“When I got on the field, I was 6’10.”
Dr. Jen Welter's new book.
Dr. Jen Welter is all about asking: Why not?
In the summer of 2015, Welter became the first woman ever to coach in the NFL, serving as a linebackers coach for the Arizona Cardinals. The passionate trailblazer also became the first woman to play running back in a men's professional football league in 2014.
During a 14-year career in women’s professional football, Welter led her team to four National Championships and two gold medals as a member of Team USA in the 2010 and 2013 International Federation of American Football’s (IFAF) Women’s World Championship. The United Nations recognized her as Sports Pioneer of the Year on Women’s Entrepreneurship Day and espnW named her one of the “25 Most Influential Women in Sport” in 2015.
Now Welter is focused on increasing opportunities in football for women of all ages, particularly young women in underserved areas. She released her book, “Play Big: Lessons In Being Limitless,” in fall 2017 and her signature women’s program, “A Day in the Life” Camp — which provides women a chance to experience a day as a professional football player — debuted in 2015.
She also operates a range of camps for girls and women through her GRRRidiron Flag Football Camp, as well as a number of community initiatives including her “Camp on the Corner” program. A trained sports psychologist, Welter frequently speaks on empathy building and fair play and serves as a guest NFL analyst on NBC, the NFL Network, and ESPN.
GOOD caught up with her to find out how she’s inspiring the pros and emerging players alike with her wisdom and passion for the game.
What inspired you to start playing football as a young girl — and to become a trailblazer in the sport?
When I started playing football, this was the line you didn’t cross. I remember people saying this was the final frontier for women in sports. I remember having this belief that if that was the final frontier for women in sports, then if we could do this, there was nothing we couldn’t do.
I think that was the same passion that kept a lot of the women I was playing with in the game for so long ... Here was this sport that really has so many great lessons and so many different storylines that go through it, why couldn’t we play?
But there's also something very special about tackling. As somebody who is 5’2” and 130 pounds, when I got on the field, I was 6’10”. There’s this confidence that comes with that.
My first sport was tennis, and I eventually ran up to the roadblock …. They said I would never be strong enough to play pro tennis because I was this tiny, little scrawny child, and yet on football, I could be small, and fast.
What made me different made me special. That is what’s so beautiful. We don't all have to play the game the same way. In fact, it doesn't work if we try and play the game the same way. I don't care what position it is, if you had 11 people who were identical, you would have a very hard time winning.
And I also found a family. Those women made me better in so many ways. And we came together around this common goal.
How did the players and other coaches react when you joined the Cardinals as a coach?
The players were outstanding. They’re fantastic men. Part of why the situation was so good was the credibility of a coach like [Cardinals head coach] Bruce Arians. Everybody knows that if Bruce does something, it's for the right reasons, and that it’s the real deal.
So I definitely had a huge advocate in him being the coach that brought me in. Bruce did something really special when he was thinking about obviously making such a huge outside of the box decision, one that hadn't been done in the 97-year history of the NFL. And I think it's really special.
After he had met me and was confident that it would work ... he went to his player leaders, and told them what he was thinking of doing in bringing in the first female coach — and the players were all for it. And so once he had their buy-in, that’s when he went and moved up the food chain and went to the general manager and owner of the team Bill Bidwill and did all of those things.
But as Bruce knew it, the most important thing is the players. I think that's a lot of the reason why we had such a great situation in Arizona is that the players were really proud to be a part of history.
You call football ‘full contact chess.’ Tell us more about that?
If more people understood the intelligence required in terms of both breaking the game down and what goes into it, and also the very specialized things that you’re doing … It is the one sport that truly requires diversity at its core, because it doesn’t work if everybody looks the same or has the same talent.
That's where you see really the beauty and the chess pieces emerge. If you have, at any one time on that field, 22 very different people — and 11 on each side — are having to work together with their own unique talents and abilities in this masterful choreography, that’s very much like a dance, and that dance doesn't work if one out of 11 on either side doesn’t do their job.
People see it as run, tackle, catch. But there’s so much more that goes into it than that. You have to have guys that are willing to never get the spotlight, who are willing to sacrifice on every single play so that, for example, a running back has a hole to run through or a quarterback will have protection to throw behind.
Those guys on the “O” line, you may never even know their names, and yet the sport doesn’t work without them. The personalities are as diverse as the positions, which makes it so much fun.