WOMEN IN SPORTS DAY: VILKOFSKY'S STORY
On the first day of sixth grade, Jessie Vilkofsky's teacher asked her students to write down what they wanted to be when they grew up.
"I wrote, 'professional soccer player,'" Vilkofsky said.
The teacher started going around the classroom, having her students talk about their dreams.
Some of Vilkofsky's classmates wanted to be doctors, others, lawyers.
While this was going on, Vilkofsky had a change of mind.
"I erased it because I was afraid and I was ashamed what I had was so far-fetched," she said.
As it turned out, it wasn't so far-fetched.
Vilkofsky did play pro soccer and much more.
After playing the sport four years in college, Vilkofsky experienced a year of professional soccer in Poland. Her journey also included two assistant college coaching jobs. Today, she is making history as the first general manager in the Major Arena Soccer League with the Dallas Sidekicks.
As we celebrate National Girls and Women in Sports Day today, Wednesday, Feb. 1, Vilkofsky’s story should be a lesson for everyone - never give up on your dream.
"It wasn't until I graduated in 2017 with my master's degree, and I thought to myself, 'What an accomplishment. This is something that never happened in my family,' " she said. "I was the first person to get a master's degree and I was like, 'You know what?' I'm going bring that dream that I want to add back to life.' "
Vilkofsky's love affair with the beautiful game began around the age of five with a local rec team in Pittsburgh, Penn. as soccer grew to become the cornerstone of her life.
"I always tell people it provided me with everything in my life," she said. "It has guided me through everything. There's no place that I feel more free and just alive and who I am than on a soccer field. That was always my escape. That was always my comfort. That was always my challenge, my growth, my potential. I found all of my life on a soccer field."
That included playing at the high school and youth levels before competing for Wheeling Jesuit University from 2010-14. She also was a member of Steel City FC, a Pittsburgh-based semi-pro team in the Women’s Premier Soccer League before becoming an assistant coach for West Virginia Wesleyan.
Which brings us to her big decision when Vilkofsky earned a master's degree in curriculum and instruction in the education department as a graduate assistant coach at New Mexico State. She took that sixth-grader's dream and ran with it.
"I wouldn't be a general manager at a professional organization if I didn't go take the chance in the pursuit of something that seemed completely far-fetched,” she said. “That's a big piece of what I instill in my work today and everybody I'm with. Find that one thing that you can run to, you can be free and alive with was for me was always soccer. Let that guide you in everything you do in one way, shape or form, to find out what it is you can do in your life outside of just the typical, what people think they need to do vs. what they truly want to do."
One team, Kobiecy Klub Pilkarski in Bydgoszcz, Poland, offered her a tryout. Vilkofsky purchased a plane ticket and flew over.
"I was 100 percent confident. There was nothing stopping me," she said. "I look back on it now and when I get frustrated or I have fear with my job now and I did something like that, it's just a moment in time and you can you can take anything on and do anything if you put that effort in and you believe in yourself enough to do so. I'm a very big advocate to chase potential."
Needless to say, it was one hell of an experience and then some, something that many American soccer players haven't lived.
"It was completely eye opening," Vilkofsky said. "Go into a country that in my mind is five to 10 years behind what the pace that we live out here and the technology that we utilize here. But the culture itself, the language barrier, that was that was a huge, huge obstacle to overcome. The Polish language is one of the hardest languages to learn in the world. It's funny now because I can actually translate in Polish before I do Spanish and I took years of Spanish in school. But just being integrated in the culture, the family-like environment, their culture is all about family. Just being there's just a different lifestyle."
Bydgoszcz is a small city in northern Poland, about three hours from Warsaw, the country's capital.
"I was the first American to ever be in Bydgoszcz, so they it was a huge thing that I was playing soccer there and just to have an American in the city [was] a culture shock for them as well to hear me speaking English. It was funny to hear my teammates because some of them spoke English. Some of them didn't. They were forced to learn English in school, but they were all afraid to speak to me. They didn't want to sound like they couldn't speak."
Vilkofsky, 30, learned Polish while she taught her teammates English.
"The experience, the culture, the food, the people, I was very, very lucky to land where I did on the team," she said. "That team needed me they needed somebody like me to be in there. We won our Liga, the year that I went there. The team got promoted to go to the top league in Poland. I played in Liga One."
