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It’s been seven years since Bruce Arians hired Jen Welter as a linebackers coach for the Arizona Cardinals, making her the first woman to coach in the NFL. It was a monumental moment for the league that helped open a pipeline. Just this past season, 12 women served as coaches, which was the most at one time in the league.
Welter’s love of football started in her childhood years in Vero Beach, FL. The bright lights, the competition, and all the intricacies of the game fascinated her. There was no way she could have set out to be the first in a world where there were no examples or a road map to get to that point.
Her mission since that groundbreaking moment has been to be that example for future generations of girls that anything is possible.
Through her Grrridiron organization, she’s completed almost 50 flag football camps across the country, instilling confidence, sisterhood, and the fundamentals of the sport in the next generation. Jen Welter will continue her busy schedule during the week of the Super Bowl, teaming up with Fox Sports 1’s Joy Taylor for the 48th camp on Feb. 5. She’ll then be teaming up with Alyssa Milano for A Day in the Life at the Rose Bowl.
“I want to be the woman that I needed when I was a kid,” Welter said. “That’s what I drive to be all the time.”
Football was actually the first place someone told me there was a difference between what boys could do and what girls could do. To be a part of changing that narrative is everything to me. I instinctually turned down my first coaching opportunity with the Texas Revolution, even though I was a two-time gold medalist and four-time world champ and already made history playing on the men’s team. Thankfully, (then-Revolution head coach) Wendell Davis wouldn’t allow me to take the job. He actually took it on my behalf. Then I realized I was good at it. I had all those qualifications and a Ph.D. in psychology but couldn’t see that I could coach because there was no one who looked like me that was doing it.
When people say, “First and not last,” it’s kind of a catchy phrase, but it’s kind of been my life’s work in terms of the opportunity and responsibility in being first is to ensure that you’re not the last. My focus has been finding a way to create a more inclusive world in every way. I was able to get a coaching opportunity because I played on the men’s team (Texans Revolution). Before that, we weren’t even getting opportunities to coach at kid’s camps. If you look at all my programming, the connective tissue is really that inclusion narrative. I have girls, veterans, special-needs kids, and women — all groups that have traditionally not been as included in football.
We use these events to infuse the communities with the opportunity to do good. I first realized I could change dynamics with my girls’ camps because we weren’t getting the opportunities to coach, so we had to build our own thing. If they’re not going to give me a seat at the table, I’m going to make my own table. I’m also going to put the other people at the table who need to be there, and I can be a bridge between the men’s world and women’s world. Then, we’re going to come together for the good of kids. I take it very seriously that I need to be that bridge and I need to help with that connectivity and the motivation for the next generation.
Working with Madden was about the importance of that visibility. You couldn’t even look in a virtual space and see that a female could be a coach but think about how powerful it is to pick up your controller and say I’m going to pick Coach Jen Welter’s team. So, the girls can see they can be a coach and the guys learned that a coach doesn’t come with a gender assignment. The thing that’s changed the most for me is that I have a platform and an ability to shift culture through the game that has changed my life and I constantly push myself with how I can live that, lead by example, and create opportunities for others.
That time feels like it was yesterday at times and then it also feels like a dream. It wasn’t me banging down all the doors. It was literally me and (Arians). He didn’t just tell the guys that we’re going to have this (female) coach. He went to the leaders of the locker room and said we have an opportunity to do something really special. He told them about me, and he got the buy in from his players and then moved it forward organizationally. I think it was so smart to let them have a voice and ownership in making this culture shift in the NFL. They were all so proud to be a part of history. That was one thing that I learned later while writing my book that really impacted me.
From my personal perspective, I was coaching coaches before I went to Arizona. My philosophy was always a person who is a player, not a player who is a robot who has to execute. I would make sure to really know my guys as people first and then develop a relationship. When you care about someone and you have a good relationship, those coaching points are really easy because you know you have trust and love built in the relationship. One of the other lessons is when it comes to progress, it can’t be us vs. them. I think too often we assume that someone doesn’t want us there or they’re closing the door, and if you’re looking for a fight, you can always find one. I never had resistance from the guys from the inside. The narrative outside was tough, but internally we were good.
It’s a very important conversation to realize that diversity is a strength in every industry. Football has traditionally been called the final frontier for women in sports. It’s powerful to see women on the sidelines because it’s such a huge platform. For me, I say if this is the final frontier when we can win here, we can not only change this game, but we can shift culture through this game. It’s a visible place and space where you see leadership needs to be more inclusive. It thrives when there are different perspectives in the room. We need to know how different people think, how the approaches can be more balanced. We need to work together to not maintain the status quo but to thrive. I think that the women are doing a great job in continuing to step up to challenges and to grow the game, as well as grow as the game grows.
When you mention the Grrrdiron Girls, I feel I have a generation of Amazon’s coming up that have gotten to learn it earlier. There are so many girls that we’ve had the opportunity to impact. It’s been four years and 47 camps. I look at them and I tell them that I didn’t get to play football until I was 22 years old. You are all ahead of the game in terms of where I was in life. I do this because I think about how good I could have been if I started at their age. I think I would’ve taken over the planet by now. I haven’t given up on that and I’m still trying, but I tell them all the time and I want them to realize that these doors are going to continue to open. The future has yet to be written. How far you can go and what you can do is yet to be determined because these barriers are being broken in real-time. It’s so exciting to me that they have these opportunities that we never would have.
I think it’s making sure that we have more diversity and are on more boards. I’ve been at the levels of a player and coach, and you can only do so much. Your voice only carries up to the level that you are, and I think we need more diversity at all of those levels. For example, joining the board of the A7FL, that’s an opportunity to help shape a culture around a sport. I am also a team owner in a new e-sports company. I think the representation in that area is very important. It’s important that the ownership, coaching, and even mascots are empowering for women because you don’t see that a lot. Think about the NFL, are any of those mascots female? In order to shift those conversations and culture, you have to be in those rooms and in ownership positions to be able to make those decisions. That’s the place I want to be. I love coaching football so that’s always going to be something I’m committed to doing. If the call comes, I’ll be there but I’m also always going to be pushing for voices in boardrooms, seats at the table, and ownership so that we can make sure we’re doing the right things fundamentally at every level.