Sue Lizotte, an assistant coach for the University of New England football team, started as a football coach with the Sanford-Springvale Youth Athletic Association. She’s holding a football signed by players of one of her youth teams that won a championship. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Sue Lizotte knew from an early age she loved football and wanted to be involved in the sport.

“This has been a life-long passion. I’ve wanted to do this my whole life,” said Lizotte, a 50-year-old mother of two grown children.

There were plenty of naysayers, lots of unpaid volunteer coaching gigs, and hurdle after hurdle. As a girl and then a woman, Lizotte was repeatedly told she did not belong in football. But the Sanford native and resident never gave up on her dream, “because I love the game.”

“I’m stubborn and I’m a competitor and I like to win,” Lizotte added, “and I’ll tell you what: When you tell me ‘No’ and I know I can do something, I’m going to prove you wrong. And you know what? I did.”

That she did. Today she is an assistant coach with the University of New England football program.

Backed with decades of coaching experience in football and other sports, Lizotte got her big break when she was selected to attend the 2018 NFL Women’s Careers in Football Forum. At the conference, Lizotte met professional and college coaches who encouraged her to continue to chase her dreams, to reach out, to attend their practices. That paid off just months later when she was hired as a graduate assistant coach at Bryant University, becoming the first female assistant football coach at the NCAA Division I level.

“She was very ambitious and she came down to Bryant and had a series of conversations,” said James Perry, Bryant’s head coach at the time. “After I got to know her in that informal way, I knew she would be a hell of a ball coach.”

Since 2019, Lizotte has been the running backs coach at UNE, a Division III school in Biddeford, able to pursue her passion close to home.

“I think Sue adds a lot to our staff. I don’t think it’s because she’s female, though,” said UNE head coach Mike Lichten. “She’s added a lot because of her incredible energy, attention to detail and a real willingness to do whatever is needed for this program to be successful.”

Lizotte is not itching to land a job at bigger college football program.

“Unless Bruce Arians reaches out to me and says, ‘Hey Coach, we’ve got a spot for you,’ at this point I don’t want to go anywhere or do anything that eliminates my running backs job,” she said.

That’s right, Lizotte name-dropped the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Super Bowl-winning head coach, who has two female assistant coaches on his staff. She can do that. She has Arians’ cell number. They exchanged good-luck texts on the morning of Super Bowl LV in February.

BUILDING A FOUNDATION

When Lizotte was growing up in Sanford, the notion that an NFL head coach would know her and respect her as a peer would have been laughable.

She says she and her parents asked for permission for Sue to play football in the youth league, and then again at the high school level when she was a sophomore. Both requests were denied. Instead, she was allowed to be the manager.

“I would stand on the sidelines and learn the plays,” Lizotte said.

She played soccer, earning all-state honors as a senior goalie on Sanford High’s 1987 SMAA championship team. At 5-foot-9, she took the center jump as a starting small forward in basketball, and in softball she pitched and played third base and shortstop. She was a captain in all three sports.

But to this day, she says her biggest regret in life is that she didn’t play football in high school.

Lizotte finally got her chance to play organized football when she was 30. She was married to her first husband, Jeff Johnson, teaching full time at Noble High in North Berwick and raising two young children, daughter Kelsey Lizotte-Johnson and son Cruise Lizotte-Johnson. One of her students, who had seen Lizotte throw a football, told her about a women’s semi-professional league that included a team called the Massachusetts Mutiny, which practiced in Rhode Island.

“I made the team as a quarterback. I’m talking, working all day as a teacher, with two kids, and my ex-husband would pick up the kids, then I’d drive three hours for practice,” Lizotte said. “Then the Maine Freeze said, ‘Play for us and we’ll provide day care for your kids.’ ”

Sue Lizotte, shown during a 2002 practice, was a quarterback for the Maine Freeze women’s football team. John Ewing/Staff file photo

As the quarterback, Lizotte helped design the offense, acting as the de facto offensive coordinator for the all-women’s team. She played from 2000-08, until she was 38. Along the way, she had also begun coaching football with the Sanford-Springvale Youth Athletic Association when first her daughter (who played two seasons) and then her son took up the sport.

Lizotte, who had coached Sanford High’s girls’ soccer team in the 1990s, also started the Sanford-Springvale Youth Athletic Association’s boys’ lacrosse club program and served as the high school-age head coach as recently as 2017.

But her priority remained coaching football, as she let Tim Brownell know when the two began dating. Brownell and Lizotte have been married for 14 years.

“When we first met and started dating, date night consisted of, ‘You can come over, but I’ve got film to watch. I’m the offensive coordinator and the quarterback. So he would come over and watch football film with me,” Lizotte said.

In the coaching arena, Lizotte slowly worked her way up the age ranges from the Sanford youth league, to the middle school and freshmen teams, and finally working four seasons as an assistant at the varsity level from 2014-17. The only time she was a paid assistant was when she worked with the middle school program.

