Women are rising up the ranks throughout professional football, earning positions of power in a space that for too long was ruled almost exclusively by men. We’re seeing more and more women breaking barriers in the sport, but what are the stories beyond the headlines? Who are the women shaping and influencing the NFL today? Answering those questions is the aim of the Next Woman Up series. While the conversational Q&As are edited and condensed for clarity, this is a forum for impactful women to share experiences in their own words. Without further ado, we introduce:
Tiffany Morton, Kansas City Chiefs
Position: Assistant Athletic Trainer
How did you get your start in a career in football?
My dream was always to work in the medical field, but I thought that was going to be as a doctor. I was in the medical undergrad fraternity at Auburn, in my senior year — it clicked that I wasn’t very happy and knew I didn’t want to pursue that anymore. I got up and left and thought, What am I going to do?
So, I did a personality test with one of the counselors at Auburn, and it said I should be a doctor. But right underneath that it said athletic training. I had heard of it, but never really considered it as a career. I had a few elective hours that I needed to fill and asked if I could fill them with a shadowing opportunity with the athletic training department. I ended up really enjoying it and started seeking out athletic training opportunities in a graduate program at Florida International University, where I had great faculty and mentorship, and opportunities presented themselves after some hard work.
I came from a big football program going to school at Auburn, and I knew I wanted to be in that kind of space again in some capacity. That’s why I decided to check out an NFL internship. It took a few years; it wasn’t instantaneous. I applied for at least three years, if not four, before I got started in the league.
The Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society has a ton of great opportunities for scholarships, and it’s important people know about them because they work. It’s how I got into the NFL. I got a summer internship with the Minnesota Vikings through my connections with FIU and PFATS’s female scholarship program — they also have an ethnic minority scholarship program — then I was able to get it a second time, but as a seasonal athletic trainer with the Kansas City Chiefs. Then I was hired as the first full-time female athletic trainer in Chiefs franchise history in 2016. It was a lot of timing — of being in the right place at the right time after doing the right things.
Have sports always been part of your life, or when did you discover your passion for sports?
I played all kinds of sports growing up. I have two younger brothers and one older, so we were the stereotypical neighborhood kids always playing outside. We grew up in a military family and moved around a lot, so my brothers were my best friends. As I got into high school, I focused on track, but sports have always been part of my life. So it kind of made sense when the medical field and sports began to blend together for me.
Can you walk me through what your job entails?
Training camp is its own beast. There’s a lot of planning that goes into it during OTAs and through the summer. I do a lot with hydration to make sure the players, especially rookies and new guys to our team, are ready for the August heat and an Andy Reid training camp because it can get pretty intense. We talk a lot about what we expect from a hydration standpoint and make sure they know we’re here to help them. We do a ton of educating our players during the offseason, so when they get to training camp and season, they know what’s expected and it becomes second nature.
Here’s a quick overview of what a day at training camp looks like for our athletic training staff …
In the mornings, we are getting everything ready for when players take the field and, at the same time, we’re also making sure guys weigh in to see if they’ve lost a significant amount of weight that hasn’t been returned. I’m also looking at certain guys’ urinalysis status to assist them medically and make sure they are OK; that’s been key with identifying why certain players might have an issue in practice. The rest of the day is helping the players with hydration, nutrition and recovery.
Our training staff’s primary goal is to make sure every player has the best opportunity to make the team, so our breaks are very short. Team meetings are another time for us to re-evaluate what happened during practice, so we can prep for the afternoon and give our guys the best information so they can get ready for the next day. Then there are walk-throughs and meetings for more prep. So, we are either actively advocating for our guys or educating and prepping for them.
Those must be some long days. Would you say about 12-hour days?
Oh. That’s a short day. I would say most of our staff gets here at 5 or 6 a.m. and don’t leave until 9 or 10 p.m. So at least 15 hours.
Wow! I was way off. Now, what does a week during the regular season look like for you?
Monday is an easier day because our players have the day off. Tuesday, they have meetings but no practice, so it’s another prep day for us to get ready for the rest of the week. On Wednesday, when we start getting into practice, we have player treatments at 7 a.m. and the players go into meetings shortly after that. There’s a lot of communication between departments with strength and conditioning to see if they need to change any lifting protocols for the players. Then walk-throughs and prepping for practice. Post-practice is all about helping those guys who need it to be able to perform for the next day.
Wednesdays and Thursdays are our longer days, which are about 12 hours, and Fridays are what we call “Fast Fridays” because we cut out the walk-throughs. Saturday is a prep day again; there isn’t a lot of expectation for our players, but from an athletic training standpoint, it’s packing up and getting ready for game day, whether that’s Arrowhead Stadium or to whatever city we’re flying to.
On game days, there is a lot more happening behind the scenes for what we hope is a quiet day injury-wise on the field. We arrive at the stadium five hours before kickoff to set up and make sure every player gets what they need — or they think they need — to perform.
I know you guys have a big athletic training staff. Are you in charge of a certain group of players or does everyone share responsibilities?
