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. Last season alone, 12 women were coaches, that was the most in the league at one time.
Welter's love of soccer began during her childhood years in Vero Beach, FL. She was mesmerized by the bright lights, the competition, and all the intricacies of the game. There was no way she could have set out to be the first in a world where there were no examples or roadmap to get to this point.
Since that groundbreaking moment, her mission has been to set an example for future generations of girls that anything is possible.
Through her Grrridiron organization, she has completed nearly 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 throughout the week of the Super Bowl, teaming up with Fox Sports 1's Joy Taylor for Camp 48 on February 5. She will then team up with Alyssa Milano for A Day in the Life in the Bowl of Roses.
"I want to be the woman I needed as a kid," Welter said. "That's what drives me all the time."
Courtesy of Jens Welter
Be part of the change
Football was actually the first place someone told me there was a difference between what boys can do and what girls can do. Being a part of changing this narrative is everything to me. I instinctively turned down my first coaching opportunity at Texas Revolution, even though I was a two-time gold medalist, four-time world champion, and made history playing on the men's team. Thankfully, Wendell Davis (Revolution head coach at the time) wouldn't let me take the job. He actually took it for me. Then I realized I was good at it. I had all these qualifications and a Ph.D. in Psychology but couldn't see that I could coach because there was no one who looked like me who did.
Jen Welter is the first, but not the last
When people say, "First and not last," it's kind of a catchy phrase, but it's kind of my life's work in terms of the opportunity and responsibility of being first to make sure you're not last. My focus is to find 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 didn't even have the opportunity to train at children's camps. If you look at all of my programming, the connective tissue is really this inclusion narrative. I have girls, veterans, children with special needs and women - all groups that are not traditionally associated with football.
We use these events to give communities the opportunity to do good. I first realized that I could change the dynamic with my girls camps because we didn't get opportunities to train, so we had to build our own thing. If they don't give me a seat at the table, I'll make my own table. I will also bring the other people to the table that need to be there and I can be a bridge between the male world and the female world. Then we will join forces for the good of the children. I take it very seriously that I need to be that bridge and I need to help with that connection and motivation for the next generation.
Working with Madden was about the importance of that visibility. You might not even be able to look into a virtual space and see that a woman could be a coach, but think about how powerful it is to pick up your controller and say I'm Coach Jen Welter's team will select. So the girls can see that they can be coaches and the boys have learned that a coach has no gender assignment. What has changed me the most is having a platform and the ability to change culture through the game that changed my life and I constantly challenge myself on how I live, lead by example and can create opportunities for others.
Courtesy of Jens Welter
It's not always about us versus them
This time sometimes feels like it was yesterday and then it also feels like a dream. I didn't smash all the doors. It was literally me and (Arians). He didn't just tell the boys that we're going to have this (female) coach. He went up to the ladders of the dressing room and said we had an opportunity to do something very special. He told them about me and he got the buy-in from his players and then pushed it organizationally. I think giving them a voice and ownership was smart enough to bring about this culture change in the NFL. They were all so proud to be a part of history. That was one thing I later learned while writing my book that really influenced me.
From my personal perspective, I was a coach before I went to Arizona. My philosophy has always been a person who is a player, not a player who is a robot that needs to execute. I would make sure I really get to know my boys as people first and then build a relationship. When you care about someone and you are in a good relationship these coaching points are really easy because you know that trust and love are built in the relationship. One of the other lessons is that when it comes to progress, we can't be against it. I think too often we assume someone doesn't want us there or closes the door, and if you're looking for a fight you can always find one. I never had any resistance from the guys on the inside. The narrative to the outside was tough, but internally we were good.
Jen Welter on the culture shift in the NFL
It's a very important conversation to recognize that diversity is a strength in any industry. Football has traditionally been referred to as the last frontier for women in sport. It's powerful to see women on the sidelines because it's such a huge platform. To me, I'm saying if this is the final frontier where we can win here, not only can we change this game, but we can change the 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 differently people think, how the approaches can be more balanced. We must work together not to maintain the status quo but to grow. I think the women are doing a great job of continuing to challenge and make the game grow, and grow as the game grows.
When you mention the Grrrdiron Girls, I have a feeling there's a generation coming up of Amazons who learned earlier. There are so many girls that we have been able to influence. It was four years and 47 camps. I look at them and tell them that I didn't start playing football until I was 22. They're all ahead of the game in terms of where I've been in life. I'm doing this because I'm thinking about how good I could have been if I'd started at her age. I think I would have taken over the planet by now. I haven't given up on that and I'm still trying, but I tell them this all the time and I want them to realize that those doors will 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 as these barriers are broken in real time. It's so exciting to me that they have these opportunities that we never would have.
Jen Welter has a plan to do good
I think it ensures we have more diversity and are on more boards. I was at the level of a player and a coach and there's only so much you can do. Your voice only carries up to the level that you are and I think we need more diversity on all those levels. For example, when you join the A7FL board of directors, you have the opportunity to help shape a culture around a sport. I'm also a team owner in a new esports company. I think that representation in this area is very important. It's important that the empowerment, the coaching, and even the mascots empower women because you don't see that often. Think NFL, are these mascots female? To change those conversations and culture, you need to be in those spaces and in ownership positions to be able to make those decisions. This is where I want to be. I love coaching football so I will always put my heart into it. When the call comes, I'll be there, but I'll also always push for boardroom voices, seats at the table, and ownership so we can make sure we're doing the right things fundamentally at every level.