Thursday, July 15, 2021

Kathleen Rubadue: First Woman to Work for the NFL

By Chris Willis, NFL Films
Kathleen Rubadue, on the phone at her desk at the NFL office
in Columbus, Ohio, 1936. (Courtesy: Robert Knapp)

Today PFJ looks back at one of the early pioneers in NFL history who would be celebrating her 111th birthday today. Someone who has been overlooked for far too long. Her name is Kathleen Rubadue and she was the first woman to work for the NFL.

Early Life

Kathleen Cecilia Rubadue was born on July 15, 1910, in the Irish neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio to Ernest and Mary Rubadue. Ernest was a pharmacist who owned his own drug store on E. Livingston Avenue and Mary was a stay-at-home mom. The couple had four children, two daughters (Regina and Kathleen) and two sons (Clare and Ernest, Jr). The family lived at 672 S. 22nd Street which was just a couple of blocks from the Sullivan home at 39 N. 22nd Street where NFL President Joe F. Carr and his family lived from 1923-1926.

Young Kathleen grew up going to school and church, but unlike most of her female friends she had a love affair with sports. “She could talk to anybody. She’s was a very out-going person. She also had a good sense of humor, sort of a dry humor. She could take a joke and she liked any kind of sports,” said Robert Knapp, son of Kathleen Rubadue. “She was an extremely sports minded individual for a lady in those days.”

Knapp continues, “She taught me how to bowl. Taught me how to play baseball. Taught me how to play football. She knew all the rules and the positions and all that kind of stuff. If I had a question, I’d go ask her,” said Knapp. Kathleen grew to be a very tall- five-feet-ten- brunette with large green eyes. While attending St. Joseph’s Academy, the all-girls school in Columbus, she starred on her high school basketball team. Playing forward she enjoyed competing against the other girls, showing a knack of scoring points in the paint. Her love of sports was pretty obvious to anybody who knew her.

Kathleen Rubadue, St. Joseph's Academy, 1926

St. Joseph's Academy, basketball team, 1926

Kathleen Rubadue, St. Joseph's Academy, 1928

In 1929 shortly after graduating from St. Joseph’s Academy she was hired as a stenographer, first working for an insurance company. That same year Joe F. Carr, the President of the NFL since 1921, was given permission to hire a secretary. He knew who he wanted to hire. Kathleen Rubadue would soon make NFL history.  

First Woman to Work for the NFL 

NFL President Joe F. Carr knew the Rubadue family from the Irish neighborhood where he lived too and was well aware of Kathleen’s love for sports. He knew of her exploits as a basketball player at St. Joseph’s and her understanding of the different aspects of the game made her hire a no-brainer. “She thought he was great guy to work for. It took both of them to run the league. Two people, Carr and my mother. They worked together. I think she probably was a little more than a secretary,” said Robert Knapp. “Back in those days she would work nine-to-five but during the fall on Sundays she would go into the office.”

In the only interview Kathleen Rubadue would give about her time as NFL secretary she told Dick Fenlon of the Columbus Dispatch in January 1982 about working on Sundays.


The one big thing that really stuck with me is that when I went to work for him, none of the wire services or news agencies would even carry the scores of the game. Mr. Carr finally got them to agree to carry the scores and standings. The referees would wire in the scores on Sunday afternoon and I’d figure out the standings and take them over to the Associated Press and the rest. That was the only way they had a chance of getting into the newspapers. I think he expected the league to grow, but I don’t think there is any way he could have foreseen what it has become now. But he worked hard to make it better every year. Football was his whole life.

Even fifty years later she still referred to her boss as Mr. Carr. Working on Sundays was no problem for the 19-year old sports lover. “Being single and liking what she did, I wouldn’t think that would be a problem for her,” said Robert Knapp. Her routine of receiving the scores from the referees in the NFL office, calculating the standings, then walking down to the Ohio State Journal newspaper offices to get the information to the Associated Press to wire across the country was a job she would do for over a decade.

Her role, like her son mentioned, was more than just a secretary. She knew everything the NFL office was supposed to be doing- whether it was working on the League’s schedule, assigning officials to work the games, calling in the scores on Sundays, making sure contracts were fulfilled and players were paid, Rubadue was the person in charge when President Carr wasn’t available. She loved working for the NFL that she didn’t think about working anyplace else.

Kathleen Rubadue
(Courtesy: Robert Knapp)

NFL Office Building, Columbus, Ohio, 11th Floor

Joe F. Carr, NFL President (1921-1939), at desk NFL Office, Columbus, Ohio
(Courtesy: Carr Family, Color by PFJ)

When Rubadue was hired the NFL’s office was on the 11th floor at 16 East Broad Street in downtown Columbus- right across the street from the state’s Capitol Building. In 1927 Carr had officially set up a League office in his hometown. He was the only NFL employee working in the office until 1929. That year the league had only two people working in it. Kathleen took over the front office in room 1115 and Carr’s office located in room 1116. Her out-going personality made everyone who visited the office feel special. Joe Carr’s niece, Martha Sullivan, recalls the scene:


It was just about as ordinary office as can imagine. It wasn’t luxury, it was not that deep just terribly ordinary. The secretary had a separate area. I use to go with my mother and she would go to see uncle Joe and he had a secretary and she entertained me while they had their meeting. She was nice to me. She talked to me or give me a picture book to look at.


Whether it was a family member like Martha Sullivan or a team owner like George Halas the personable Rubadue could handle them all. No guest or chore was too big for the hard-working Rubaduee. When Carr traveled she ran the office herself. “She knew everything that he was doing, when he wasn’t here, she handled it. When he was out, she took over and you had deal with her! Somebody told her one time that Joe Carr was basically the NFL and she was the other half of it. They had two officials, not hundreds like we got now,” said Robert Knapp.

