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Ashton Washington: The first full-time female scout in Chicago Bears history on chasing her NFL dream

Chicago Bears player personnel coordinator Ashton Washington speaks to Sky Sports about life with in the NFL after becoming the first full-time female scout in team history: "I wasn't just in it to be this or that or make history, it was because I love football"

Chicago Bears Player Personnel Coordinator Ashton Washington
Image: Chicago Bears player personnel coordinator Ashton Washington

Ashton Washington knew she belonged in football, knew she belonged in the NFL. She just wasn't sure how to get there.

It serves as a tale to which most of the female personnel across the league might relate, having swatted at outdated narratives while storming the towers of a once male-dominated industry with loaded resumes and seasoned insight.

Ashton Washingtons were in short supply during her childhood. No more.

"I looked at top coaches, whether it was college or the NFL, but they were all men, so I never had a woman I could look up to in the game I work in," she told Sky Sports.

"For me it's looking at how they do it and putting your own spin and twist on it, and then as I got into the game in college football where I started I was seeing more and more women, that was the best part.

"You see more and more women and you keep striving and keep going to bring more along behind you."

Washington in attendance with students from BUILD Chicago for the inaugural Scout School at Halas Hall
Image: Washington in attendance with students from BUILD Chicago for the inaugural Scout School at Halas Hall

Washington, the sister of rookie Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Parker Washington, made history in August 2021 when she was hired by the Chicago Bears as the team's first full-time female scout following a spell interning with the organisation.

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It was the next rung on football's steep and rickety coaching ladder for the young girl who had grown up in Texas, where - in her words - "football was basically your religion".

"I'm going into my third season so I've been here a minute," she said. "My journey is like a football player, I started off in high school covering that as a journalist and recruiting analyst and then I worked my way to the XFL with the Houston Roughnecks.

"The XFL ended up crashing during the pandemic so I lost my job there and then ended up getting a call at the University of Illinois.

"I went to work for Illinois and then from Illinois I went to Texas Tech, while I'm at Texas Tech I get a call from the Chicago Bears about an internship."

Washington would pick up the phone to Texas Tech head coach Matt Wells to ask for both advice and permission to take the internship. It was not a long phone call. Nor did it need to be.

"He says 'I don't see why you wouldn't!'," she laughs.

"I get up here, do what I do and just work, grind. I wasn't coming up here looking for a job necessarily but to enjoy the opportunity.

"I got up here and I never left."

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Sky Sports' Neil Reynolds and UK Bears flag football player Majeetah had the honour of announcing the Chicago Bears' fourth-round pick, live from Sky Sports Studios!

It was not long before Washington was back on the phone to Coach Wells - this time to let him know she would not be coming back.

"It was a hard goodbye, when you're with somebody in a football programme you feel such a strong bond. Coach Wells understands the opportunity at hand."

Washington's exit at Illinois had come as part of an outright house clean in light of the firing of head coach Lovie Smith during the 2020 campaign.

It was a new setback but nothing she could not brush off, having already blind-eyed multiple efforts to guide her away from a career in football. Any pushback had been futile.

"For me personally it was a helping hand, a lot of the coaches saw that I was very passionate so were willing and open to help me," she explained.

"I wasn't just in it to be this or that or make history, it was because I love football."

The Bears immediately felt like home. A home that had been enamoured by a deep footballing IQ and detailed eye for talent rather than any accompanying glamour surrounding a landmark hire.

"Everybody was really welcoming, that's one thing that stands out," Washington added. "When visitors come in or players come in for visits, they notice the culture and the people especially.

"Here you really do truly feel that family aspect. That's something we're constantly trying to grasp here.

"I love they don't see me as a number, they see me as somebody with good qualities, good ability and just what I bring to the table.

"I feel like having that behind me is all that you really want in a work environment, having those around you who know what you can bring and being open to having you in the setting. They look at me as part of the team, that's the biggest thing."

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Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields escapes a sack and sprints upfield on a 39-yard scramble that nearly ends in a touchdown

There are currently 33 full-time female scouts employed by teams in the NFL, according to ESPN, with the New England Patriots recently hiring Maya Ana Callender as the first female scout in the franchise's 64-year history.

Last year, meanwhile, saw 15 women in coaching roles during training, while there were 21 female athletic trainers in the league and 319 females occupying posts in the NFL's league office.

Former Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians has been a long-term advocate for the influence of female personnel, notably hiring Jen Welter with the Arizona Cardinals in 2015 and having since worked with assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust and director of rehabilitation/performance coach Maral Javadifar in Tampa Bay.

Locust would speak to a gender-blind environment under Arians, in which players would poke fun at her as well as absorb her teachings as much as they did with male colleagues. Washington credits the Bears for following suit.

"Absolutely, especially here in Chicago," she said. "Everybody is treated equal, we're all just picking each other up one by one.

"If I'm weaker in one area that weakness is never shunned, it's always helped and pushed to make me better.

"It's vice versa for the men, we do the same. It's give and take to make each other better.

"It's gender inclusive where sometimes they do try to forget, you don't want to be that sore thumb."

Sam Rapoport, the NFL's senior director of diversity, equity and inclusion, has spearheaded the emergence of a clearer pathway to opportunities across the league.

In 2017 she launched the NFL Women's Forum, an annual event that sees female candidates come together with coaches and executives from across the league in the view of building relationships and boosting job prospects.

Since then more than 200 female candidates have been hired by teams.

"Sam Rapoport is definitely part of my journey," laughs Washington. "I must text and call her all the time.

"She's listened to me at Illinois when I had to go through my first firing situation and that's part of football, that's what happens. When I went through the situation at Illinois, my back was against the wall and me being ambitious I knew what I wanted to do and I knew I wanted to be in football, I was taking in her advice and outlook. She was saying 'just keep going, if you want it you're not going to stop'.

"I wanted to be in the NFL, I just didn't know when and how. The key thing was staying in football, so Sam Rapoport just being a listening ear and giving me advice has been the best part of my journey.

"When I got the job with the Bears she was screaming 'YOU HARD WORKER, LET'S GO', for her she was saying 'turn it up a little bit, work harder now, keep it going'. It's just doing that, working harder in each year."

These days Washington spends her time on the road scouring college programmes, crunching game film, interviewing prospects and typing up player reports as an integral building block to Chicago's recruitment process.

For her, the turning point is the confidence with which she has been empowered.

"Not actually shying from speaking up, for me here they encourage me to speak up and use my voice," she continues. "If you don't like a player or do like a player don't be afraid to say something.

"That's confidence and that confidence builds trust with the guys around you, especially your GM and head coach. They believe in your work and what you bring to the table. It's not because you're a woman, it's because of the quality of your work."

Ealing Fields celebrate with the Championship trophy (NFL UK)
Image: Ealing Fields celebrate with the Championship trophy after winning the first edition of the all-girls' flag competition (NFL UK)

Life on the road comes with sacrifices, the biggest being extended periods away from close family. Washington would not change it, though, and nor would those who have seen her grow up working towards such a life.

The young girl that grew up loving football in Texas but lacking obvious role models now finds herself part of an organisation in the Bears that recently teamed up with the New York Jets to launch the UK's first all-girls' flag league.

A sign of the times - one she wishes had arrived sooner.

"It's absolutely remarkable, it makes me so excited, especially when you get alerts," she said.

"I have a lot of guys on our staff that send me articles about what's happening with NFL UK flag and I'm going crazy in my office.

"When I was little I'd have loved to have seen that. It's remarkable to see girls part of a competitive environment and being able to do something they might truly love and weren't able to do before and now they can. It's history before our eyes."

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