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Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship participants reflect on 'mind-blowing' lessons, experiences with coaching staff

The Browns welcomed six college coaches to assist their coaching staff as part of the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship


Israel Woolfork needed a few seconds to stop and think.

As he thought about his last two months with the Cleveland Browns, Woolfork had learned a plethora of lessons, witnessed hours of coaching techniques and heard dozens of mottos from Browns personnel as they prepared their players for the 2021 season.

Now, Woolfork, one of six aspiring NFL coaches selected to join the Browns as part of the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship, was being asked to pinpoint his most important lesson.

After a slight pause, Woolfork dove in — and selected not one, but two things he'll remember most.

"I think it's just to be genuine and to be detailed, if I can get a 1A and a 1B" Woolfork said. "Coach (Kevin) Stefanski, he has a plan, but he always does whatever is best for his players. He wants everyone to give ideas and be open in that line of communication, and it really blew my mind how organized they are and how they're very family-oriented.

"I love the relationship he has with his coaching staff. The way they communicate, well, it's not a dictatorship. It's really mind-blowing, and it's given me a good amount of information I'm going to apply if I ever get in that position to be a head coach or position coach in the NFL."

That relationship was what Stefanski and the Browns hoped to accomplish with the six fellows who joined the team midway through the offseason as part of the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship, which was offered from all 32 NFL teams and is designed as a vocational tool to increase the number of full-time NFL minority coaches.

Fellows were assigned tasks with different position groups and had a chance to participate in team meetings, offer ideas and come into the building during on-field workouts to assist other coaches in conducting practice.

The experience offered invaluable lessons that will undoubtedly boost the prospects of each fellows' trajectory to the NFL. Stefanski, who has several full-time coaches currently on staff who received opportunities from the Bill Walsh Fellowship, knows how much the program can mean toward opening NFL doors to a diverse group of coaching candidates.

"I think it's an outstanding program," he said. "We were so fired up about the candidates we were able to bring in this season, and I think all of them have really, really bright futures in this profession. It's just part of this organization's desire to pay it forward, make sure we're staying ahead of the curve and be as inclusive as we can."

The six Browns fellows all held experience at the college level before coming to Berea.

Woolfork, a wide receivers coach at Miami (Ohio), worked with the Browns tight ends and helped tight ends coach Drew Petzing in individual drills. Alex Hanna worked closely with Browns receivers and is a defensive quality control coach at Princeton. Jeff Anderson completed his fellowship work in the linebackers room and special teams unit and is the cornerbacks coach at Cal Poly. Kevon Beckwith worked with the defensive line and is a D-Line coach at Austin Peay. Jada Gipson worked with the defensive backs and is a linebackers coach at Texas State. Reid Sanders worked with the running backs and is an offensive coach who works with the running backs at Memphis. All of the fellows worked virtually with the team over the offseason, and Woolfork, Hanna and Anderson were able to work in-person with the team for the start of training camp.

Even though all fellows worked with different position groups, each of them emulated one of the biggest core traits that stemmed from the tight relationships between the coaches and players: communication.

It didn't matter which position group or coaches the fellows worked with — all of them stressed how effectively the coaches were able to convey information to their players. That, along with ensuring everyone in meeting rooms felt comfortable with speaking up and asking questions, was why the fellows couldn't help but praise the culture established in the Browns building for 2021.

"Being in the room with (linebackers coach Jason Tarver) and (run game coordinator) Ben Bloom and defensive assistant Zach Dunn, they know how to deliver a message," Anderson said. "And after they deliver a message, you see those guys in the room take that message and deliver it on the field. The message is not long-winded. It's not wordy. It's buzzwords, and guys are able to understand that."

Beyond the lessons learned in the room, each of the fellows have also been able to build a tremendous network, one that will undoubtedly help them jump into the NFL in the future. Their relationships with the coaches won't end when the fellowship concludes this weekend, and when many of the Browns' assistants rise into higher roles in the future, so will the fellows.

For Hanna, one of her biggest inspirations before the fellowship has now become one of her top mentors. Chief of Staff Callie Brownson has been one of the biggest trailblazers for women hoping to break into the NFL after she became the first woman to coach a position group in a regular season game last year. Now, she's one of Hanna's closest coaches on the team and someone Hanna knows will help elevate her career in the future.

"Callie is incredible for what she's done," Hanna said. "She has a similar background as me, coming from the Ivy League. Every piece of advice she's given me, I take it as gold, and I know it's going to be applicable for me moving forward."

That's precisely what the Browns hoped to accomplish with all their fellows. Now, with the 2021 fellowship almost complete, Stefanski and the rest of the coaches are eager to see where their paths go — and are prepared to continue to help them find their way to the NFL.

"I've had conversations with each one of our Bill Walsh fellows, and I told them I want them to get a lot out of this," Stefanski said. "I don't want them to just come in, check the boxes and then leave. I want them to ask questions and be a part of it because we really want to be a big part of their development as coaches."