“She literally climbed every rung on the ladder,” said Sanford High Coach Mike Fallon.

“And then she took a leap of faith and that’s worked out pretty well, only because Sue has worked so hard.”

MAKING NFL CONNECTIONS

By attending the NFL Women’s Careers in Football Forum, Lizotte expanded her football network. She met Ron Rivera, then the head coach of the Carolina Panthers and now the head coach for Washington. She met several of the women who were among the eight NFL full-season assistants in 2020.

But ultimately, she had to decide how much she wanted to disrupt her own life, which at this point included a well-paying job in education and a happy marriage.

Being a graduate assistant means earning very little money, living on campus, and actually taking graduate level courses that require 30-page papers, while working 12-hour days in the football office.

“The hardest thing I ever did in my life was to be a GA at Bryant,” Lizotte said. “I was 48 at the time and I move into a townhouse with six 20-somethings. … I’ve been married and have a husband and kids and I’m sleeping in a single bed to pursue the love of my life.”

Perry, the former Bryant coach, still marvels at Lizotte’s dedication.

“I knew we would benefit but, man, this is going to be an entry-level position and she just attacked it and it was great,” he said.

Perry, now the head coach at Brown, believes women add an important voice to a coaching staff. In 2020, he promoted Heather Mancini to Brown’s quarterback coach, making Mancini the first female position coach in Division I.

“I know Sue did add to our staff,” Perry said. “In recruitment, it was awesome, extraordinarily well received. Parents love that their kids are going to be exposed to a diverse staff and moms loved it in the recruitment process. That wasn’t fully anticipated by me, but I’ve seen it. It’s a true thing.”

Sue Lizotte has been the running backs coach at the University of New England since 2019. Head coach Mike Lichten calls her “an astute recruiter.” David Bates photo/UNE athletics

Lichten, the UNE head coach, was a bit more hesitant to say that having female coaches improves a staff. Rather, he said he’s simply looking for talented people that will improve the team.

In addition to her on-field coaching and detail-oriented preparation, Lizotte has proven to be “an astute recruiter,” Lichten said. “I take her word seriously about a kid’s character, how they play the game, just what their home life is like and what we can expect from them academically, socially and athletically.”

Prior to Lizotte’s arrival, Andrea Gosper was a student assistant coach at UNE. Gosper joined the Buffalo Bills’ scouting department as a paid intern in 2019.

“I don’t care where you’re from, your gender, your race, your whatever,” Lichten said. “Can you coach or play? Can you care about the team more than self? Because of who Sue is, that she’s a woman or the fact that she’s driving in from Sanford every day, or (her) age, none of that has been a discussion or even thought about because of her commitment and the quality of her work.”

Lizotte, who speaks very highly of Lichten, might disagree with her boss.

“I think women in general bring a different dynamic,” Lizotte said. “A prime example, I had a kid who wasn’t able to play because of an injury and I saw him sitting and sad and I went up to him and said, ‘Hey, you OK?’ and he just started crying. He was like, ‘I need a hug,’ and he cried and cried. He was able to let his emotions go and tell me what he was feeling and why. If it had been another coach, he would have tried to suck it up.”

‘SHE TRIES TO HELP US BE THE BEST’

Jaymeson Maheux, a UNE sophomore running back from Manchester, New Hampshire, said Lizotte works to connect with her players on a personal level.

“What she does well as a coach is she definitely tries to connect and to let us know how she can best understand us. It’s an understanding,” Maheux said. “She tries to help us be the best, checks in with us to see how we’re doing, which I appreciate a lot.”

The NFL’s fifth Women’s Careers in Football Forum was held in February as a virtual event because of the pandemic. So far, the initiative has helped place over 120 women in college and NFL jobs by bringing in those, like Lizotte, who are passionate about football and giving them a chance to network and learn from NFL and college coaches, general managers and owners.

“The idea is not to just get jobs in the NFL, but to provide opportunities and open doors for previously disenfranchised people,” said Sam Rapoport, the senior director of diversity and inclusion for the NFL.

Like Lizotte, Rapoport is a former women’s league quarterback. She knows that Lizotte’s story of being told to stay away from football is still too common. But Rapoport sees it changing, in part because women coaching in the NFL makes it easier to gain acceptance at the grassroots level.

“What we’ve seen now is a lot of high schools and colleges are asking themselves why they have never considered candidates who are women, and I hope that Sue’s story becomes atypical in the future,” Rapoport said.

If Maheux is an accurate reflection of modern players’ perceptions, that change is already happening.

Maheux knew there were women coaches in the NFL, so when he found out his college position coach would be a woman, “I really didn’t look at it as anything different or, ‘Oh, that’s crazy.’ I just thought of it as, we got a new running backs coach. I was just excited to get to work.”


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