By Jeff Shearer
Michelle McKenna-Doyle never doubted for a minute that she could excel in the National Football League. When it comes to football knowledge, she aced that test long ago.
"I love football," says McKenna-Doyle, the NFL's Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer. "As an Auburn Tigerette, we had to take a test on how much you knew about football, and I got a 100 on it."
While earning her accounting degree at Auburn, McKenna-Doyle worked in the athletic department, learning from and building relationships with on-campus recruiting coordinator Sue Locklar, head coach Pat Dye and assistant coach Bud Casey.
"I really felt like an extension of the coaching staff," McKenna-Doyle says. "I was consulted about student-athletes. Not just, `How are they thinking?' But, `How are they playing? What are they talking about?' That was my favorite. My favorite memory is when I was sitting with coach Casey actually watching Bo Jackson play baseball just chatting about football strategy. It was a very special time in my life."
After leaving Auburn, McKenna-Doyle transitioned from accounting to information technology, holding senior management positions at Universal Studios and Walt Disney Parks and Resorts until becoming at the time the highest-ranking female executive in the NFL's league office. Since her hiring in 2012, McKenna-Doyle has been pleased to welcome several more senior female executives.
"It's a dream since I was at Auburn, that one day, although I never even really imagined the NFL, I just wanted to earn a living some way in football. I always had a love for sports, so what I love most is that I am impacting the game at the highest level, introducing technology, making the game safer through rules changes, getting to know our players and really knowing them as people, not as football players. That's the best part my job," she says.
In her role as CIO, McKenna-Doyle is very involved in the big business of the NFL. During Super Bowl week, she spent a lot of time with media and meeting with technology sponsors like SAP, Microsoft, Extreme Networks and Lenovo.
On Super Bowl Sunday, McKenna-Doyle oversaw a large team tasked with running every football operations system: instant replay, stats, coaches' communication, tablets on sidelines, clocks and scoreboards.
Seated on the front row of the NFL's control center alongside her colleagues from football operations, public relations, security and events, McKenna-Doyle monitored the action like a coordinator in the press box.
McKenna-Doyle is well aware that her high-profile position gives her a platform to inspire others.
"Just dream whatever you want to dream and don't limit yourself, especially young girls who play sports. Don't think of yourself as a female athlete, think of yourself as an athlete," McKenna-Doyle says.
"You don't have to be the best athlete, but if you play a sport or if you participate in some way in sports, you learn so much about teamwork and leadership and how to lose and how to win gracefully," she says. "Dream whatever you want to dream and just keep plodding along at it. I didn't make it to the NFL until 2012 - here I am at the 50th Super Bowl - I turn 50 this year. It took a while to get here, but it's never too late."
While in California for the Super Bowl, McKenna-Doyle spoke at the NFL Women's Summit, along with tennis legends Serena Williams and Billie Jean King.
"We talked about important stuff. Embracing being a girl. Don't try to be like a boy. Be who you are and flow with that, and that's a great advantage. That's what I try to teach my daughter, and that's how I live my life with the NFL," McKenna-Doyle says.
Opportunities for women in the NFL are expanding, from officiating to coaching. Still, in McKenna-Doyle's role leading engineers, isolation can be a challenge.
"Sometimes, you feel like you're the only one. But, that was another thing that I think Auburn gave me. I just felt like one of the guys. I never felt different or acted differently."
After all, once you've tutored Bo Jackson and Charles Barkley, as McKenna-Doyle did at Auburn, you can hold your own in any setting.
"What I learned at Auburn was everybody matters. You don't have to be the prettiest girl, the best athlete, the one with the most money," she says. "It's just like we all came together and shared a love for Auburn, so in a time when we need to do a lot more coming together, I felt like Auburn was a family of all students, and I think that is still there today."
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer