She never doubted her ability to serve as the head football coach at Miami Jackson Senior High School (MJHS), but Lakatriona Brunson, 39, didn’t think she’d be hired. “There were plenty of guys out there who are probably more qualified,” Brunson says. But she also believes the panel of staff and administrators at MJHS who interviewed her and then named her the first female head coach of a football team in Florida took her gender out of the hiring equation. “They just knew me as a person,” she says. “So they knew I was up for the challenge.”

That school’s decision is rare. Although women have made in-roads in coaching and refereeing men’s sports, they remain underrepresented. In 2014, less than 3 percent of collegiate teams for men were women (compared to 43 percent for women’s teams). A 2016 report by the Women’s Sports Foundation titled “Beyond X’s & O’s: Gender Bias and Coaches of Women’s College Sports,” which included responses from 2,219 current coaches of women’s sports, highlighted the disparity in treatment, pay, and opportunity. Respondents believed male coaches had more professional advantages and resources and that female coaches faced more potential retaliation, more job insecurity, and less pay and less opportunity to voice their opinions openly. “I think these gender stereotypes about women in leadership, particularly football, which is completely male-dominated, exist. They face perceptions of incompetence and being an outsider,” says Nicole LaVoi, co-director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport. “Those are the challenges women are facing — maybe not from the team, but maybe from the media, from fans, from outsiders from the organization.”

Brunson acknowledges the additional difficulties she faces as a female coach of a male team. For example, most of the players have grown up — from Pop Warner teams, to youth leagues and school football teams — with male coaches. She’s an anomaly. Brunson says she’ll command respect by demonstrating her knowledge of the sport and prove to the players that she knows what she’s doing. When it comes to her coaching style, the one quality that Brunson embodies is passion. “I’ve got to get a poker face,” she says. “When we’re playing, my other coaches look so calm, and I’m so into it. I’m just so excited.”

The Generals had their spring scrimmage in May, the first game under coach Brunson. The players took to the field in either a green or gold jersey to denote their team. Both coaches and players use the scrimmage to gauge what’s working and what isn’t. While the team played well, Brunson says the most important thing is that the kids possess pride in themselves.

Lakatriona Brunson with player
Brunson stands with one of her players from her current football team (photo courtesy of Lakatriona Brunson).

As the football coach for the Generals, Brunson takes over from previous coach Earl Little, who stepped down in January 2016. Named to the position in February, Brunson says she feels a lot of pressure in her new role, but it isn’t necessarily related to being the first female coach. “Football is big in Florida,” she says. “And you can let the pressure make or break you. If you run the team the way you want to run your team, none of that outside pressure should matter.”

South Florida in particular is famous for developing professional football talent, which raises the competition and the stakes. As of the 2015 football season, Florida had the most current NFL players with 204, and Miami was the most popular hometown, birthing 31 NFL players. 20 current players call Fort Lauderdale their home, making the South Florida area home to 51 current players (including Teddy Bridgewater of the Vikings, Andre Johnson, a free agent and former Colt, Ereck Flowers of the Giants, and Frank Gore of the Colts) — by far the most talent-rich region in the U.S.

Andre Fernandez grew up in Miami and covers high school sports for The Miami Herald. He says the football culture in South Florida has only escalated over time. “Programs like St. Thomas Aquinas, (Miami) Central, (Miami) Northwestern, have played games outside of Florida on national TV, and the area has gotten a lot more exposure,” he says.

While Jackson isn’t famous on a national scale, Fernandez says, the school does have a history as a football school. “They’ve never won a state championship, but they have a strong tradition, especially throughout the ‘90s,” he says. “They’ve produced some NFL players, and they have a rivalry game every year with Northwestern that’s still pretty big and draws a pretty big crowd every year.” NFL alumni from the school include Elvis Dumervil, a linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, Fred Robinson, a former linebacker for the San Diego Chargers and the Miami Dolphins, David Little, a former linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Lee Corso, a sportscaster for ESPN.

But Brunson is more concerned with fans in seats than the national spotlight. The Generals play home games at Traz Powell Stadium, about 10 minutes away from the school. “We want to get pride buses to get the kids out there because most of our games are not in our neighborhood,” she says. “We just want to build some type of pride around the school so they can feel like they’re a part of the team.” Otherwise, she says, the support from teachers and alumni is great, but her goal is for everyone to be at the games.

“No matter how athletic you are and how much talent you have, you’ll run out. If you have a proper education, you’ll always have that to fall back on.”

When it comes to coaching, Fernandez says there’s a lot of turnover. When the announcement came that Brunson would be head coach, it was met by skepticism from some. “It was obviously a huge story, and people were wowed by the fact that Jackson was willing to take this step. At the same time, there were some people who wondered how much of it was a publicity stunt, for lack of a better word, because it’d bring attention to the school.”

A Miami native, Brunson has had plenty of experience coaching and playing sports. As a student at Miami Northwestern High School, she was a multi-faceted athlete, participating on the basketball, softball, and track teams. After graduating, Brunson attended college at Tennessee State University in Nashville, Tennessee, where she ran track and studied physical education. Brunson says she initially aspired to become a teacher. “I had a lot of great teachers growing up, so that kind of rubbed off on me,” she says.

