Browns' Callie Brownson reinvents herself, crawls out of 'really dark spot' after DUI arrest

Marla Ridenour
Akron Beacon Journal

When Browns chief of staff Callie Brownson was pulled over on May 27, the flashing lights of the Brunswick police car illuminated her fear.

Her first thought was not her likely impending arrest, but her football future.

Brownson, now 32, was starting her second season under Browns coach Kevin Stefanski. A former player for the D.C. Divas of the Women's Football Alliance and USA Football, Brownson began coaching at her Alexandria, Virginia, high school in 2015. She landed a scouting internship with the New York Jets in 2017, worked as offensive quality control coach at Dartmouth College in 2018, and served as a coaching intern for the Buffalo Bills in 2019. In January 2020, Stefanski handed Brownson the same role that launched his career.

Chief of Staff Callie Brownson before a NFL football game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns on October 31, 2021 at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Browns lost 10-15.

Operating a vehicle under the influence would put all that in jeopardy, she thought. Dashcam video showed her telling the officer she was a Browns coach.

“This is detrimental to my career. I'm right at my house. I'd love to just go home, sir. I'm going to lose my job,” she said during the video.

“I was definitely scared in the moment that everything that I had worked for was gone,” Brownson said Wednesday. “But that’s I guess a testament to how much I love this and how much this means to me. It was the thing that I was most scared of losing.

“I made a really, really horrible, dangerous, irresponsible decision that night, and I accept the consequences that come with that. Nobody was more disappointed in my actions that night than myself ... I have such high expectations for myself all the time.”

In a one-on-one phone interview with the Beacon Journal, Brownson opened up about the incident, the “really, really dark spot” she found herself in, and how she “kind of crawled” her way out through intense self-reflection.

Chief of Staff Callie Brownson before a preseason NFL football game between the New York Giants and Cleveland Browns on August 22, 2021 at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Browns won 17-13.

Callie Brownson named head coach of U.S. Women's Tackle National Team by USA Football

Her career received another boost with Thursday morning's announcement that she has been named head coach of the 2022 U.S. Women’s Tackle National Team that will compete in the world championships July 27-Aug. 8 in Vantaa, Finland. With a leave of absence approved by Stefanski, Brownson will direct 45 players and seven assistant coaches as they prepare for three games of pool play, concluding in either the gold or bronze medal game.

“It’s an unbelievable experience. Being on this side of it, now that I’ve segued into the coaching sphere, it’s pretty incredible,” Brownson said.

“It’s definitely fair to say if [being a head coach or coordinator] are my aspirations in the NFL down the road, this is going to be a really good opportunity for me to develop.”

The appointment by USA Football affirmed how far Brownson has come since she decided to drive with a blood alcohol content of .215%, over twice Ohio’s legal limit of .08%, when she was stopped for speeding, according to the police report.

“It was a shock to everybody, kind of including myself, which I know is weird to say since I’m the one who did it,” Brownson said.

Brownson sought counseling after drunken driving suspension

Stefanski said he was “extremely disappointed” on June 9, the day after Brownson’s court case was resolved with her guilty plea and the news came to light. She was suspended by the team, missing the veteran minicamp in mid-June. Although she did not wish to share details of her suspension, she made it clear she sought professional counseling.

“I had support within the organization and, yeah, I took some things into my own hands to work with people who could help me sort through what this rebuilding process was going to take,” she said when asked about counseling. “Whether you’re going through something like what I went through or just dealing with things throughout everyday life, it’s OK to seek help from people.

The sideline jacket and autographed game ball from Callie Brownson, the Browns chief of staff and first woman to serve as a position coach in an NFL game.

“The first thing that came of it, and rightfully so, were people were disappointed in my actions. I knew this was a huge mistake and one that was going to render consequences. That point was made very clear to me. After that they just kind of said, ‘We love you and we believe in you and you have our support in this next piece of it, which is working through it and coming out the other side of it better.’ I was committed to that.”

Brownson said she was extremely hard on herself after the incident, then the story broke, and “it’s like you just get knocked back down again.”

“That kind of set me back in trying to crawl my way out,” she said.

'I’m more motivated now more than ever to be the best version of myself for so many people'

Being considered a trailblazer for women in football added to Brownson’s disappointment in herself.

At Dartmouth, she was the first full-time female coach in Division I. On Sept. 27, 2020, in Cleveland, Brownson, Washington assistant running backs coach Jennifer King and down judge Sarah Thomas made NFL history with women coaches on opposing sidelines with a female official on the field. That Nov. 29 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Brownson became the first female interim position coach when she filled in for tight ends coach Drew Petzing, whose wife gave birth to their first child.

“I’ve always known that we’re kind of under this microscope and there’s such a small margin of error if any at all. Knowing that because I was a female and because of some of the things that I’ve accomplished, this was going to be bigger and have a bigger impact, that hurt me,” Brownson said. “Falling into that same tank of people I disappointed, you have to add the young women who looked up to me or saw some of the great moments that I’ve had and said, ‘I want to do that.’

“I wore that really heavy. This whole women in football and moving the needle ... is one of the most important pieces of what I do. To know at that moment, I let people down in that regard was very hard.  

“Understanding just how much what I do and how I act and who I am and who I continue to grow to be, it has a ripple effect. I’m more motivated now more than ever to be the best version of myself for so many people, but also for this goal that we have to continue to push for women in football.”

Brownson's reinvention aided by support from family, friends

As she began to work on herself, Brownson was aided by a great support system of family and friends. She eventually remembers “kind of seeing the light break through the clouds.”

The culmination of that growth came in late July when she returned for training camp. She said the night before was “a soup of emotions.” Players respectfully did not speak of what happened, some merely gave her a pat on the shoulder or a welcoming glance so as not to draw attention.

“I remember stepping on the field and just taking this deep breath and saying, ‘I love this more than anything. There’s nothing that I’m going to do to lose this,”’ Brownson said. “It’s a different kind of motivation when you feel like you’re going to lose it or you feel like you’ve done something that puts a scar on it.

“I don’t want to say put it in my rearview because I wasn’t trying to throw a rug over it. But I’d done all this work and it was almost like the version of Callie that I’d been in May I didn’t even recognize anymore. Part of me was like, ‘It’s the 2021 season and that’s all I want to focus on. I want to focus on the Callie that I am in this moment.’ I felt like everybody was ready to push forward.”

Cleveland Browns chief of staff Callie Brownson watches from the sideline during NFL football training camp, Saturday, July 31, 2021, in Berea, Ohio.

'I’m a person and I made a mistake, a big, big, big mistake'

Brownson knows she may draw on her experience in May during her coaching career.

“I’ve been all these things in my life. A football player, you say breaking barriers, a trailblazer, all these things. But at the core of it, I’m a human. I’m a person and I made a mistake, a big, big, big mistake,” she said.

“With any player ... it’s all about connection and trust. And trust comes from relatability. These players want organic connections and relationships and they want to feel like the person that they’re working with is human, too.”

On her birthday post on Instagram, Brownson said she had "fought through the hardest time of my life." As she moves forward determined not to disappoint the people who remained steadfast in their love and support, Brownson feels fortunate the Browns stuck by her.

“It’s hard to express how grateful I am, but my goal is to prove to them that I was worth it,” Brownson said. “I was worth the opportunity. That’s really my motivation.”