INDIANAPOLIS — The words flowed from her lips without hesitation.
Her intention had been set for years. The dream devised before she was even a teenager.
In Salli Clavelle’s mind, since the tender age of 8, football was always the destination.
And her ultimate goal was rooted in a desire to follow her passion and shake up the status quo in the process.
“She wants to be a GM,” San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch said with a smile, as he recounted his first impressions of Clavelle when she interviewed for one of the team’s scouting assistant positions in 2018.
She knew football, but she needed an opportunity at the game’s highest level. What she lacked in NFL experience, she more than made up for with her knowledge, diligence and attention to detail, her colleagues say.
It was her unwavering self-confidence that also helped convince members of the 49ers’ front office to hire her for that entry-level position. But it was her work ethic and innate leadership skills that led to Clavelle’s promotion a year later to pro personnel analyst.
At 26, she is the NFL’s only black female full-time scout. And yet, she’s still a relative unknown outside of the league’s scouting community.
Truth be told, she relishes that anonymity, preferring to focus on the task at hand — being good at her job — instead of talking about her quick ascension within a resurgent franchise.
“I know I’m very good at my job," she said. "But I also know that I have to prepare every single day. If somebody asks me a question, I have to know the answer. So I always have to be ready. And if you don’t have that mindset, this is going to be very difficult for any woman.
“I always tell women, you can do whatever you want. You just have to take that same focus and passion you’ve given everything else and apply it to football.”
Meeting the job’s challenges, sometimes in isolation
After earning her master’s in sports management, the former Sam Houston State University basketball player pivoted back to her first love: football. Soon after returning home with her degree, the New Orleans native convinced Tulane coach Willie Fritz to give her an internship in the football department. He had one caveat.
“Yeah, you can do it,” he told her at the time, “but you’ve got to do it for free.”
Clavelle happily accepted the unpaid training camp gig. A month later, she was hired as the program’s director of on-campus recruiting in 2016. During those two and a half years, she learned as much as she could, sitting in on meetings and evaluations, and conversing with scouts during their campus visits.
“I just let everybody know from the first day what I wanted to do,” said Clavelle, whose father played for Oklahoma State and uncle, Shannon Clavelle, was a member of the Green Bay Packers’ Super Bowl XXXI championship team. “I wanted to be at the highest level I could. I want to be the best scout I could be. And I need you to help me.”
Years later, Clavelle made her mission known to the 49ers as well. And it wasn’t before long that she quickly earned the respect of her colleagues.
“She’s a finisher,” said Ethan Waugh, San Francisco’s director of college scouting. He highlighted Clavelle’s unique ability to “make people feel at ease” when she walks in the room “and get a good read on people, which is important in our business. … She’s somebody that likes to see things through. And she’s mentally tough. That’s one thing we have to look for in all of our entry-level employees. Can you fight through those days that aren’t any fun and the long hours, she’s as good at that as anybody.”
As a scouting assistant, Clavelle assisted the college and pro scouting departments in their evaluation of NFL talent. Her responsibilities increased after she became a pro personnel analyst in 2019. She spent this past preseason familiarizing herself with the 90-man rosters of the 31 other teams and writing up preseason recommendations on players in advance of the 53-man roster cuts. “Because when that 53 cut comes, you want to be prepared to claim people and sign these guys to your practice squad,” she said. "You want to make sure you have all your ducks in a row.”
During the regular season, she and the rest of the pro scouts were tabbed with watching film and writing reports assessing skills of players throughout the league. But the playoffs — and the 49ers’ Super Bowl run — presented a change of pace for Clavelle, who traveled to different games each weekend in order to scout the 49ers’ potential competition.
Within the 49ers building, Clavelle is viewed no differently than any other scout “because she’s come in and she’s proven herself,” Waugh said.
“What makes Salli special is her conviction on what she sees, yet she’s humble enough to ask for help when she needs it,” added 49ers director of pro personnel Ran Carthon. “She leaves no stone unturned.
