TEMPE – Jen Welter has loved football ever since she can remember. When the Arizona Cardinals introduced her Tuesday afternoon at their Tempe headquarters, the team’s newest addition to the coaching staff recalled grabbing the pigskin and barreling into her cousins as a young girl.
While she will be coaching 250-pound men this summer as an intern working with the Cardinals’ linebackers, Welter is quite aware of the effect her new position – and the attention it is already receiving – can have on the young girls of today.
“We show little girls all the time to be beautiful and to do it all the wrong ways,” she said at Tuesday’s introductory news conference. “We show them as accessories, for no other better way to put it. We teach them very early on to be pretty, marry well and then act badly and you’ll get on TV. And then that’s what they grow up thinking that fame is or success is.
“I want little girls to grow up knowing that when they put their mind to something, when they work hard, that they can do anything regardless of those things,” Welter said.
Welter is believed to be the first female coach in NFL history. She will be with the Cardinals through the end of the preseason as part of a paid internship program the team uses to evaluate potential coaches, as well as give former players the chance to make the transition to the sideline.
“I could not have dreamed big enough to imagine that this day would ever come. I started playing football 15 years ago and I fell in love,” Welter said. “I actually fell in love as a kid but I didn’t have the chance to play until after college and I changed my whole life around to be able to make that happen.”
Angie Henderson, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Northern Colorado, who has published research on perceptions of women in sport and sport management, said she views the importance of Welter’s hire as an “eight out of 10.”
“It feels like a really big deal but it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out because she’s just been hired for the preseason,” Henderson said. “I think it’s a breakthrough and I think it’s important. But what happens after and, more so in the immediate next few weeks, how she’s treated and how she’s perceived by anchors, commentators, the general public, is going to be even bigger than her breaking into it. It all rests on how she’s received.”
Welter is the linebackers and special teams coach with the Texas Revolution, an indoor football team. She became the first woman to play a non-kicking position in a men’s professional football game when she stepped onto the field for the Revolution in 2014 as a running back and special teams player.
She also played more than a decade in the Women’s Football Alliance and helped Team USA to gold medals in the International Federation of American Football Women’s World Championship in 2010 and 2014.
The Cardinals expect Welter to apply her experience, which also includes a Ph.D. in psychology and a master’s in sport psychology, when training camp opens Saturday.
“They’re not here to watch. They’re here to work,” Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians said of Welter and the six other interns who are part of the program this year. “Get better as a coach, correct things that are wrong, pat people on the back when they do it right and jump right in.”
This all started when Arians made waves during the NFL owners’ meetings in March, suggesting that women would be welcome on the sideline “the minute they can prove they can make a player better.”
A friend of Welter’s, former Denver Broncos guard David Diaz-Infante, participated in the Cardinals’ internship program last year. When he heard Arians’ comments, he, along with Revolution head coach Devin Wyman, suggested Welter reach out to the Cardinals’ coach.
“And (Diaz-Infante) said, ‘Well I’m supposed to go into (offseason team activities) with some of the guys and I’ll make sure I let them know I know you,'” she said. “And I believe he told me that Bruce said. ‘I wanted to talk to that girl but she never called me.’ And he laughed.”
From that point, Welter joined the Cardinals for offseason team activities and impressed Arians enough for him to offer her the position after talking it through with team owner Michael Bidwill.
“My initial reaction was very positive,” Bidwill said at Tuesday’s news conference. “Obviously, any of our prospective coaches or new employees, I want to hear a little bit about them. So it was the same questions I’d ask for anybody but my initial reaction was very positive and I thought, ‘Man, this is going to make some news,’ which explains why I have 50 (smartphones) all in my face right now as I walk out the back.”
Henderson said considering the public’s reaction to other recent developments in the sports world, including Becky Hammon joining the San Antonio Spurs coaching staff last season and Michael Sam coming out as gay before the 2014 NFL Draft, this move is a natural step for the Cardinals and for Welter.
“It makes sense that this is happening now and it’s probably as good a time as any for this to happen,” Henderson said. “It’s an opportunity for her.”
But this opportunity comes on a much bigger stage: the NFL, America’s most-watched sport.
Welter believes she can be successful as a coach specifically because her perspective is so different from that of most NFL players.
“I can show these guys that you can overcome any limitation,” she said. “I’m 5-2, 130 pounds. I never should have been able to do what I was doing, even in the women’s league. So it’s not always about ‘out-bigging’ somebody. Sometimes you have to be a little bit smarter.”
Though Welter said she could have never dreamed of this opportunity, she briefly allowed herself the chance to imagine what may wait a little further down her career path.
“A dream would be staying on,” she said. “But I can’t say what that means yet. I have to live in this moment and be so happy to be right here because if the work’s not there, it doesn’t matter how big your dreams are because you’re going to be sitting on the sidelines anyway – well not those sidelines – you’re going to be sitting on the side of the road.”