'Believe in yourself': Inside Kelly Kleine's historic rise to lead Denver's football ops

by Ricardo Gutierrez - From a college internship with the Vikings to becoming the NFL's highest-ranking female scouting executive ever in Denver, Kleine is helping to inspire future generations.

Inside Kelly Kleine's historic rise to lead Denver's football ops play Broncos' Kelly Kleine happy to see growth of women in NFL front offices (2:48) Kelly Kleine, Broncos executive director of football operations and special adviser advisor to the GM, discusses the growth she has seen for women in NFL front-office roles. (2:48) 7:00 AM ET Courtney CroninESPN Staff Writer Close Covered the 49ers, Raiders and Warriors for the San Jose Mercury News. She joined ESPN in 2017. KELLY KLEINE HAS half an hour to catch her breath and sip a latte before practice begins at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama. It's early February, and she's in her uniform of athleisure, a white baseball cap and red manicured nails. Her upbeat demeanor masks any hint of exhaustion after spending the previous three weeks crisscrossing the United States in search of the Denver Broncos ' next head coach. As Denver's executive director of football operations and special adviser to general manager George Paton, Kleine was part of a six-person team that interviewed 10 candidates in 19 cities before ultimately landing on Nathaniel Hackett. Kleine used her decadelong experience in the Vikings' personnel department to vet the candidates. A former Minnesota scout said Kleine was the best interviewer in the building. She also researched every candidate's background, set up interviews, organized itineraries, took notes that would be part of the debriefing on the way home and kept everyone on schedule. "I thought she had a presence about her; she asked great questions,'' Hackett said. "That was so powerful.'' It's not a role Kleine imagined for herself when she first applied for a public relations internship with the Vikings in 2012, which set her on a path to becoming "the glue" that Paton says has held the front offices together in Minnesota and now in Denver. She's taken part in a massive overhaul of a Broncos franchise that has missed the playoffs the past six years. New coach. New quarterback after a trade for Russell Wilson . New ownership group led by Walmart heir Rob Walton. New team president in Damani Leech. All in that order. "We just flipped an entire franchise upside down," Kleine said. There's also the changes she experienced personally and professionally within the past 18 months and the responsibilities she feels as one of the highest-ranking female scouting executives in NFL history at 31 years old. It's been a journey that's included overcoming self-doubt, a lack of female representation and seizing opportunities through a skill set and work ethic that have earned her the respect and trust of her peers. Where her path ultimately leads is uncertain, but her trajectory is arching toward even greater significance. "I look back 10 years ago, and did I ever think I'd be here?" Kleine asks. "No way in hell." Kelly Kleine has become one of the highest-ranking female execs in charge of football ops in NFL history with the Broncos after working her way up from an intern with the Vikings. Amanda Lopez for ESPN KLEINE'S DREAM WHEN she entered the University of Minnesota was to be a sideline reporter, so the Sheboygan, Wisconsin, native pursued degrees in sports management and communications, and she worked in public relations for the university's athletic department and for a firm. There was a class assignment to interview someone in the sports industry, and a classmate who had interned with the Vikings set Kleine up with Jeff Anderson, who was the Vikings' director of corporate communications. During the interview, Anderson told Kleine about the Vikings' game day internship, and after the Vikings reached out to her a few months later, she accepted the position. Kleine stayed on during the 2012 season and helped twice a week in the office -- doing everything from updating copy for the weekly game book to assisting with media needs. Two months ahead of the 2013 draft, while she was finishing up her senior year, one of the Vikings' scouting interns quit. Kleine was the Vikings' first choice to fill the opening. "I got very lucky with how I got my job, but I earned it too," Kleine said. "I keep stumbling into things, and I'm at the right place at the right time sometimes, but I've also put in my work." In those days, universities mailed NFL teams thick stacks of information from pro days that had to be entered manually into the system: player name, agent, cellphone, email, date of birth, height, weight and other measurements. Rinse and repeat. She did hundreds of these, and her diligence caught the eye of former Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, who offered her a yearlong scouting internship. It started with administrative work and learning how the department operated. It expanded to Kleine helping college scouts organize their schedules each fall, knowing when they could and couldn't visit specific schools. Then came the evaluation. "Watching the film is still hard for me," she said. "I'm not going to lie. It's not natural for me." Editor's Picks 2 Related But Spielman saw something unique about Kleine and her ability to handle whatever he threw at her. It led to promotions as the college scouting coordinator and eventually a hybrid role as the manager of player personnel, while simultaneously being a college scout with five states in her territory. For years, Kleine sat in on personnel meetings where she observed, but was cautious in giving her opinion. It wasn't until she spent more time on the road and was given more scouting responsibilities that she had the confidence to speak up in meetings with conviction about her evaluations. There was