In 2015, Dr. Jen Welter became the first female coach in the NFL, serving as an inside linebackers coach under Bruce Arians. She’s no longer with the Cardinals, but she’s still as recognizable as any assistant coach in the NFL.
Well, sort of.
“Most of the time when people first meet me, they say, ‘You kind of look like that coach, but she’s bigger than you,’ which I think is really funny,” Welter said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “I don’t think they realize that I’m only 5-2. There’s this perception with football people, whether it’s male or female, that we’re a lot bigger than we are sometimes. So that’s always a funny one. But the reaction is really great because whether they’re football fans or not, they just love seeing progress. I think the strongest reaction has been overseas. I went over and coached the Australian women’s national team, worked with them on their first round of tryouts a few months ago, and the girls were breaking down. They were like, ‘Jen, we never even thought this was possible.’ So to give somebody a dream they never had is pretty breathtaking and it’s awesome.”
If you think Welter had all sorts of problems coaching the Cardinals or that the players didn’t respect her because she was female, well, you’d be wrong.
“The biggest challenge, I think, is almost the stuff after,” she said. “It’s the transition, kind of knowing what to do. I think a lot of athletes face that. Going from doing the same thing for a long time, or, for me, to being relatively unknown to now everybody seems to know who you are – that’s a little weird. Within camp, it was great. That’s where people mostly thought the problems would be, but in terms of the players and the coaches, it really just was awesome.”
Welter, 38, played women’s football for 14 years and, in 2014 with the Texas Revolution, became the first female to play running back in men’s professional football.
“I can promise you I was not the greatest football player out of those guys,” Welter said, “but it was my toughness and being a great teammate that essentially made me one of the guys. We got along great. It was that camaraderie that caught the attention of Wendell Davis, formerly of the Dallas Cowboys, when he came in to take over as head coach for the next season. He was just so surprised, and he pulled me aside, talked football and then at the end of it, he essentially said, ‘Jen, you have to coach my football team.’ I said, ‘No, I haven’t coached before and you want me to go right into coaching men?’ He’s a great guy, very direct. He said, ‘Jen, not a lot of guys are going to give you this opportunity. You’re taking this job.’ That’s how I got into coaching football. Literally from the Revolution, I went directly to the Cardinals.”
Ultimately, Welter thinks that women coaching in football will become commonplace.
“The first is important because it shows people what’s possible,” she said, “but really the next step that you want is that it becomes more common, that we come to a time – whether it’s in terms of gender of diversity of any type – that you create a new normal and that we’re no longer celebrating firsts. I think that’s when you have real progress.”
Asked if a woman will ever play in the NFL, Welter said it’s possible but that she’d rather there simply be a professional league for women. In many ways, that’s more equitable than asking a women to play on the same field with, say, J.J. Watt.
“I think it will happen eventually,” Welter said of females playing in the NFL. “Girls are playing at a younger and younger age now, which means they’re not trying to catch up with the boys if they start playing really late in life. So I think it will eventually happen, but I wish it was a society where it didn’t have to happen.”
Jen wrote this blog for the Chat Sports: chatsports.com/welter blog — inside stories from coaches, athletes, and the world of sports