A Love of Football and a Little Bit of Luck
A Love of Football and a Little Bit of Luck
Leah Joseph ’13: Moving up to the NFL
BY MELISSA ULSAKER MAAS ’76
Leah Joseph is learning all the plays…of the Jacksonville Jaguar football team. Really she is. It’s not a requirement of her new NFL job as the assistant to General Manager Trent Baalke, she’s doing it on her own. “I focus on the basics, like gaps and techniques, and see if I can spot them while they’re practicing,” Leah says. “That’s just my own thing, wanting to know everything I can about what I’m doing.” That desire to learn more, do more, and be more is how she ended up working in TIAA Bank Field Stadium, along with a few fortuitous twists of fate.
Leah’s no stranger to football. Her father, Bernard Joseph, is head coach of the varsity football team, as well as a Lower School P.E. teacher and DEIB program assistant at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes. He was a starting defensive end for Virginia Tech, alongside future NFL and Hall of Fame inductee Bruce Smith, but his dreams of going pro ended with an injury in his senior year. Afterwards, he successfully threw himself into coaching. And, well, her cousin is Washington Football defensive end Chase Young, who made the 2020 Pro Bowl and was named Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Leah and Chase were close growing up. “We were the most athletically focused, the roughest and the toughest, the daredevils,” Leah says with a wicked grin. “At Disney World we went for the biggest roller coaster rides.” It would seem Leah must have grown up playing football in the backyard, but that’s not the case at all. “Wrong! I begged to play football my entire life, but my dad wouldn’t let me,” she says. While Chase and her brother, Terence ’15, threw the football around, she had to watch from the sidelines. However, not being able to play football didn’t hold her back from enthusiastically pursuing other sports. “Sports are a great way to meet people, make new friends, and be active,” Leah says. “As I watched the Olympics on T.V. I would say, ‘Ohh, I want to try that!’”
Leah Joseph ’13
She tried ice skating and softball before settling into basketball, but she still wanted to experience more. Watching Venus and Serena Williams inspired her to try out for the Middle School tennis team in seventh grade, but her Middle School P.E. Teacher, Betsy Rice, gently steered her in a different direction.
“After tryouts they were like, ‘Um, don’t think this is for you, but you should try out for volleyball,’” Leah recalls. Getting cut from tennis was a gift. Leah made the volleyball team and stuck with it. In ninth grade she made varsity and went to a volleyball camp for the first time at Duke University. That was when she realized how amazing volleyball was and quit playing basketball.
Favorite SSSAS Event:
Sleepy Thompson Basketball Tournament
Favorite SSSAS Tradition:
The Thanksgiving chapel service, I loved getting the entire school together and the anticipation of having kindergarten buddies in senior year was always fun.
Favorite book read in English class:
“To Kill a Mockingbird” in eighth grade—Mrs. Sherley Keith made it come alive in the classroom.
Going to Romania on the service learning trip sophomore year for spring break!
I loved Mandarin Chinese. The culture and the challenge of drawing characters intrigued me.
Did a particular teacher/class have a profound effect on you?
Mrs. Keith had such a profound effect on me in Middle School. She shaped how I analyzed and processed literature for the rest of my academic career. She took the time to make sure I understood the ‘why’ when I got things wrong. I developed an entirely new level of critical thinking.
Did a particular coach inspire you?
My dad is my life coach in everything. Although he never played or coached me in the sport I ended up falling in love with, he learned everything about it to help me improve my game. I also knew that whether or not he was at the match, he was always watching. Somehow, I knew he would find out about my performance and that always motivated me.
At SSSAS Leah was named an Outstanding Athlete in 2010, 2011, and 2012, ISL A All-League in 2011, and All-ISL and VISAA All-State in 2012. In her senior year she helped propel the 2012 Volleyball team to the ISL A Tournament Championship, which ended with a tough five-game loss to Holton-Arms. Off the court and on the track, she broke the school’s record in the 100-meter hurdles.
Leah went on to play volleyball at Georgia Southern University, where she also put some coaching experience on her resume. Although she sat out the 2013 season with an injury, she then played in 27 matches and logged career highs (108 kills, 94 blocks) in 2014, including leading the team in blocks. While at GSU Leah was the head coach of the Southern Slammers Volleyball Club for girls ages 13-18, and she worked actively on the student advisory board. In 2016 she was a student assistant coach for the GSU Eagles, assisting with day-to-day practices and organizing pre-game meals. She was also a keynote speaker for the athletic convocation, and was an invocation speaker for the annual academic athletic award ceremony her senior year.
Armed with a bachelor’s in psychology, Leah spent a couple of years as an intern in hospitality and a government affairs consulting firm, but neither felt like the right career path. She was applying to get a master’s, when Ohio State’s interest in recruiting Chase led to a fork in the road. She met OSU’s Head Football Coach Urban Meyer at Chase’s home visit dinner. “I knew I had to do something in sports,” Leah says. “Both of Urban’s daughters played volleyball, so we talked about volleyball the entire dinner.” Urban was impressed and asked for her resume. He sent it out with a letter to a group of coaches and one of them thought she might be a great fit for a coach she knew who was looking for an operations person. The next thing she knew, she was pursuing a master’s of education in student affairs and athletic administration and had a job as the director of volleyball operations at Virginia Tech, her dad’s alma mater.