only one other woman in the department in her early years. Anne Doepner, who was Minnesota's director of football administration from 2006 to '19, was the mentor and support system Kleine needed. When Doepner went on maternity leave in June 2013, Kleine handled the preparation and filing of contracts, CBA compliance, fines and other high-level administrative tasks she learned on the fly. Doepner doesn't remember fielding a phone call or email from Kleine the entire time she was gone. Even as a newcomer to the department, Kleine showed a thoroughness in her work that was noticed immediately. "She's always been good about being really careful about the details, asking the right questions, making sure the job gets done right," Doepner said. "She has built trust faster than most people I've seen." Doepner was an ear for Kleine when she was learning to find her voice and confidence. "She and I kind of had to represent and shoulder a lot ourselves so that we could help the collective environment get better for what we're seeing now, which is more women in football ops roles," Doepner said. "I feel like we had to help people get used to us by being there, and sometimes that meant we had to push through some stuff. "If you don't have support in that, it makes it that much harder. Everything is easier when you're not the only one." Evaluating was only part of Kleine's job. She balanced the schools and players she was responsible for while managing the schedules and workloads for all of the Vikings' college scouts. And perhaps her biggest impact was felt when the Vikings evaluated draft prospects in an in-person meeting environment. "The same players I'll try to interview won't give me anything, but they'll give it to Kelly because they trust her and she can connect," Paton said. "She can connect to everyone." Barb Kleine emotionally recalled how her late husband, Artie, knew Kelly would make it someday. Courtesy Kelly Kleine TWELVE-PLUS HOUR workdays in Minnesota were routine. She made sure her reports were written perfectly and that all the loose ends were tied up, whether it was corralling reports from college scouts or arranging for a plane to pick up a newly acquired player because he would not travel unless his dog was on board. Her work ethic was inherited from her father, Artie, a businessperson who came from humble beginnings and displayed a rigid attention to detail. Artie spent 26 years in various roles at Kohler Company and was the director of the international supply chain for Johnsonville. Artie and Barb Kleine were together for 42 years, high school sweethearts with opposite personalities. Barb has an infectious laugh, the life of the party who loves wine and chasing after her seven grandchildren. Artie had the "don't-cut-corners" attitude he instilled in Kelly. "Artie always said," Barb recalls, fighting back tears, "this one's going to make it someday." Kelly stood in the receiving line at her father's funeral on Oct. 5, 2017, after Artie died of a stroke at 58 years old. Someone approached Kelly and told her there was a bus in the parking lot. When she walked outside, she fell to her knees sobbing. One by one, members of the Vikings' front office and personnel staff, the people Kleine still refers to as her extended uncles and brothers, walked off the bus to support her and her family. Follow the NFL all season long Everything you need this week: • Full schedule » | Standings » • Depth charts for every team » • Transactions » | Injuries » • Football Power Index rankings » More NFL coverage » There was a GoFundMe set up so Barb could visit her daughter regularly in Minneapolis. Former Vikings coach Mike Zimmer invited Kleine's entire family, including Kelly's older siblings, Eric and Amie, to a game. It's memories like these that bring Kleine to tears five years later. It's also what made it difficult to say goodbye after working for the same franchise for a decade, a rarity in today's NFL. But Kleine was faced with a decision. Spielman was ready to make her a full-time area scout after the 2021 draft. She would have been the first woman to serve in that capacity for the Vikings. It was everything she had worked for, but she was grappling with being on the road 200-plus days a year. She was engaged at the time, and got married last summer, and she wants to start a family. "I love scouting, but I love the other side of it, too, and working with people in the building," Kleine said. "My strength as a person is working with people and communicating. My strength is not sitting at my desk watching film. I finally came to the point that I'm OK that that's not me. I'm going to use my strengths and grow in other areas." Kleine was at peace with her decision to leave. There were bigger challenges awaiting her with the Broncos. The Broncos hired George Paton, right, in January 2021, and one of his first moves was to bring Kleine over from Minnesota. He said she's played a big role in the most important moves the Broncos have made. Gabriel Christus THE BRONCOS HIRED Paton as general manager in January 2021, and he knew Kleine would be one of the first people he hired. He saw her master the balancing act of scouting and being the in-house point of contact for all the college scouts. She could handle any task, big or small. Paton hired Kleine in April 2021. In her role as executive director of football operations, Kleine oversees the video and equipment departments. She contributes during meetings regarding the salary cap and analytics. And she's helped implement a new grading scale in scouting. Her relationship with Paton has been a key to her growth. "He's so good at interacting with people, and that's a huge part of it," Kleine said. "It's been cool to learn from him. I'm honored he wanted me to come work with him, and that he trusts me to be his right hand." Kleine sat down with members of the video department and asked what