TAMPA — Lori Locust walked into her last team meeting with the Birmingham Iron as the defensive line coach Wednesday morning.
She told players to make sure they finish the season strong and that she expected to see them in the Alliance of American Football championship game.Then she walked to her Toyota Corolla about 9 a.m. and began the trip to Tampa Bay, a nine-hour drive that has taken a lifetime to complete.
The Bucs, now led by York High graduate Bruce Arians as the team's new head coach, announced the hiring of Locust as assistant defensive line coach and added Maral Javadifar as assistant strength and conditioning coach. Not only did they become the first full-time female coaches in franchise history, but the Bucs are the first NFL team with two female coaches on staff.
"I packed up what little of my life I brought with me, and now I'm somewhere on I-75 with another hour to go," Locust said. "It's surreal, it really is, and I mean in some ways, to me, it's just knowing that I have to be ready to go to work."
Arians fulfills promise: For new Bucs coach Bruce Arians, it was the fulfillment of a promise he made during a forum at the Super Bowl in Atlanta last month to hire a female assistant on his staff. In 2015 with the Arizona Cardinals, it was Arians who hired Jen Welter on an internship basis for training camp.
"I know how hard it can be to get that first opportunity to coach at the highest level of professional football," Arians said. "Sometimes, all you need is the right organization to offer up the opportunity. The Glazer family and our general manager, Jason Licht, were extremely supportive of my decision, and I know Maral and Lori will be great additions to my coaching staff."
Maral Javadifar will be an assistant strength and conditioning coach with the Bucs. Javadifar worked as a physical therapist at Avant Physical Therapy in Seattle, after completing her sports physical therapy residency at Virginia Commonwealth in 2018.
Before that, she was a physical therapist and performance trainer in Virginia, while also serving as a guest lecturer at George Mason University.
Locust from Harrisburg: No matter how this opportunity came to Locust and Javadifar, they didn't take any shortcuts along the way.
Locust has known Arians since her ex-husband, Andrew Locust, played for him at Temple University. But long before that, football was in her blood. A native of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Locust used to go with her family to high school football games on Thanksgiving. She followed the Steelers since she was 5 years old.
"Nobody else loved football the way I did in my family," Locust said. "Jack Lambert was my hero. It became part of everything I did."
After graduating from Temple, she decided to join a women's team in Harrisburg even though she was turning 40. She played four seasons before an injury found her on the sidelines coaching her teammates, and the fire was lit.
First, she went back to her alma mater at Susquehanna Township High School, where she worked as an assistant from 2010-2018. Then it was on to a semi-professional team as an assistant coach with the Central Penn Piranha for three years and two more with the DMV Elite. The call from the AAF came after two seasons with the Keystone Assault of the Women's Football Alliance.
York-Ravens connection: It was in back in York, Arians' one-time home town, when Locust learned she had earned a Bill Walsh internship last year with the Baltimore Ravens.
"It was a matter of taking all the things you know and learning even more," Locust said. "It's like they say, you don't know what you don't know. It was amazing. I worked primarily with the defensive line and linebackers. But sitting in the room, you realize each one of these coaches had so much experience. It was like a room full of defensive coordinators. And I just worked to try to make sense of the new terms and schemes and responsibilities."
Of course, the question Locust gets a lot, and will continue to be asked, is how do male professional football players respond to her coaching?
"I've never had a problem with a player," Locust said. "No one has ever treated me as anything but as a coach. Players are able to see through somebody who's not being authentic. I can talk to them about scheme and when I played. I really don't operate differently than any other coach.
"I think there's a mutual respect. I certainly respect the players for all the work they put into their craft, and I honor that and they just want to get better at the end of the day."
Locust says football hasn't changed that much through the years. The practices and drills are pretty much the same.
"Things just happen a little faster because you're dealing with the best athletes in the world," she said.
Big break with Iron: Locust felt her big break came when she got the job with the Iron. Birmingham general manager Joe Pendry had hired Arians years ago with the Kansas City Chiefs. He knew Arians wanted to hire a female assistant coach on the Bucs staff. Katie Sowers, an offensive assistant with the 49ers, called Locust and told her to get her resume to Arians because she knew there was an opportunity in Tampa.
Shortly after she emailed Arians, she learned he was in Birmingham for a coaching clinic at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. Arians gave her a call.
"In a bigger scheme of things, I'm very blessed, because this organization was so impressive because of the fact they were so accepting to opening up positions to qualified candidates whether they were male or female," Locust said. "I've noticed the things they do with their program for girls, like the flag football league. I heard (owner/president of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Foundation and Glazer Family Foundation) Darcie Glazer (Kassewitz) speak, and she's so authentic. She exuded that, and I'm so thankful.
"I've been on a separate path from the beginning. And I knew hard work would get me there. I feel a certain responsibility to set an example and illustrate that it can be done."