Photography by Jacksonville Jaguars and John Ternan
Kirsten Grohs has a sideline view of National Football League action as an executive with the Jacksonville Jaguars, but she still fills with pride when she watches the Laurier Golden Hawks take the field.
"The crowds at Laurier games, the spirit and the vibe, there's just nothing else that compares to it," Grohs says during an interview from Jacksonville, Florida. "At Laurier, there's so much pride in that purple and gold. It's so near to every alumni’s heart."
From her time as a volunteer with the Golden Hawks during her second year at Laurier in 2008, Grohs has risen to become the Jaguars' manager of football administration, one of few women to hold such a senior role in a male-dominated professional sport. Today, from her office at the Jaguar’s EverBank Field, she helps guide contract negotiations, logistics and travel for a team that plays in one of the largest and most lucrative sports leagues in the world.
For Grohs, who grew up in Kincardine, Ontario, it is a dream come true.
"When I was at Laurier we used to joke around saying, 'Oh, she'll be working in the NFL someday.' At the time that seemed like such a far-fetched dream. Now, I feel like I've obtained that dream and almost surpassed it in a way."
Grohs’ journey to the NFL started simply enough. During her second year at Laurier, a friend was giving up her volunteer duties with the Golden Hawks football team. It seemed like a fun opportunity, so Grohs stepped in. The job mostly involved recording video of on-field action during team practices.
"By that time I had familiarized myself with Laurier football, watched a couple of games and enjoyed it," Grohs says. "I thought, 'This might be a good opportunity.' I just sat up in the stands with a recorder and that's really how I started."
Grohs quickly became a valuable member of the Golden Hawks off-field support team, helping with travel planning and the booster club. Along the way, she received support and encouragement from many at Laurier, including Gary Jeffries, head football coach at the time.
"Coach Jeff turned into almost a second father for me and became a mentor," Grohs says. "He used to lend me football books from his cabinet. My knowledge just slowly grew over time. He really kick-started everything for me. For that I will forever be grateful."
After graduating from Laurier in 2010 with a degree in psychology, Grohs was determined to pursue a career in professional sports. That determination was in large part due to her positive experience with the Golden Hawks.
"I'd never seen or been a part of anything like it before," Grohs says. "I was so intrigued and I felt so at home in the environment. I thought, 'How cool is this? All of these different people coming together and working toward a common goal.'"
At the urging of several people associated with Laurier athletics, including Don Smith and former dean of students Fred Nichols, Grohs decided to apply to Ohio University's master’s in sports administration program.
At first, things didn't go as planned.
"I didn't get in," Grohs says. "At the time they said, 'If you can try and get an internship on your own in Canada for a year, then we'll let you in the following year.' That's when Coach Jeff came in again. He just started calling everyone he knew."
One of those calls was to Hamilton Tiger-Cats head coach Marcel Bellefeuille. While the Ticats had already hired a football operations intern for the year, Grohs was told there still might be an opportunity with the Canadian Football League team.
Persistence in the form of many phone calls over the course of two weeks helped land her the coveted internship, albeit unpaid.
Grohs spent 2010 and half of 2011 with the Ticats. To pay off school loans and support herself during the unpaid internship, she worked part-time during evenings. In the end, the hard work and long hours paid off. In August 2011, she was packing to attend school in Ohio.
It was Grohs' drive and determination that got her to the U.S. school, says Fred Nichols. He remembers that during Grohs’ time at Laurier she would often come to him seeking advice about how to achieve her goals.
"She had in her mind exactly what she wanted to do," Nichols says. "She was a dreamer, she was ambitious and she knew what she wanted out of life. I've never seen anybody more determined to get into the field of sport one way or the other."
After graduating from her two-year program at Ohio, Grohs faced perhaps her biggest challenge en route to landing a job in the NFL: attracting the attention of a team that might hire her. In May 2013 she enacted what she calls "The Starbucks Plan." In football terms, it was the equivalent of a "Hail Mary" pass.
At Bellefeuille's suggestion, Grohs mailed her resumé – along with a $3 Starbucks gift card – to every general manager in the NFL. She had originally planned to send a $5 gift card, but after paying for school, money was tight.
It was a last-ditch effort to land her dream job.
"Marcel gave me that idea and it was really my last shot," she says. "It shocked me when I started getting the phone calls. I thought, 'Wow, it's actually working.' I wasn't sure they'd even get this mail.”