changes they wanted to see as the team was about to overhaul the system it used to catalog practice film and game film. What worked? What didn't? What best fits their style of doing things? She meets regularly with the scouting interns and has helped young employees seek opportunities. Within the past year, the Broncos hired a female intern in scouting and football operations, and their full-time trainer and training intern are both women. She aims to empower people "in the trenches" -- people just like she was not long ago. She has made an impact on decisions big and small. From working with the equipment staff to make sure Denver's female staffers had clothing tailored for them, simple things like shorts made for women to wear to practice because "I'm not a dude," Kleine said, to being involved in trade discussions. She was among a few with knowledge of the Wilson trade talks from the beginning. "In the most important things we have done, she's had a big role," Paton said. Kleine is part of a 'women in football ops' group chat that serves as a support network for hundreds of members. Anthony Souffle/Star Tribune/AP Photo THE WEIGHT OF it all can be imposing, but the support network Kleine relies on is only a text away. The "women in football ops" group chat started by Browns co-assistant general manager Catherine Raiche and Eagles pro scout Ameena Soliman has hundreds of members and helps Kleine and others on this path. When Raiche became the first woman known to have interviewed for an NFL general manager job -- with the Vikings on Jan. 17 -- the group chat was on fire: "Holy s---. This is happening." Said Kleine: "You look at some of these new GMs getting hired, you don't have to be a 20-year scout anymore. It's different. Teams are looking for different things." Being a GM wasn't Kleine's endgame originally, but her time with the Broncos -- after 10 years in various roles with the Vikings -- has changed that perspective. "It's taught me that someday I could [become a general manager]," Kleine said. "Do I need to get stronger in some areas? A hundred percent. I know that I still have a way to go, but I absolutely do think it could [happen] someday." Kleine has leaned on Paton for guidance, but she gradually started to go with her gut, shelving the self-doubt. She was in this position for a reason, and she was going to act like it. "The same players I'll try to interview won't give me anything, but they'll give it to Kelly because they trust her and she can connect. She can connect to everyone." George Paton, Broncos GM "I struggled with confidence for a while," Kleine said. "I think it's because I didn't see any other women doing it. "So, it was like, can I do it? Can I not do it? But now these young women can see a lot of us doing it. You have to be confident and strong. Believe in yourself." Kleine was inspired in August when Denver announced its new ownership group, which includes three women: Carrie Walton Penner, a majority owner, and minority owners Mellody Hobson and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. Kleine said she almost started crying hearing Hobson's story of growing up in poverty while facing evictions and utility shut-offs to become the first Black chairwoman of Starbucks and president of Ariel Investments, the largest minority-owned investment firm in the United States. Hobson began her career as an intern at Ariel. "It gives me the chills talking about it, because of how powerful these three women are," Kleine said. "It was the most surreal day of my life." Kleine mentors women interested in working in football. There weren't many in football ops to serve as an example when she got started, but women such as Kleine, Catherine Raiche and Ameena Soliman are changing that. Amanda Lopez for ESPN BEFORE HEADING OVER to the Senior Bowl practice on this early February day, Kleine notices something that fills her with pride. There was a time she could count on one hand how many women she'd see at offseason events, such as the scouting combine, all-star games and pro days. It was a small, close-knit group. But the biggest sign of progress is the number of women she doesn't recognize in Mobile. As of 2019, every NFL team had at least one woman working on its football side. The number has grown substantially, thanks to the NFL Women's Forum, which is an annual event connecting female participants with leaders in professional football. Twenty-six clubs have hired directly from the Forum, and there are 15 female coaches on 10 clubs, including six full-time female coaches. Kleine said she would be honored to become the NFL's first female GM, but mostly, she wants to get past the need to identify a hire based on gender significance. "It needs to happen, because I'm so sick of 'you're the first this, you're the first that,'" Kleine said. "I can't wait until we're at the point where we stop that and just respect why someone got their job." Kleine is doing more than trying to lead by example. Every Tuesday, she speaks to women in a variety of roles, including interns, students, women working for college programs, who are interested in pursuing a job -- or an advancement -- in football. "I talked to a girl the other day who's at LSU; she's doing [advance scouting]," Kleine said. "She was at Notre Dame, and Coach [Brian] Kelly brought her to LSU, and she's killing it down there. I'm like, 'You can get a job in the league whenever you're ready, whenever you want.' "So it's just amazing to see. It's trickled down to college now, and the difference in 10 years has been unbelievable, and it's been awesome." And the message she has to those women looking to follow in her footsteps is simple. "I tell this all the time to people: When you get in there, be f---ing confident in yourself," Kleine said. "You got the job for a reason." ESPN Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold contributed to this story.