Jen Welter didn’t set out to be the first woman to coach in the NFL. Once she was, she was determined she wouldn’t be the last.
It’s been five years since Bruce Arians hired Welter to be part of his training camp coaching staff with the Arizona Cardinals. While Welter hasn’t coached in the NFL since then, others have. There are now more than a half-dozen women who are full-time assistants in the league, and Katie Sowers was on Kyle Shanahan’s Super Bowl staff with the San Francisco 49ers last year.
All of it can be traced back to Welter, who talked about the progress on the latest episode of the Changing the Game podcast.
“It’s the four-minute mile run phenomenon,” Welter said. “It’s impossible, unheard of. Can’t work, will never happen. Until it does. That’s what we did. And then the league has done a great job of creating situations with intentionality to move the needle forward from that moment.”
Welter never had intentions of playing football with men, let alone coaching men’s teams.
“I would be like, `Dude, I’m not crazy, OK? I am 5-foot-2, 132 pounds. I’m not doing that. I don’t want to get killed,’” she recalled. “Until it happens.”
After playing on women’s professional and semi-professional teams for more than a decade – she was part of the U.S. team that won the title at the world championships in 2010 and 2013 – she was offered a spot with the Texas Revolution, a men’s indoor team, in 2014. A defensive player her entire career, she played running back, a first in a men’s professional league.
The following year, she joined the Revolution’s coaching staff. When Welter heard Arians say a woman could coach in the NFL so long as she could show she’d make players better, she wrangled an introduction.
Now, Arians is committed to diversity and inclusion – his offensive and defensive coordinators with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are Black, and there are two women on his current staff – but he wasn’t trying to make a point. And Welter wouldn’t have been interested if he had.
The stakes were too high.
“People look at it now and they say, `Well of course Bruce should have done that. That just makes sense.’ And I push back and I’m like, `Really? You say that. But what if something had gone wrong?,’” Welter said. “Then the conversation would have been, `Bruce Arians. Do you remember the time he lost his mind and hired that girl?’”
But Welter was well-received by the players and her fellow coaches. Better yet, she was respected by the players and her fellow coaches. That made it less of a gamble for other coaches to hire female assistants.
Some were coaching interns like Welter. But soon enough, some were full-time assistants like Sowers. When new Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski was looking for a chief of staff, the job he had when he broke into the NFL, he hired Callie Brownson, who’d done stints with the Buffalo Bills, Dartmouth and the New York Jets.
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Last year, Welter was an assistant with the Atlanta Legends of the now-defunct Alliance of American Football. But her focus now is on Grrridiron Girls, flag-football camps that feature former NFL players. The camps introduce young girls to the game, but they also provide networking opportunities for women who want to be coaches.
Like so many other businesses, coaching is all about who you know. Who you played for. Who you’ve worked for. That’s going to put women at a disadvantage, and Welter wants to change that.
She might not ever coach in a Super Bowl. Or be a head coach in the NFL. But other women will, and Welter will have made it possible.
“it makes me feel like a good fullback,” she said. “Being the first means that you will be somebody who opens the room to run through. You will not always be the person who’s carrying the ball. But when you did it well, someone else will score a touchdown.
“It doesn’t work if every single player out of the eleven wants to score every touchdown,” Welter added. “It works when we are really good at elevating and supporting each other.”
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