While she was also contacted by the San Francisco 49ers, it was the Jaguars who offered Grohs the most immediate opportunity, flying her to Jacksonville for an interview the following day.
Grohs was hired as administrative assistant to the director of football administration – and Jaguars GM David Caldwell returned the $3 Starbucks gift card she sent in the mail.
That first job gave her the opportunity to study the NFL's collective bargaining agreement and contract negotiation process.
She was later promoted to contract research and salary cap analyst, which involved managing contract databases for the Jaguars, examining contracts signed around the NFL and how the structure of those contracts might prove useful to the Jaguars during player negotiations. Later, she started helping with logistics and team travel.
"Working with Laurier and the Ticats helped set me up for that," Grohs says. "I was doing everything from helping set up team travel to preparing for training camp and whatever administration work needed to be done. I had already had all that great experience working in Canada. Coming down here, it just seemed natural."
Laurier Director of Athletics Peter Baxter says Grohs' story exemplifies the university's tradition of developing student leaders who work behind the scenes in athletics, whether it be administrative work, managing equipment or providing support to athletes on the sidelines during competition.
"Winning is not just success defined on the scoreboard; winning is also developing people like Kirsten, who is working at the highest level of sport franchises in North America," Baxter says.
This past June, Grohs was promoted to her current position as manager of football administration, a role that involves both the contract side of the business and the logistics-operations side. She travels with the team to all of its away games.
Each day in the office can bring unexpected challenges, Grohs says, so "controlling the controllable" is the first order of business. For her, that means staying up to date on transactions made around the NFL, updating team databases, taking care of travel arrangements, ensuring staff have checked the condition of practice fields and filing reports to the league. On Fridays, Grohs works on payroll, a weekly expense for the team of between $5 million and $7 million.
Then there are the less day-to-day items that come up. On this day – less than a week before the Jaguars' annual trip for a game in London, England – Grohs is arranging new passports for players who have misplaced them and helping finalize a seating chart for the flight to London.
And then there is the totally unexpected – things one might not expect an NFL executive to ever have to deal with.
"This morning, I had a player stop by complaining that the broccoli at team breakfast looked weird to him and he didn't feel comfortable eating it," Grohs says with a laugh. "So I ate it just to show him that it was fine."
While there are lighthearted moments, there are also tougher tasks, like cutting players from the team. It is something Grohs says doesn't get easier over time.
"A lot of the guys you are cutting are rookies right out of college," she says. "No matter what, it's tough. I just tell myself 'this is what's necessary for us to get better.'"
Those challenging moments are made easier when Grohs sees the team take the field on game day.
"I like every aspect of the job, but I think for me the most fun part is game day and seeing all of the hard work that you've put in during the week unfold," she says. "Next to that would be inking deals with the players. It's a really rewarding and exciting feeling because you know they're going to be great difference makers."
Certainly not lost on those who work in the world of professional football is Grohs' rise to prominence in a male-dominated profession. She is one of only a few women to hold such a high-ranking administrative position with an NFL team.
"Although I realize I'm a minority in this business, I feel comfortable in my role and I feel like I'm able to excel in it," she says. "I enjoy working in the environment that I work in and I think that my male co-workers see me as just that – a co-worker. We have a great group of guys who are hard workers and really humble, good, nice people."
Asked if she considers herself a role model for other women hoping to work in the industry, Grohs offers a modest response.
"Up until this past year, I don't think I would have ever considered myself a role model," she says. "I think now that I'm here maybe I do have a story to share with people. Maybe I do have some good advice for younger people trying to get into the world of sports."
And what advice would Grohs offer?
"I think achieving success has to be a blend of your drive, your passion and your competence," she says. "I think it's got to be all of that: you have to have the smarts and you have to have the work ethic to go with it.
"And if you keep pushing long enough, it's going to happen for you. That's not to say it's going to be easy, because it definitely was not easy for me. But at the same time if you want it bad enough, you'll get it."
Grohs says her story shows that just about any goal is attainable with a combination of hard work, determination and helping hands along the way. For her, the greatest helping hands she received were from the people she met and worked with during her time at Laurier.
"I can't even begin to go down memory lane without getting too emotional," she says. "Working at Laurier I felt like I fit in and it was so family oriented, what a football team should be like.
"Laurier is a school oriented on community and spirit and is very full of pride. Canadian schools don't often get a lot of credit for those kinds of things. Yes, I went to grad school in the states. But for me, when I think of my alma mater, that's Laurier."