Although she never paid attention to the administrative side of things when she was playing volleyball, Leah discovered she really loved working behind the scenes. For the next four years her duties included assisting with day-to-day operations, scheduling, team travel, and business office logistics. She also functioned as a liaison with equipment and nutrition, and assisted with game management. In 2020, Leah won the AVCA (American Volleyball Coaches Association) Diversity Award, an honor that recognizes an individual’s efforts to change and improve their community by focusing on a multitude of issues including the fight for equality, social injustice issues, discrimination.
Just as she had decided it was time to move on and leave Virginia Tech, the funniest thing happened. “I had packed everything up and found someone to sublease my apartment,” Leah explains. “Then one of my friends who is a coach at Tech said, ‘Leah, football needs an on-campus recruiting person and I think you would be great at it.’” He might have thought so, but Leah wasn’t so sure. She liked the atmosphere of football and had helped them out a couple of times before with big events, but wasn’t crazy about volleyball recruiting. But he was persistent and convincing and ultimately recruited her.
Leah stayed and fell completely in love with the job. No question it was hard work, but Leah was undaunted. Because of the pandemic, Virginia Tech decided to add official visits in the summer. Starting in June, there were at least 15 official visits every weekend, each of which involved planning for 200-300 people. The first week Leah didn’t sleep. No one did, but every day was unexpectedly great. “Meeting all the incoming players and their parents, selling the university, the town, event planning, all of it was right down my alley,” Leah says. “It was fun to create an experience for people.”
In the meantime, Leah had kept in touch with Urban Meyer, sending him brief updates on what she was doing or letting him know she would be at an OSU game to watch Chase. When he was hired as head coach by the Jacksonville Jaguars, she sent him a congratulatory email and let him know she would be interested in working there. “This was before I got the football job at Tech, but I knew I wanted to move into a higher revenue sport like football or basketball, even though I wasn’t sure how I would fit in,” Leah explains. “Urban put me in contact with his assistant, Elizabeth, and we emailed once or twice.” Then out of the blue, Leah got a text from Elizabeth asking her to call as soon as possible. “I felt like I was going to the principal’s office,” Leah laughs. “But I called her right away.” They were looking for an assistant for the general manager and Elizabeth thought Leah would be perfect. Leah sent an updated resume and didn’t have to wait long for a response. “I was actually playing Candy Crush at my desk during lunch when the phone rang and it was Trent Baalke,” Leah recalls. “I flew down to meet with him and we really clicked, right from the start.” She felt terrible leaving Virginia Tech after just a few months in her new job, but everyone was supportive and said, “It’s the NFL and when they call, you go!”
STATS: WOMEN IN THE NFL
This year the NFL has a record 12 women serving as coaches and an all-time high of 38.2% in League office roles. The Jacksonville Jaguars have four women, including Leah, in executive administration support roles in the front office, and 45 more women in an organization of 239 people overall—meaning only 21% of staff are women. Two are in sports performance (the director of performance nutrition and the head team psychologist); three on the business operations leadership team, including the executive vice president of business planning, the chief legal officer, and the vice president of people and culture; the vice president of football communications; and a good number of others are in senior and director management roles.
The learning curve has been tremendous, but Leah feels like she’s in her element. “It’s pretty different every day,” Leah says. “It’s not like the Devil Wears Prada assistant, but I will ask Trent if he needs a coffee.” The general manager is the highest standing employee in the team’s personnel department. He answers directly to the owner and has final veto power on all player-related decisions the team makes. Trent’s job responsibilities include hiring the head coach, building the remainder of the personnel department staff, coordinating the rubric for scouting college prospects and compiling the team’s roster in accordance to the NFL’s salary cap. It’s Leah’s job to support him, for example assisting the large team of pro and college scouts who need credentials and parking passes for the college games and other various things from the home base that Leah assists them with. She also helps bring in free agents for a tryout, reaching out to the player, arranging his travel, helping him get settled and through the onboarding process.
Leah Joseph in the Jaguars Stadium
“My favorite part of this job is delving in and learning everything about the game, because I love watching it and think I understand it more than the average person would,” Leah says. “Seeing it from the ground up is really interesting—from the moment a player is traded and gets off the flight, arrives at the stadium, gets onboarded, gets his jersey, and then integrates with the team.”
On game day, Leah has a full day at the stadium. “The GM has a family suite that I decorate,” Leah says. “It brings out the college recruiter girl in me, putting little pom poms and helmets everywhere and making sure all the food is ordered.
I also cover the injured player/practice squad suite, making sure they have somewhere to sit during the game.” In addition, she ushers people on and off the field and manages the post-game family tent.
The pandemic precludes Leah from traveling with the team, but it could happen in the future. There are rigid COVID safety precautions in place that include having to wear a tracer at all times. There are pretty hefty fines for being caught without it. Her office is a separate space from the business office and because of COVID they are like cohorts that don’t mix right now.
So is there any room for growth with the NFL? Leah believes there is. “Trent actually asked me that question in my interview, but six months ago at Virginia Tech I couldn’t imagine myself working in football there, much less here,” Leah says. “I didn’t know how much I would like this, and I love it. And I love the NFL.” Trent is giving Leah a hand in a variety of different departments to see what she likes. “I think I want to be in player engagement and player development,” Leah says. “I want to help them to succeed off the field, which is in line with my academic degrees. But for now, I can absolutely see myself staying right where I am!”
And the answer to the biggest question of all? No, she doesn’t play fantasy football. She’s living the real thing.