One of those teachers was Bridgette Tate-Wyche, who worked at Miami Northwestern when Brunson was in high school and was a coach for the track team. “I guess I would be her second mom, if you will,” Tate-Wyche says. Tate-Wyche is an assistant principal at Miami Palmetto Senior High School.

Throughout college and after she graduated in 2000, Brunson kept in touch with her coach, and Tate-Wyche hired Brunson as a physical education teacher at Parkway Middle School in Miami. Tate-Wyche says even in her role as a P.E. teacher, Brunson emphasized the importance of academics. “She took it upon herself to take the students and focus on reading and structured their reading via the internet,” Tate-Wyche says. “That wasn’t necessary but she wanted to help her students with their reading.”

Brunson says it was her mom who first stressed getting an education. “No matter how athletic you are and how much talent you have, you’ll run out,” she says. “If you have a proper education, you’ll always have that to fall back on.” She was one of the first people in her family to attend and graduate from college, and Brunson wants to continue setting an example for her other family members.

Outside of her job, Brunson kept up with playing sports. “When I got out of college, I had stopped playing basketball,” she says. “I used to go to the gym and shoot around, do all those things on the basketball court. But I had a couple of friends who told me about the Miami Fury. I wanted to blow off some steam and ended up being very good at it.” The Fury, a women’s tackle football team based in Miami, plays within the Women’s Football Alliance. Brunson played multiple positions, including left tackle, defensive tackle, linebacker, fullback, and kicker.

She played with the Fury from 2000 to 2008, when she joined South Beach Tow, a scripted reality show. Her stint on the show started off as a summer job, but the producers asked Brunson to stay. The show portrays over-the-top, car-towing situations in Miami. Brunson’s victims include all the types of outrageous characters you might find along Miami Beach: a naked man in the middle of receiving a massage, a woman who gets her hair caught in her car’s engine, a man who sits in his car and refuses to move, and plenty of people who jump into Brunson’s tow truck to argue with her. Brunson, who goes by Bernice on the show, can often be seen getting into profanity-laced altercations and demanding payment from people whose cars she tows.

But Tate-Wyche says Brunson’s character in real life is “totally different” than the one she plays on the show. She adds that Bernice’s aggressiveness and profanity comes out when Brunson is “in character.” Brunson agrees, pointing out that the way she interacts with her players is nothing like the way she confronts unauthorized drivers on the show. “When it comes to the kids, they get my utmost respect,” she says. “They know TV from real life. But they know I don’t take B.S. either.”

Lakatriona Brunson with flag football team
Brunson (second to right) with her Jackson’s girls’ flag football team (photo courtesy of Lakatriona Brunson).

Across the Miami-Dade County School District, the largest school district in Florida and fourth-largest in the U.S., Brunson has worked at a number of schools, as a physical education teacher, sports coach, and dean of discipline. She says her favorite position has been anywhere she gets to work with the kids because she has the opportunity to mentor and influence them. Brunson realizes that her head-coaching position of the Generals will take more than just being tough on the field. “It’s about helping these kids get their grades up. It’s about being a mentor. It’s about being a mother or father, a friend, anything they need,” Brunson says. “It’s so much more than just football.”

“Some people just don’t care about what goes on inside of the classroom, and that’s a big issue for me. I care about that. I’m passionate about that.”

Above all, she wants to make sure that the students she coaches have a solid educational foundation to stand on once they’re done with sports. To emphasize education, Brunson gets progress reports from her players’ teachers every day to monitor their grades. If the grades aren’t satisfactory, Brunson has the student skip practice and instead go to tutoring with his teacher after school. “You have a lot of great coaches – they’re great coaches, don’t get me wrong – but some people just don’t care about what goes on inside of the classroom, and that’s a big issue for me,” she says. “I care about that. I’m passionate about that.”

For decades, women have worked on the administrative side of the NFL and in roles that range from CEO to sponsorship strategist. But some recent high-profile hires demonstrate women’s ability to lead and direct plays on the field just as effectively as they do in the corporate office. “We have great people at the table,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said at the NFL’s first Women’s Summit held on February of this year. “We’re also seeing it on the field.” Others recognize the significance of these hires. “I think they feel they’re highly qualified and competent and I’m just glad they’ve been given the opportunity by these organizations,” says Nicole LaVoi, co-director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport. “It provides a role model, it provides proof that women can coach men at the highest level, it challenges gender stereotypes, and it gives young girls and women the idea that this is a viable career pathway.” Consider these three women who represent notable progress when it comes to the U.S.’s female-coach game.

Additional reporting by Amanda Silvestri.

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Ashley McBride is a web & digital media manager and contributing writer for Fan First. She enjoys writing about social issues and underrepresented groups. Ashley worked for The Stand Newspaper in Syracuse and also interned with and the Syracuse Post-Standard. She currently works as a digital media intern at the Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach, Florida. Her favorite teams are her hometown teams, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tampa Bay Rays, and Tampa Bay Lightning, and the team of her undergraduate alma mater, the Miami Hurricanes!