Angellica Grayson is on a mission to expand women's football: 'I've gotta help the next person'
LAS VEGAS — Growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, Angellica Grayson tried every sport she could: dance, roller hockey in the neighborhood, volleyball, basketball, even a year of wrestling in middle school. As she got older, she tried flag football.
It wasn't until she was an adult that she honored the nagging feeling she had for years, the one that began after taking note of a female classmate who was on the school's team: that she wanted to play tackle football.
After graduating from Grambling State University and moving to Atlanta, she was invited by a friend to watch the Xplosion, a tackle football team that was part of the Independent Women's Football League.
Watching from the stands, she knew: "I can do that. I can do that."
She started her playing career as a quarterback but despite being all of 5-foot-2, Grayson gravitated toward the linebacker position, even in flag football. Once she began tackle football, she learned that she liked the feeling of hitting opponents. Within the rules, of course.
Now on the cusp of celebrating her 40th birthday, Grayson's life is all about football. Last September she was hired by the Los Angeles Chargers as the team's first manager of football development, a role that has her in the community and also comes with the thrill of being on the sideline for Chargers home games.
Like many women who are part of the game, it wasn't exactly a straight path to get to this point.
A career in football — as a player
Grayson joined the Xplosion as a player, and was with the team for two years before moving back to Texas. She played for the Dallas Diamonds for five years, until that team dissolved. She was so devoted to the game that after the Diamonds disbanded she began making the roughly eight-hour round trip to Houston to play with the that city's IWFL team, the Energy.
In 2017 she was a member of the U.S. team that won the gold medal at the Women's World Championship in Canada. That team also featured a defensive back named Callie Brownson, who is now the chief of staff and assistant receivers coach for the Cleveland Browns.
The next year, Grayson was able to again play close to home, with the newly formed Texas Elite Spartans, who are part of the Women's National Football Conference. Grayson now serves as a player-coach for the club, which hasn't lost a game in four seasons of play (there were no games in 2020 due to COVID-19). She says that this will be her last season as a player. She also hedges a bit when asked if she's sure.
As a middle school PE teacher in Crowley, the same Fort Worth suburb where she was educated, Grayson volunteered with the football team, and is proud that she played a role in giving those players strong fundamentals.
But in 2020, a friend's suggestion gave Grayson — known as "Gellie" (pronounced "jelly") to friends — the push to make football her full-time job.
"Someone told me, 'Hey, Angellica, have you heard about the NAIA having football?' and I was like, 'Yeah, I heard about it, isn't that great?'" she recalled.
The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, an organization of smaller colleges, had recognized flag football as a women's sport, and 15 schools had committed to fund teams. The caller wasn't just passing on the information to Grayson: he wanted to encourage her to become a coach.
From Leavenworth to the Chargers
After offering every excuse she could think of, Grayson hung up but started to re-think things. She researched which schools were starting teams, sent her résumé to several, and every one called her back. Offered a job by three programs, she wound up choosing the University of St. Mary in Leavenworth, Kansas.
Yes, that Leavenworth. With the federal prison.
The job was rife with challenges as there were few states at the time offering girls' flag football at the high school level, but not Kansas, so she was recruiting from Nevada, Alaska, Florida and Georgia, where the sport had already been sanctioned. Grayson also took a big pay cut with the job and spent down her savings to make ends meet. And Leavenworth itself was a big culture change, so Grayson didn't have much of a social life. She also was not a fan of the cold.
But she made it work, and St. Mary went 5-6 in its first season, and 7-9 in its second.
Yet Grayson has come to learn that while she loves the game in its multiple forms, she doesn't necessarily love coaching as a full-time job, not at its highest levels. An internship she had with the NFL's Washington Commanders in the 2021 offseason and training camp taught her many things about herself, and that's one of them: she thrives on connecting people, on the administrative side.
Watching her speak, as she did on a panel at the National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches convention February in Las Vegas, or spending time one-on-one with her, it's easy to see why. Grayson smiles easily, has an infectious spirit that draws people to her, and loves to use affirmations and acronyms — like encouraging having a growth mindset and be DOPE: a Distributor Of Positive Energy — that come across as hokey from some people but genuine when she uses them.
"She's super fired up. If you see her speak you'll hear all her acronyms and she's so eloquent about what she wants to convey and the energy she wants to put forth into the world," said Mickey Grace, the assistant defensive line coach at UConn who has been friends with Grayson for the past couple of years. "We always talk about you can help your athletes as coaches, but then you get in these more administrative roles and realize that you can help so many more people, whether they know it or not."
Grace and Grayson are opposites, not just because of their substantial height difference, but Grayson practically needs to be forced to discuss her many achievements while Grace freely admits she's "crass" and ready for a fight by nature. Grace will tell you who to talk to for something to get done, but Grayson can tell you how to soften the message a bit so it's received better. Each woman said they've learned from the other to be more bold in Grayson's case and to have more, well, grace in Grace's case.
Which brings us to where Grayson is now. Last September, she moved to Los Angeles after the Chargers basically created her position for her and she now gets to, in her words, spread the gospel of flag football.
Grayson was in the room last month when the California Interscholastic Federation, or CIF, voted unanimously to sanction girls' flag football as a varsity high school sport, a development all three of the state's NFL teams, the Chargers, Rams and 49ers, supported and celebrated after its passing. She helped put together a showcase for girls teams from Los Angeles and beyond, even getting the Chargers to kick in money to help with travel expenses.
And she can be an auntie of sorts with teams and organizations, spending time with players and coaches and helping them lay the foundation of their programs, but then getting to send them on their way.
"I enjoy and love what I do," she said of the role. "I've been manifesting this for quite some time. I read something that I wrote when I was 35 and I wrote, 'I'm going to work in the NFL' and I said in player engagement or some other business aspect of football. I'm in the business aspect of football."
And she's determined to open the door for others to come behind her, women and particularly Black women who she can help get into rooms and in front of people.
"I've gotta help the next person," Grayson said. "I don't see myself being at this level and not helping the next person. At that point for me it's like, who am I? There's no way I can get to a certain point and not help out my fellow person."