Sports always played a huge role in every aspect of Emily Zaler’s life. Zaler was raised by a single mom and seeing her mother's own strength shaped the way she lives her life as an adult.
Her mother taught her early on, “When you get knocked down, get right back up.”
As a kid, Zaler was always the only girl playing football in the street with the neighborhood kids. Emily started playing soccer at the age of five and from then on, began to work towards her dream of earning a college scholarship. Zaler grew up going to Arizona Cardinals games with her family but never saw women coaching on the sidelines.
“Because I couldn’t see it, the thought never crossed my mind that I could actually work in the NFL,” Zaler says.
Playing Division I soccer is where her passion for coaching really developed. It was then that she knew this was the route she wanted to take.
“I was a Goalkeeper and was recruited by numerous schools. I went to the University of Oregon my freshman year. As a student-athlete, I was one of the weakest on my team in the weight room. I was told that I would never be able to play at a high level unless that improved. At the time, I didn’t like what was happening but looking back, I’m so thankful because I fell in love with strength and conditioning,” Zaler explains.
Seeing the results of her training and realizing how much stronger she was becoming both mentally and physically was an empowering moment for her. Zaler knew this was what she wanted to do professionally. She transferred to the University of Missouri to get more playing time, but suffered an injury that ended her collegiate career. Zaler says being an athlete has helped her become a better coach.
“I definitely feel like having the experience as a high-level athlete helped me develop that relatability factor with the players. You’ve put in the work and you know what it’s like. I hope to be a certain type of coach that exemplifies my own positive experiences and applies them to my coaching.”
Prior to becoming a Strength and Conditioning Assistant Coach for the Denver Broncos, Zaler completed her Master's Degree in Applied Exercise Science and also had a seasonal coaching position with the New York Knicks. Getting to this point was not an easy road. Zaler says she was told “No” more times than she can even count.
“You have to be persistent. When you get a 'No', move on to the next. You’re going to get that YES. As women, we can be critical of ourselves. Learning not to take the 'No's' personally was key for me,” Zaler says.
Zaler’s experience with the New York Knicks was “amazing” but unfortunately when Covid-19 hit, the season got suspended.
“I remember the exact day, it was March 11 and we were playing in a game. We all started to get notifications that the season would be suspended. We had no idea what would happen with our jobs.” Zaler says.
Soon after, she found out that she would be furloughed and then eventually was let go from her position with the team.
“From there, I really viewed it as I had two options. I could dwell on the situation and have everything I worked for come crashing down or I could take action and try to make the best of it. Adversity has been a constant throughout my life, I’ve learned how to make the most of every situation,” Zaler says.
Zaler knew that NFL training camp was coming up and she hoped this would be an opportunity to keep her dream going. While under lockdown in New York City, Zaler began the process of reaching out to all 32 NFL teams.
“I created a spreadsheet listing the Head Coach and Strength Coaches for each team. I got a lot of “return to sender.” Zaler says. “I would email and say ‘Hey, would you be open to having me help out and if not, do you have any advice about getting an internship?’” Zaler explained. After the first round of emails, she heard back from a handful of teams. “Those people were really nice and they were excited for the future of women in the field but there were no positions open. I figured that would be the standard.”
It was at that time that she came across the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship, which is a program designed as a vocational tool to increase the number of full-time NFL minority coaches. The fellowship helps qualified coaches gain exposure to NFL training camps and offseason workout programs. “I thought to myself, ‘Do I even qualify?’ I was in the middle of the NYC Covid lockdown and filmed a video in my apartment talking about why I should be selected. I didn’t hear anything at first, but I decided to send a round of follow up emails to the list of teams I never heard back from,” Zaler said.
In that second round of emails, she heard back from 26 of the 32 teams. On her fellowship application, Zaler listed the Denver Broncos as her top choice. “Everything I had heard about the Broncos Organization was great and Coach Landow is legendary in the field. I couldn’t think of a better person to learn from,” Zaler said.
After her interview with Broncos Head Strength and Conditioning Coach Loren Landow, she got the news she had hoped for. She was invited to come on board with the Bill Walsh Fellowship for six weeks of the Broncos training camp. On little notice, Emily packed up and left NYC, drove to Arizona to visit her Mom and made her way to Denver, Colorado.
“The Bill Walsh Fellowship was an amazing experience and I’m extremely grateful. A lot of teams didn’t have openings listed on their websites due to Covid, so I’m really thankful I could be here in person to work with the athletes. I had the opportunity to be out at practice and fully in the trenches. We also had virtual zoom calls with guest speakers for all of the fellows to talk about what coaching was like in the NFL. I was out assisting on the field as well as in the weight room,” Zaler said.
After completing her six weeks of training camp, Coach Landow extended her an offer to stay on with the Broncos as a full-time coach. Zaler said her ultimate goal was definitely to stay on, but she had no idea if that was even an option, so this came as a huge surprise.
“She reached out to me in the middle of Covid and I didn’t know what was going to happen with the season," Landow explained. "I returned her email and hopped on a call to learn more about her work. The rest is history. She applied for the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship and we brought her on board. She jumped in right away, worked really long hours and didn’t flinch once.”
The number one thing he looks for is consistency and says Zaler was hungry to take on more responsibility 100% of the time.
“As the fellowship was ending, everyone had high compliments of her," Landow said. "When you find good people, you don’t want to let them go. She took it upon herself and it was on her own doing."
Landow explained that the persistence that she puts forth is what made the Broncos want to keep her on.
NFL’s Sam Rapoport, Senior Director of Diversity and Inclusion, and Venessa Hutchinson, Senior Manager of Football Development, have been working to provide a more inclusive hiring process in NFL coaching and operations roles.
Landow spoke about the importance of having a full talent pool to choose from.
“I think if you’re not open-minded to everyone that can help your room get better, you’re missing out," Landow said. "I’m looking for the opportunity to bring someone on that is hungry and not biased on traditional paths. We want someone who can handle the amount of work that goes into professional sports, work long hours and be willing to grind. I don’t care who it is, I want the right person. I’m looking for the best people that match the qualities I expect in my room. She met all of those.”
Zaler said she encourages women and girls to be relentless and persistent in the pursuit of their goals and to never give up, regardless of how many people say your dreams are not realistic.
“There’s just a small group of women who are NFL coaches and I’m in that group now. It was a life-long dream and an honor. It really doesn’t feel real yet," Zaler said. "I’m grateful to the Denver Broncos because without their support and belief in me, I would not be able to show other women that this is possible. If they see it, they can be it. There has to be women on the field so that little girls can say, ‘Hey I want to do that when I grow up.'"