Published On: Sun, Jun 19th, 2022

How Oklahoma State student went from HS cheerleader to NFL intern


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STILLWATER, Okla. — Isabel Diaz awoke one Saturday morning last April to her phone ringing.

The 21-year-old Oklahoma State student cleared her head quickly enough to realize the call was coming from the man who had recently hired her for a summer internship.

But the internship wasn’t supposed to begin for another month. What could he possibly want?

Knowledge.

The man calling was Ron Rivera, head coach of the NFL’s Washington Commanders.

It was the final day of the NFL draft, and Rivera needed some intel on a few OSU players, so he reached out to someone he knew had seen them up close.

Diaz, a 21-year-old senior-to-be at Oklahoma State, had just finished her third year with the Cowboy football program, and her first as a student assistant after previously working in the video department. 

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“That was one of the coolest moments,” Diaz said recently, speaking from an office at the Commanders’ training facility. “It just took me a minute, but I went back to as if I was talking to one of our coaches at OSU, just about the players and who they are from my perspective.

“That was my first experience seeing how Coach Rivera values so much hearing different viewpoints. That’s why I’m here, so I can see a different viewpoint.

“I’m honestly honored that he even thought to call me and ask my opinion on it.”

Rivera researched the OSU players through his scouts and front-office team as well, and all of Diaz’s input checked out with the rest of their analysis. Later that day, Washington drafted Cowboy cornerback Christian Holmes, with whom Diaz had worked closely in the defensive backs’ room last season. 

On Thursday, Diaz concluded the first portion of her internship through the Bill Walsh Coaching Diversity Fellowship. One of the youngest coaches in the fellowship, Diaz worked with the Commanders through offseason programs and mini-camps. 

She’ll return in late July to be part of preseason training camp before heading back to Stillwater in August to rejoin the Cowboys for her senior year. 

“The real cool thing about watching Isabel as she works is just how professional she already is,” Rivera said. “She understands the game. She’s got a great grasp of the X’s and O’s. 

“She’s adapted very quickly to the way we do things. It’s been a pleasure watching her. She’s helping us, and at the same time, she’s learning and growing and developing as a coach.”

It seems like a meteoric rise for a woman who in the fall of 2018 was a cheerleader for football games at Hebron High School in Carrollton, Texas. 

And in many ways, it is. 

But that is only a piece of Diaz’s journey in her pursuit of becoming a football coach. 

The beginning

Ray Hopkins did the same thing every Sunday morning during football season. 

With some doughnuts, coffee and a newspaper, he’d read through the stats and standings to prepare for the day’s NFL games. 

Diaz regularly spent weekends with her grandparents while her mother, Tracy Hopkins, worked as a flight attendant. From the age of 6, Diaz was captivated by her grandfather’s weekly ritual, and soon began to join in. 

“I sat down and started getting to know the teams and their mascots,” Diaz said. “The next thing you know, we’d be sitting on the couch watching Fox NFL Sunday with Jimmy Johnson and Michael Strahan and all those guys. And then it got to the point that we were watching games every Sunday. The whole day. 

“I would be begging my grandma to let me stay up later to watch the games with him.”

Then she started asking her mother to let her watch Monday and Thursday night games. 

“The questions she would ask at such a young age were just amazing to me,” Tracy Hopkins said. “And the questions were based on what she read in the newspaper. She had a connection with it at a very young age. I saw it. Her grandfather saw it. And we just fed it.”

Hopkins was nervous about the idea of her daughter playing football, but Diaz’s love for the game was unrelenting.

“I was like, ‘If you’re not gonna let me play, I’ll just coach,’ ” Diaz said. “It was truly just a fan love of football that proceeded to, ‘Why not make this a career?’

“I love it so much. Every time I would learn something new about the game, I wanted to continue to learn more.”

Before she got to high school, Diaz had already decided on coaching as her future path.

“I’m a planner and an organizer,” Diaz said. “I love to plan ahead and get the ball rolling. And I’m driven and I’m determined.

“Eighth grade year came around and I was like, if I’m gonna do something about this, I gotta start now.”

So Diaz reached out to Hebron High School head coach Brian Brazil, letting him know of her desire to one day be a coach. She also got in contact with other Hebron coaches, like Jeff Hill, who is now the head coach at S&S Consolidated in Southmayd, Texas, but at the time was Hebron’s passing game coordinator and video coordinator.

The coaches were drawn to Diaz’s passion for being involved and Hill quickly put her to work on the video staff. 

“We got her set up working on video,” Hill said. “Then she started talking to me a little bit more about her interest in becoming a coach, and she wanted to see if she could sit in on meetings and things like that.

“Her junior year, she was still cheering on Friday nights, but she started coming up on Saturdays. She’d watch video. She’d listen to our terminology. She’d take diligent notes. She was just inundated with it.”

As a senior, Diaz was ready for the next step.

Brazil connected her with the coaches at one of Hebron’s feeder schools, Killian Middle School, and she began working as a volunteer assistant throughout the week, which still left her free to cheer on Friday nights and spend Saturdays with the Hebron staff. 

“She just had such a passion to work on this,” Brazil said. “She went down to Killian and would help the coaches coach, just getting her feet wet. There was a lot more she could do, as far as being involved at that point. She was learning. She was a student of the game.”

For such a young girl to be making claims of her desire to be a football coach, Brazil and Hill had their early moments of skepticism, but Diaz quickly put those to rest.