1930 Columbus, Ohio City Directory listing

1939 Columbus, Ohio City Directory listing

1935 NFL Bulletin newsletter, typed by Kathleen Rubadue

1937 Letter from Joe F. Carr to Bert Bell, Eagles owner, typed by Kathleen Rubadue

Ms. Rubadue was the NFL’s first woman employee and the only secretary Joe F. Carr would ever have. The NFL would operate as a two-headed machine until Carr suddenly passed away of a heart attack in May of 1939 at the age of fifty-nine. “She was definitely sad about the whole thing,” said Robert Knapp. “Later on she never really said a whole lot about that.” After working for a decade for President Carr, Rubadue was heartbroken when he passed away. He was more than a boss to her, he was a friend, to not only her but her family. The NFL had to continue on, so did Rubadue. In the 1939 NFL League Minutes the owners decided to continue to pay Kathleen’s salary- which was $1,200 for the year- for 1939.  

1938 Letter from Joe F. Carr to Columbus Employment Office
(Courtesy: Joe F. Carr Family)

Long-time NFL Vice-President Carl Storck replaced Carr as NFL President in 1939. He kept Rubadue on as secretary and an NFL employee. She still loved what she was doing and she loved the NFL, so she made the decision to relocate to Dayton, Ohio where Storck had his office (Besides being the NFL President, Storck was the long-time manager of the Dayton Triangles and also worked for General Motors). Kathleen lived at The Loretto, a hotel in Dayton for businesswomen, which was operated by the Sisters of St. Dominic. While it was called a hotel The Loretto rooms (225 total rooms) were more like apartments, very luxurious for single working women of that era. Kathleen rented a room (Apt. number 433) there while continuing her work for the NFL. The 1940 U.S. Census listed her salary at $1,375 (roughly about $26,000 in 2021) and her occupation as “secretary- professional football.”

Although she enjoyed her work with the NFL the owners were in the middle of looking for a new leader. In April of 1941 they selected Elmer Layden, one of the original Four Horsemen of Notre Dame, to be the league’s first Commissioner. With that hire Carl Storck resigned as President. Layden moved the League’s office to Chicago.

While the owners were selecting a Commissioner Rubadue decided to leave the NFL.  

After the NFL

On July 5, 1941 Kathleen married Norman Knapp- whom she met earlier at her father’s drugstore in Columbus. Norman worked as an interior painter in town (Hanna Paint Mgf. Co.) and the couple would have two children, Robert and Judy. The family would live at the Rubadue home on S. 22nd Street. Tragedy struck Judy when she died right before her second birthday. Although her family was now her top priority the NFL was never far from her heart.

“She still followed the games. She’d watch them on TV. Keep track of who was doing what,” said Robert Knapp. While keeping an eye on the NFL Kathleen took care of her only child. After Robert graduated from high school she went back to work as a secretary for a building contractor. Even later in life the NFL’s first female employee was amazed how the game had grown, especially with all the sports’ numbers. “Oh, yea. How big it got and how many mountains and mountains of statistics they pour out at the office. She was flabbergasted. It’s almost too much information,” said Knapp. 

Rubadue always enjoyed her time working for the NFL in those early years. She was a big fan of the game and its players. “Players were paid by the game,” Kathleen told the Columbus Dispatch back in 1982, “and if they got $150, they were doing pretty good. It sounds ridiculous now, but it was fair money in those days. Of course, teams played both defense and offense – the whole game. That, to me, was more enjoyable. And I think they had to be better players to do that.” Although she might’ve been partial to the two-way players of the 1930’s she continued to follow the NFL, watching games every fall.

On August 3, 1984 Kathleen (Rubadue) Knapp died in Columbus of congestive heart failure at the age of 74. She is buried at St. Joseph’s Cemetery in the south end of Columbus- the same cemetery her long-time boss Joe F. Carr is buried in. The two-headed machine of the early days of the NFL were reunited once again.

Kathleen Rubadue-Knapp, headstone, St. Joseph's Cemetery

Joe F. Carr, headstone, St. Joseph's Cemetery

Her son Robert never thought of his mother as an NFL pioneer. “I didn’t think of her as a working mom from the NFL. I just thought of her as mom’s at home taking care of things. Till one day it suddenly came to me like, ‘hey, she had a neat job,’” said Robert Knapp.

For nearly thirteen years (1929-1941) Kathleen Rubadue-Knapp worked for the NFL. She made history by being the first woman to work for the NFL. On her birthday today (she would’ve been 111 years old) we remember a football pioneer. Today there are nearly 700 full-time employees to administer the NFL. For the League’s first two decades, the League office based in Columbus or Dayton, they only had TWO - Presidents Joe F. Carr, Carl Storck, and Kathleen Rubadue (Knapp).  

Happy Birthday, Kathleen Rubadue-Knapp!!  


Robert Knapp, author interview, April 19, 2009
Martha Sullivan, author interview, March 4, 2007
Columbus Dispatch, January 14, 1982
St. Joseph’s Academy Yearbook, Sandalphon, 1926, 1927, 1928

Robert Knapp, son of Kathleen Rubaude-Knapp, 2009 interview

Columbus (OH) Public Library (Megan); Dayton (OH) Metro Library-Special Collections Division (Lori); Mark Fenner; Dave Plaut; St. Joseph’s Montessori (Cheralyn Corlett, Roxanne Holonitch); Robert Knapp (Columbus, Ohio); and Joe F. Carr family.


  1. ....terrific story Chris, and any young woman reading this will know that there are pioneers in all aspects of sports. Happy Birthday ms. Kathleen.

  2. this material is priceless....thanks Chris for your amazing research