WASHINGTON – When Jen Welter first thought of playing professional football, it was a dream almost too audacious to entertain: Girls just didn’t do that then.
But Welter did.
After playing professionally for a women’s team, she became what is believed to be the first woman to play a non-kicking position with a professional men’s team as a running back for the indoor Texas Revolution in 2014. She later coached that team before becoming the first woman to coach in the NFL, when she was an intern coach last year with the Arizona Cardinals.
Given her history, Welter had a message for the 280 teens at a girls empowerment summit in Washington this week: Don’t be afraid to dream.
“I really want these girls to know that there are no limits in life and it’s not some qualifier on, ‘That’s a big dream for a girl,'” Welter said. “There’s no such thing.”
Welter was the closing speaker Tuesday, the second day of the three-day Girl Up Leadership Summit at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington. Girls at the three-day summit learn about leadership, advocacy and finding what they “really, really want,” for girls around the world.
The summit for 12- to 20-year-olds is put on by the United Nations Foundation, but describes itself as “by girls for girls.” Organizers said they were proud to get Welter as a speaker.
“I think that she’s the exact type of inspiration and role model that I really want to put in front of the girls,” said Girl Up Director Melissa Kilby. “I want them to know that anything’s possible, and Dr. Jen just really embodies that.”
“Dr. Jen” is just one of the names Welter, who has a Ph.D. in psychology, goes by. Coach Jen is another. The names were hard-earned.
The Florida native described a journey to the NFL sidelines that began by being told she was too small to play professionally – in tennis. Professional football was even more of a stretch.
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But after playing on a professional women’s team, she was contacted by the Revolution, which wanted her to go through a day of training camp. Offended by what she saw as a publicity stunt, she set her mind to stay.
“I made history as the first woman to play running back on a men’s professional football team because I wouldn’t let them use me,” she said. “It wasn’t a legit shot when I got there but I made it one.”
Welter went hit-for-hit with men three times her weight with the Revolution, but quitting was not an option. Welter said she didn’t want to give critics the chance to say, “Well, we had a girl once and she quit.”
“The responsibility in anything that you do is that you make sure not only are you the first, but you’re not also the last,” she said.
When invited to be a coach for the team, she said no. The team gave her the job anyway and Welter stuck with her rule of never quitting.
But the coaching job paid off when she heard that Cardinals coach Bruce Arians had said he could see a woman coaching in the NFL. “Coach Jen” picked up the phone and, after talking to Arians, ended up with a coaching internship through the 2015 preseason.
The Cardinals have not asked her back this season, but Welter said would go if asked.
“I love that team,” she said. “Bruce Arians could pick up the phone and call me tomorrow and I would be there for him in a heartbeat.”
In the meantime, Welter is coaching this week at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Academy. “They brought some of the top guys from around the country to get coached up,” Welter said.
While she is proud of being the first woman to coach in the NFL, Welter notes that she was not the last. She hopes the door stays open to women in professional football careers – and others.
“There has never in the history of the world been a better time to be a girl,” she told the summit.