a torn ACL in high school that led her to pursue a doctorate in physical therapy and want to work with athletes.
“I think that was how I was able to optimize my coming back from injuries,” said Javadifar, who grew up in the Queens borough of New York. “That was the biggest place I was able to grow and strengthen. I saw the value in that.”
It was also about honoring her family. Her mother, Mojgan Mobasheri, fled Iran in 1984 after the Islamic Revolution, which took away many women’s rights. Employment and educational opportunities were limited for women. New laws required all women to wear hijabs regardless of religion or nationality.
“[My mother] didn’t have any of these opportunities to be a woman in society,” Javadifar said. “So when she came here, it was kind of like, ‘We’re going to break down barriers.’ She kept her last name. Little things like that. So for me, [this] was an opportunity for me to say, ‘Hey, thanks, Mom. Thanks for that. I appreciate that.'”
‘She’s been a big hit’
For inside linebackers coach Mike Caldwell — whose niece, Nikki Fargas, is the head women’s basketball coach at LSU — no buy-in was needed. He already saw the value in female coaches.
“You sit down and you hear they’re women coaches, but then you get into the meeting room with them and they’re just coaches,” Caldwell said. “So after you get past the female — which I’ve got two daughters — that’s not big to me. Anybody can do whatever they want to do, as long as you bring something to the table, which they are.”
Because Javadifar has a doctorate in physical therapy with a performance background — something the Bucs have never had on staff before — she’s already carving out a role for herself: a bridge between the sports medicine and strength and conditioning departments.
“Her wealth of experience and knowledge of the human body — guys found out quickly that she was someone to go to. Every morning before meetings and after every practice, there’s a line of five or six guys waiting to have her work on them,” said tight end Cameron Brate, who’s worked with her while recovering from hip surgery.
“[We do] a lot of range-of-motion stuff, getting through the scar tissue and stuff like that. She has a bunch of guys doing stuff that we’ve never really done before,” Brate said. “I think it’s really been paying off. … So she’s been a big hit with the guys so far.”
“She brings a different dynamic because she’s an expert at certain things that we are not,” strength and conditioning coach Anthony Piroli said. “Our communication level now between medicine and performance is probably second to none.”
‘She’s on her s—‘
Locust’s role has been less defined than Javadifar’s: It’s everything from being a second set of eyes for defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers to helping facilitate drills to leading the group when they break up into two scrimmages.
“It has been a very smooth transition,” Rodgers said. “I was away the other day and she ran practice. She didn’t miss a beat.
“She’s an extremely, extremely talented coach.”
Bowles added: “She’s tough. She’s a grinder, she works hard. She does everything the right way. The guys respond to her a great deal. She knows what she’s doing.”
She has developed a reputation as a stickler for fundamentals but believes it’s important to find the right balance between technician and motivator.
“One thing I’ve noticed about her is [how detailed she is]. You could have a perfect rep in your mind and she’s gonna find something to coach you up on, and that’s what you want,” said defensive tackle Beau Allen. “As hard as coaches are on us, we’re hard on ourselves too, so you want someone who’s really gonna pay attention to those details and that’s one thing that’s stood out to me so far. She’s on her s—.”
Allen said there was no adjustment or buy-in period for players. Both coaches were respected right away.
“Speaking frankly, I think a lot has been made of Coach Lo and having her in our room, but I think that’s mostly outside noise,” Allen said. “For us, it’s another coach that we can learn from and another set of eyes watching us and helping us, getting us right, disciplining us and everything like that.”
“There was no adjustment. It wasn’t needed. Both of them — their résumés speak for themselves,” Brate said.
Added quarterback Jameis Winston: “Coach Lori and M.J., we feel their presence. We are all one big family, and as everyone goes, they go too. It is really no different. They are our coaches — we are going to respect them, we are going to go out there and win football games with them and we’re going to celebrate with them in the locker room.”
The expanding female coaching club
Locust and Javadifar are now part of a small but growing pipeline of female coaches around the league. Jen Welter became the first female coaching intern under Arians with the Arizona Cardinals in 2015. Kathryn Smith because the first full-time female assistant in 2016, when the Buffalo Bills hired her as their special teams quality control coach. The San Francisco 49ers hired Katie Sowers as an offensive assistant in 2017.
Locust regular texts with Sowers, whom she met at a coaching conference and credits for teaching her the importance of authenticity. Together, they’re part of a group chat with Jennifer King, who interned with the Carolina Panthers in 2018 and coached for the AAF’s Arizona Hotshots this year. Samantha Rapoport, the NFL’s director of football development, put the trio in touch.
“It can be very isolating as a woman coach, because there are certain things sometimes that you want to ask and you kind of want to get feedback from a peer on,” Locust said. “That’s not to say that the guys haven’t done it, but the communication and the conversation sometimes that Katie, Jen and I have, have been a really good kind of push forward.”
Who else could understand the challenges of trying to locate a women’s restroom during halftime of an away game or trying to convince a security guard to open a room so you can change? Those are challenges Locust encountered.
“I’ve never asked for accommodations — I would never do that,” Locust said. “But I think that that’s all changing. … Look how far we’ve come right now. I think going forward, that’s so minimal in comparison to just us being educated and be considered for positions like this. I think that’s all gonna continue to improve.”
Javadifar added: “Having these opportunities lets other people know that these opportunities are available, you just have to work hard and continue to grind. … These opportunities are available in the right organizations and I think the Bucs are doing things well in giving other people and women and all of us opportunities to show that we can do it, too.”
Arians has already been pleased with the results and believes Locust and Javadifar will thrive.
“[They’re doing] exactly how I thought they would,” Arians said. “M.J.’s expertise has been unbelievable. Guys gravitate toward her right away and the same with Lori. She knows what she’s talking about. The guys know it. Like I’ve always said, if you can help a player get better, they don’t care what gender you are. They fit right in. They’re doing great jobs.”