We each have our own position group that we work with. I work with the offensive line, which I love. They are probably the most disciplined and most respectful group, and we have a great group of guys in this locker room. They operate by the book and have welcomed me with open arms from the day I arrived. It’s nice to be linked with your position group and coaches and learn the idiosyncrasies of each of them, because it ultimately helps make the day-to-day work run smoother. It’s funny because I think I’m a big dog, then I get over with the group and I’m a Chihuahua. I forget how big they are sometimes.
Is there anything that has surprised you about working with that group?
I’m not sure it’s surprising, but their humble attitudes and selflessness are refreshing, and a nice reminder for myself to be here for the team. They don’t get the recognition regularly, and because of that, they don’t have big egos. They know that they have to work well together for the team to be successful, and that translates to any team atmosphere. So, we as an athletic training staff have to set our egos aside and work well together to get our guys back on the field, and that might mean asking someone for help.
That makes sense. During seasons when the Chiefs play deep into the playoffs or in the Super Bowl, does the preparation change?
We are tough early on with the guys in terms of preparation. We need them to understand the expectation and follow the rules so they can stay on the field throughout the season. When we get to late November or early December and know we have a playoff opportunity, we start to loosen up in all areas — practices are a little bit shorter, pads come off and we have more room to help the players recover. They bust their tails early in the season, then it’s our job to make sure their bodies last through the playoffs, hopefully to February.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
I think it’s the work-life balance. If you do an internship in this field and it doesn’t almost immediately click, then the NFL probably isn’t the space for you. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it definitely takes a certain mental level to work an eight-month season where you don’t get days off. It also takes a support group that is understanding of this situation. I couldn’t imagine if my friends and family weren’t supportive. They understand we will celebrate holidays or birthdays eventually. It’s about being together when we can. They don’t allow me to be stressed when I miss certain get-togethers; they remind me that I’m living my dream and we figure out how to get together another time.
I’m glad you have that kind of support. Along those lines, do you have any mentors?
Yes, there are several. Jennifer Doherty-Restrepo, who was my program director at FIU. She’s amazing and gave me much-needed positive reinforcement. I had my goals set and didn’t need somebody to push me, but I needed someone who wasn’t going to hold me back or give me negative feedback. She was constantly advocating for me, and it’s inevitably how I got the internship with the Vikings.
Michelle Odai is the current director of FUI’s athletic training program. When I was in school, I told her point blank, “I really want to make sure I get as many football opportunities as I can, so I can build my résumé.” She made sure I checked the boxes but also helped me get to where I am. Having people who say “yes” to what you’re trying to attain is so important, and I absolutely would not be here if not for those two ladies. I am extremely grateful to them and the FIU program.
Then through my time in athletic training as a whole, there have been countless people who have made me a better person and athletic trainer. I was an athletic trainer for Southridge High School in Miami, and they had a phenomenal group of trainers who were constantly learning from their athletes and each other. They are still some of the best trainers out there.
Lastly, I can’t say I work at the Kansas City Chiefs without mentioning Rick Burkholder, our VP of sports medicine and performance, and some of his teaching moments. Some of them have been tough love, for sure, but they have molded me into the athletic trainer I am today. I definitely appreciate him taking me under his wing.
What is next in terms of things you want to accomplish?
If someone asked me that question five years ago, I would have naively said I want to become a head athletic trainer in the NFL. That’s the innocence of being two years in the league. Now it’s about learning as much as I can in the field and from my coworkers. We all have different responsibilities, so trying to get a full picture of what an NFL training staff looks like is probably my top priority in the short-term. There is a lot to know. We have a staff of five full-time trainers and hire two seasonal athletic trainers, and we wouldn’t be able to function without all of us. There is so much to do from a sports medicine standpoint that no one person could handle all the work.
Then ideally, of course, I want to build the confidence and learn the intricacies of the behind-the-scenes workings, which is a lot of admin and how the business side of the NFL works. It’s very different from high school and collegiate settings, and that’s partly what makes it so exciting to work at the highest level of sports. Learning that and from other departments is what’s next because I know I’ll need this knowledge to become a head athletic trainer down the line.
Lastly, what are you most proud of?
Young, little Tiffany — who just wanted to get an opportunity in the league — didn’t ever take no for an answer. It’s not that some people were haters, but people sometimes don’t think dreams are achievable. I don’t know why that is, maybe because they have never dreamt big things or had a support system to encourage them to chase after them. That said, a lot of people probably wouldn’t step down from a full-time job with a great community to take an NFL internship that paid minimum wage, but I did. If you don’t take those risks, I don’t know if that’s called a dream anymore. I think it’s just called the next day of work. I’m quite honestly most proud of beating the odds already and sticking with it.
Also, when I got the full-time job with the Chiefs, there were five female athletic trainers in the league. Now, there are so many more, and the Chiefs and Panthers are two teams that have two females on staff. You can see in just over five years how the landscape is changing and diversifying.