Erica Vinson-Ondecko had arrived for the first day of Ravens mandatory minicamp Tuesday to learn, as she put it, “from the best.” The 32-year-old coaches kickers and punters at Waynesboro Area Senior High School (Pa.), and about 60 miles away, just across the border, was Randy Brown, a man she revered and always knew she’d meet.
The idea was that Vinson-Ondecko would shadow the Ravens specialists coach for a day at team headquarters, learn from him, sit in on meetings and absorb what she could from maybe the NFL’s top special teams group. But in an interview around midday Tuesday, after she walked off the practice field with Brown following a 2½-hour session, it became apparent there was still some mentor could learn from mentee.
“The sound of the ball,” Vinson-Ondecko was saying of the difference between her Indians specialists and these NFL professionals. “It's just this loud, dominant thud.”
“I've never described it as well as that, but that's good,” said Brown, standing next to her. “A loud, dominant thud.
“A loud, dominant thud.
“I'm going to steal that. I'm putting that on my make-believe website.”
It was a moment perhaps most notable for its normalcy. Two years after Kathryn Smith became the NFL’s first full-time female coach, working for the Buffalo Bills in special teams quality control, and one summer after eight women reported to training camps across the league for coaching or scouting internships, the Ravens’ announcement Monday that they would welcome three women this summer to learn from coaches and front-office officials was met with no real surprise.
It wasn’t the first thing Ravens coach John Harbaugh was asked about Tuesday, or even the ninth. The women were the first brought in during his decade-long tenure, he acknowledged, but they would not be the last.
“I think you’re going to see it,” Harbaugh said of the league-wide ascendance of female coaches. “It’s a talent pool. You’ve got a lot of very smart people in half the population. I’m probably a little biased because I see my daughter every single day, and I want her to be able to do whatever she wants to do in life.”
Lori Locust will join the Ravens during training camp next month and learn from the team’s defensive coaches through the team’s first preseason games. The recipient of the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship, she currently works as a defensive assistant, defensive line-linebackers coach and co-special teams coordinator of the National Arena League’s Lehigh Valley Steelhawks.
Elena Grigelevich will study with the Ravens’ analytics team throughout training camp. A finance and applied-physics double major at Bryant, she founded a think tank for the football team that, together with data science and applied-analytics students, studies team tendencies.
“These are three coaches who are kind of pioneering at their level — high school level, college level and professional — that are going to come out and work with us, intern with us,” Harbaugh said. “I’m fired up about it. I’ve gotten a chance to know them just a little bit, and they’re sharp. They’re very knowledgeable, so it’s going to be interesting.”
Vinson-Ondecko’s path to Owings Mills didn’t require a résumé, only an email address. A kicker on her high school and Division III Juniata teams, Vinson-Ondecko reached out to Brown a couple of weeks ago through the email he maintains as the mayor of Evesham Township, N.J. Fifteen minutes later, she was on the phone with the coach she knew only from his appearances on NFL Films projects.
“I've admired his work for a long time, and so in the back of my mind, I've always known I was going to meet Coach Brown somehow,” she said. “I just knew it. I willed it to happen. And when I sent him that email, I was hopeful that he'd write back, but I was never expecting this.”
Brown was happy to have a kindred spirit in the building. “There’s not a lot of us who coach kickers, at any level,” the former high school coach said, so after Brown cleared her appearance with Harbaugh, he told Vinson-Ondecko to come down for a day. He could teach her more on the field than he could over coffee at Starbucks.
The loud, dominant thuds were a sonic revelation for Vinson-Ondecko, but so, too, were the voices around her. Only 30 minutes into practice, she remarked to Brown on how he communicated with punter Sam Koch, who’s worked with Brown on the Ravens since 2008. “It’s like you two are sharing the same brain,” she told him. He told her she was fortunate to be coaching high schoolers; unless they left school or dropped the sport, Vinson-Ondecko can get to know her specialists as intimately as he has the Ravens’. A school psychologist, she already knows how to talk to them.
“She kicked in college, she knows how to strike a ball, she knows mentally how to go after a ball and she's a psychologist?” Brown said appreciatively. “Are you kidding me?”
Vinson-Ondecko, taken aback, stared at him for a few seconds, gratitude stunning her into silence. Her goals for the day had been modest. She does everything she can to help the kickers at Waynesboro. Talks to them in school. Reads kicking books. Attends coaches conferences. Whatever she could digest, she would take back across the Pennsylvania border and pass on to her team.
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This will be her sixth season with Waynesboro. After that, who knows? The coach next to her worked at the high school level for eight years. It’s amazing what you can learn, Brown said, when you look through football history and see what happens “when you put an emphasis on kicking a football.”