“Sure, at first you’re like, ‘OK, I got a cheerleader that wants to be a coach, alright,’ ” Brazil said. “But she showed her commitment almost instantaneously. 

“It wasn’t for show. It wasn’t some gimmick. That’s what she wanted to do. She was passionate about learning it. We were all just really impressed with her from the start.”

Becoming a Cowboy

During her junior year of high school, Diaz made a list of about eight potential colleges she might be interested in attending. Her grandfather learned of OSU’s sport and coaching degree program, and mentioned it to Diaz, so she added it to the list.

She shared her list with the Hebron coaches, asking them to alert her when a coach from one of those schools showed up for a recruiting visit. 

OSU assistant Dan Hammerschmidt was the first to arrive. One day in the spring of 2018, Hill found Diaz during lunch to tell her Hammerschmidt would be at the school that afternoon.

As soon as cheer practice ended, Diaz sprinted to the fieldhouse, busted through the door and immediately spotted Hammerschmidt, the Cowboys’ safeties coach.

She didn’t wait to be formally introduced. She walked straight to Hammerschmidt and stuck out her hand.

“Hi, my name is Isabel Diaz. I want to be in your shoes one day,” she told him.

The two stayed in touch throughout her senior year, and eventually, Hammerschmidt helped Diaz set up meetings with all the departments involved with the football program to figure out which would be the best entry point for her at OSU when she arrived in the fall of 2019.

Having video experience from her early days at Hebron, that department became a natural fit.

“With that schedule, I could also sit in on meetings before and after practice,” Diaz said. 

By the spring of 2021, with two years of video, plus countless safeties meetings with Hammerschmidt, Diaz believed she was ready for the next step. 

“The players knew who I was and knew what I wanted to do, and they were behind me,” Diaz said. “I already had one foot in the door, and that spring, I put both feet in the door, and got a spot in the staff meeting.

“I went from being the film girl to being out there throwing the ball to them and doing all these things in practice. The transition was pretty smooth.”

But practice was only a small piece of her new role.

Diaz learned all the computer programs the coaches used for compiling the playbook, for video work and all the behind-the-scenes details that make the team run efficiently.

“That’s your foundation,” Diaz said. “As an assistant, you’re gonna carry that on with you. So I learned all that. Then I got a playbook and started learning the defense. It was a whirlwind, and it still is, but it’s been amazing.”

Practice days are especially busy. Diaz organizes scripts for the coaches, prepares play cards from opponent video for the scout team to mimic, assists Hammerschmidt with the safeties during individual workout periods, then oversees a collection of scout-team receivers in team periods. Those are the big jobs that are intermingled with multiple smaller duties. 

“It’s a mix of different things,” she said. “There’s a lot going on. I seriously didn’t even know what I was getting myself into when I walked into the room thinking I was going to be a student assistant. There’s so many things you just don’t think about, but once you learn it all, it becomes a daily routine, all normal.”

‘Mom, I’m doing it’

Hopkins attends as many OSU games as she can, and she always gets to her seat early.

Sure, the games interest her. But pregame is the optimal mom moment.

That’s the best time to see her daughter in action. Once the game starts, Hopkins can easily lose sight of Diaz in the bustle of the sideline. But before the game, everyone is spread around the field, and Hopkins can watch her daughter work.

“I’m able to see her having conversations,” Hopkins said. “She walks around with this clipboard in her hand. I know she’s looking at it and writing stuff down on it. It’s the best time for me.”

Hopkins is appreciative of all the support Diaz has had throughout her journey, from players to coaches to administrators at Hebron, OSU and now Washington. 

And Hopkins knows her daughter could have faced a tougher road, whether it was because of her age, her gender or any other reason someone might try to hold her down.

“Everyone she’s worked with has supported her 100%,” Hopkins said. “I never really thought about her being accepted or being able to be a part of anything. I knew she was going to do it because her passion and connection to the idea of coaching football and being part of a football program in any way that she could be was there. 

“I supported her with the idea that this was normal. My words to her have always been that you can and will do this. You just have to make the right steps and know what you’re doing. And that’s what she would do.”

With that emotional backing from home, Diaz opened her own door into the football world and has found champions of her dreams all along the way.

That idea materialized during a surreal moment last March when Diaz arrived at the NFL’s Women’s Careers in Football Forum. As part of the event, each attendee had to introduce and talk about themselves in front of NFL coaches and front office personnel. 

The introductions began at 10 a.m., and before Diaz was finished with her presentation, Rivera and multiple other NFL coaches had reached out to the event’s organizer asking for more information on Diaz.

By 10:45 a.m., Diaz was on the phone with her mother, explaining through her tears of joy what was happening.

“Mom, I’m doing it,” Diaz said.

And when she heard her daughter say that, Hopkins realized how close dreams and real life had become for Diaz.

“It’s finally becoming her reality,” Hopkins said. “I’ve always seen it. Those of us who supported her have always seen it. But for her, that one moment when she said, ‘Mom, I’m doing it,’ I was like, ‘Yes, you are.’

“I hung up the phone and it brought tears to my eyes.”

The next day, Diaz interviewed for the internship at Washington, and was hired almost immediately.

For now, Diaz is soaking up everything she can from the NFL coaches she’s surrounded by. And she’s hoping her role at OSU can increase next August.

“I want to take on more tasks. I want to keep growing,” she said. “It’s my senior year. Eventually, I’m gonna graduate and figure out what’s next. So whatever they can do to help me prepare and grow, I’m willing to do it.”



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