“We’re fortunate to be with an organization whose coaches allow you to sit in on meetings. Salli takes full advantage of that and spends time in the different position meetings, as well as special teams meetings, to learn the nuances of our systems which all in turn make her a better scout and evaluator.”
Despite having a support system of mentors and friends that extends beyond San Francisco, the road Clavelle finds herself on can, at times, be isolating.
“I am happy that I can be the first to break down that door and show everybody they can do it,” she said. “But I’m conflicted because some of the things I go through, I can’t share that with them because they will never understand. And not that they won’t try to understand, but they’re not black or they’re not a woman. I don’t go through the same things the guys go through and it’s hard for me to tell them how I’m feeling. It’s not their fault. I can tell our guys anything. But I know that they’ll never truly understand, even though they truly want to.”
But the challenges of the job only fuel Clavelle to be that more focused and eager to learn from those around her. “I knew I had to work that much harder just because of who I was. Just because of the dynamics of the entire NFL,” she said. “Being a woman in a building, in a male-dominated sport, I knew that my day had to start earlier and my nights had to go longer.”
Those who know Clavelle best are eager to rave about the integral part she plays inside the 49ers’ building and her role as a trailblazer for other young women who are looking to rise up the scouting ranks. But they’re also quick to point out that her opportunities have been earned, not simply given.
“I didn’t hire [vice president of player personnel] Martin Mayhew because he was a teammate or because he was African American. I hired Martin Mayhew because I felt like he could make me better and he would make our organization better,” Lynch said. “Same thing with Ran Carthon. Same thing with Salli Clavelle. You better come in and be able to tell me how you’re going to make us better. And out of the six people that day, it was unanimous: She best articulated and represented how she would do that.”
Every year, hundreds of applicants express interest in the 49ers’ pair of scouting assistant positions. It didn’t take long for front-office members to realize that Clavelle was “the answer.”
“When the pro analyst job became available, we asked ourselves: ‘It’s only a year, is she ready?’ And we felt like she was,” Lynch said. “Ran Carthon went to bat for her and Ethan Waugh felt like, ‘You know what? She is.’"
Ultimate goal: general manager
Interestingly enough, the 49ers’ personnel guys weren’t the only ones who realized how talented Clavelle is. Two offseasons ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers offered her a training camp internship. But when Steelers pro scouting coordinator Brandon Hunt heard San Francisco was looking to fill an entry-level position, he told Carthon: “I don’t know what you’re looking for, but there’s a young woman in New Orleans who’s worth talking to.”
Clavelle has since seized her opportunity with the 49ers. And her sights are firmly set on the ultimate prize.
“The goal is to be [John Lynch] at some point. To be a GM,” she said with a smile, at the conclusion of an NFL Women’s Careers in Football Forum panel where she was featured alongside Tampa Bay Bucs assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust, Washington Redskins offensive assistant Jennifer King, and Callie Brownson, chief of staff for Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski.
Clavelle acknowledged her reluctance to be in the spotlight, but the NFL scouting combine presented several opportunities for her to share her story and her encouragement with other young women aspiring to join the NFL ranks. Much to her surprise, commissioner Roger Goodell also offered to assist Clavelle with future public speaking and media training opportunities.
The goal was never to be front and center, she said. The work has always been her focus. But her mentors are encouraged that Clavelle's responsibilities in San Francisco will inspire many more women to chase their football dreams.
“I hope that Salli being there lets other women know that the sky’s the limit,” Hunt said. “That you can be anything.”
And, perhaps one day, Clavelle might break another glass ceiling.
“Most [scouting assistants] say they want to be a GM,” Waugh said. “But they want to skip all of the steps in between. And she has no problem doing all of the steps in between. She has the communication skills and the big-picture vision that you would want in a GM and I think that’s pretty evident when you’re able to sit down and talk with her.”
Even the 49ers' current general manager believes Clavelle has what it takes to do the job.
“There’s only 32 of those and everyone covets those jobs,” Lynch said. “But I can tell you, she’s got the qualities that would make a good one.”
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