1 of 12 full-time female NFL coaches, Jill Costanza is an asset for the Lions and Dan Campbell

Jill Costanza’s interest in studying ACL injuries and passion for learning new ways to improve performance led the former high school basketball coach and physical education teacher on a journey from college sports to the Army to the Air Force to the NFL.

Now, she’s an asset for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.

Costanza is in her fourth season with the Detroit Lions, serving as director of sports science and assistant strength and conditioning coach. She was one of 12 full-time female coaches last year in a league that has seen a 141% increase of women in football roles over the past four years.

“I always had a fascination with the human body and with science and how all the different parts worked together, that holistic view," Costanza told the AP.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in sports marketing from the University of Houston, Costanza began teaching and coaching. When several female athletes on her team suffered anterior cruciate ligament tears, Costanza started researching why it was a pattern.

“The curiosity led me down a rabbit hole of human performance and strength and conditioning. I had no idea that was a profession,” Costanza said.

She volunteered her time to serve as the sports performance coach at Houston, working with the volleyball and football teams. Soon she went back to school and obtained a master’s degree in kinesiology and exercise science from Miami.

Costanza got her first opportunity to be an athletic performance coach at Texas, where she also gained coaching experience in strength and conditioning.

“This is kind of where sports science starts to come into play and my curiosity of utilizing technology and data to assess the effectiveness of our strength and conditioning program, as well as give information to our head coach to make informed decisions regarding setting up practice plans and how to prepare most optimally for games,” Costanza said.

Costanza's path would lead her to the Army’s Wellness Center, where she worked with soldiers and focused even more on utilizing technology. She shifted to the Air Force and its Special Warfare Program.

The NFL wasn’t even on Costanza's radar until she saw the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hire Maral Javadifar as assistant strength and conditioning coach and physical therapist in 2019.

“That’s why representation matters so much, because it never entered my mind until I saw MJ,” Costanza said.

The NFL has made it a priority to increase opportunities for women and minorities through initiatives like the annual Women's Forum held at the scouting combine in Indianapolis. Costanza was among the speakers at the eighth edition of the event in February.

“I didn’t believe it until I could see it,” Costanza said about working in a male-dominated industry. “Your only limitation is your own imagination. And sometimes in order to think it, you have to see it. ... Women are here now and we’re not just happy to be here. Thankful, absolutely, but I’m here to make my presence felt, to make a positive contribution, not just to be here to check a box, but to bring skills, knowledge. Being a woman, my ability to form connections with people, we’re here to make a statement. And so I think the more you see women especially continue to grow in leadership roles, it’s only going to open the doors for more women, and hopefully we’re paving the way, just like MJ paved the way for me.”

Costanza worked closely with Mike Clark at Air Force when he led the unit's strength and conditioning program. Clark previously was head strength and conditioning coordinator for Texas A&M when Lions coach Dan Campbell played at the school. When Detroit hired Campbell, he called Clark to join him as the team's director of sports performance. Clark brought Costanza with him.

Costanza’s work ethic and determination have made her a key part of Detroit’s coaching staff.

“She’s got about a thousand hats,” Campbell said. “Not only does she work in sports science, she’s the one who’s giving us all the data post-practice, what we can handle, what we can’t, where we’re at. But also, she works in the weight room. She’s down there when we’re doing cleans, we’re doing warm up, we’re doing dynamics, we’re doing squats, she’s coaching. Those are just a couple of things that she helps us with. She’s a versatile coach. When you’re able to be a legit strength coach but also work in the sports science department for us, that was one of Mike Clark’s visions, we’re fortunate to have her. Her versatility was going to be big for us. She’s an asset."

Lions players appreciate Costanza’s dedication to her craft.

“She’s very knowledgeable,” Lions defensive tackle Alim McNeill said. “She’s super, duper smart. She knows a lot about the training aspect of things, whether it’s stretching, whether it’s trying to get this hip to move this way. She brings a lot to the table and she has helped us out tremendously.”


AP Sports Writer Larry Lage contributed.


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