Team officials asked Vilkofsky to sign a contract for the next season in 2019-20, but she turned them down.
"I felt it was a perfect one-year stint that I got to make a great impact on that community in that culture and help the team get to a new level," she said.
She returned to the states and became an assistant women's soccer coach and adjunct professor at Rogers State University in Oklahoma before an opportunity to join the Sidekicks surfaced when she was on a recruiting trip in 2021.
"I love soccer, but I knew coaching in college wasn't what I wanted to do for the long run," she said. "I love business. My dad's an entrepreneur and so I always wanted to be a part of a business, soccer, sports. One conversation led to another, and I landed an interview with the president, who's my boss."
Her boss is Sidekicks president Jesse Llamas, who hired her in June 2021.
"He has been a very integral part in my growth as a professional and a person," she said. "I would not be able to do this job without him for sure. He's taught me everything."
Vilkofsky's rise in the Sidekicks organization has been meteoric. She started as director of operations, was named director of sales marketing and assumed the GM role in May 2022.
"Everybody learned that I can talk to people and I'm very good at marketing and sales," she said. "I'm passionate about everything I do in the game. When I grew into the director of sales and marketing role, I knew that there was going to be potential for more. ... The GM role was an option. Did I know it was going to be achieved as quickly as it was? No."
Vilkofsky's responsibilities include overseeing the front office operations from the sales and marketing end (daily sales, community events, educational and coaching seminars), managing player contracts, player negotiations and making sure players receive the proper and timely medical care, if needed.
"I make sure everything is running smoothly," she said.
Vilkofsky has understood the significance of becoming the female general manager in MASL history, but stressed the journey, not necessarily the destination.
"When I first got the role, I knew we were going to do PR on it," Vilkofsky said. "I was so proud ... to be able to say, I'm a woman and I'm a general manager in a man's league. I get to stand up and advocate.
"I do feel like I got to make a small footprint and be a pioneer, if you will. But there's so much more that goes into these big picture moments. Everybody likes to acknowledge I won the race, or I got first place, or I won a million dollars, or I got the job promotion, but people never see the journey and the little day to day obstacles."
There are various challenges inside and outside of the Sidekicks office.
"It's a different world when you come walking into a room full of all the GMs and [co-owner and CEO] Shelly Clark from the St. Louis Ambush and then all the guys,” Vilkofsky said. “You have to have a different mentality when you're going into those situations. I'm 30 years old. I'm working with guys that have been in this league for years and I knew and so there's a lot of different options that come into play that you have to balance or weigh.
"It's great I'm considered the first female. I did fight for that. I wanted to have that title but that shouldn't be the end all proving of me being here and being a woman in this league."
A typical day for Vilkofsky starts when he arises at 5:30-6 a.m. She will go to the gym for some light lifting and a cardio workout for about 30-45 minutes, take her dog - a stray border collie she adopted in December - for a walk while doing some meditation "and kind of get my mind set for the day," she said.
She then drives to the Sidekicks offices, listening to music and calling her mother.
"I'm a firm believer that being disciplined and having a routine to keep everything aligned because if I can't be my best self, how can I expect my team and my front office team to be their best?" she said. "I have to come in and set that expectation and hopefully inspire them to do the same."
There is much to be done with the Sidekicks (0-10-2, 2 points), who are winless and in last place in the Western Division.
"We have our small goals that we want to win outside of just winning a game, but can we get statistics to be better?" she said. "Can we get [goalkeeper Juan] Gamboa to have higher percentage save rates, which he's crushing it this year. We look at things like that. We can try to benchmark our team for growth in those regards. When it comes to you know the goals overall, we want to take it game by game and pull out some wins right now. Obviously, we haven't pulled out a win yet this season. The big thing is we just need to get that first win under our belt."
Vilkofsky should know something about that. She has several big wins under her belt and hopes to add a few more on and off the field.
Michael Lewis, the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com, can be followed on Twitter at @SoccerWriter. Lewis can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org His book Alive and Kicking: The incredible, but true story of the Rochester Lancers, recently was published. It can be purchased at https://tinyurl.com/2p8rzhpy.lk