Jen Welter and the Backstory on the NFL's Female Coach Pioneer

Jen Welter became the first female coach in NFL history when the Arizona Cardinals hired her to an intern position in 2015.
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Football has long been considered the final frontier for women in sports. In the summer of 2015, that narrative began to change.

Jen Welter is one of the pioneers of that paradigm shift.

The Arizona Cardinals, under the direction of head coach Bruce Arians at the time, made the unprecedented decision of hiring a woman to a coaching role (albeit part-time). In July of 2015, at 37-years-old, Welter was introduced as the first female coach in NFL history. She served as a training camp and preseason intern whose primary focus was on inside linebackers.

It was a historic moment for a league that had already taken a major leap in April of that same year by hiring Sarah Thomas as the first female, full-time, on-field official.

"The first thing I can say about the Cardinals and the reception is it was better than I could have ever imagined," Welter told SI.com's AllCardinals. "The Cardinals organization and everyone who was a part of that experience will be a part of my heart forever."

***

Welter's love of football was born in Vero Beach, Florida.

"I remember watching and just looking at the field and thinking that the players were like real life superheroes and that there were no brighter lights," she said. "But it was also the first place in the world that I learned there was differences between what girls were allowed to do and boys were allowed to do. Girls weren't playing football back then, so it was like I loved it from a distance."

That love for the sport never dissipated, though. It even led her to another avenue: rugby.

In fact, Welter was a four-year letter(wo)man while at Boston College. She described it as the "the closest (sport) I'd ever seen that girls were allowed to play." She attributes much of her success in her inevitable path to professional football to what she learned playing for the Eagles rugby squad.

It led to a 14-year professional football career. In a world with extremely limited opportunity in the sport for women, Welter initially bounced from a flag football league to an open tryout tackle league for females. 

What many people do not fully grasp about Welter's career is that she is a two-time gold medalist and four-time world champion. Welter played for Team USA and won top honors at the IFAF Women's World Championship in 2010 (the inaugural year of the tournament) and 2013.

Despite the accolades and the pinnacle of their achievements, nobody back home was talking about it. In fact, nobody seemed to even know it had happened.

"I remember thinking that when we came back, it was going to change everything," Welter said. "We were gold medalists now in America's game. Maybe there'd be like a ticker tape parade or something. And no one even knew. No one even knew that we had won gold medals outside of our small circles of ridiculously dedicated fans. 

"No one knew. There was no coverage, no nothing and we really just put our heads down and went back to work. That is definitely a lot of what fuels me to this day. I thought women in football was the best kept secret in sports and we just didn't want to be a secret anymore."

***

Welter did not just talk the talk when it came to her coaching role. It was not as simple as some random passion that she developed from the outskirts of the sport. Despite being negatively labeled a "woman in a man's game," she embraced it.

It led her to breaking serious stigmas and barriers while playing a full season and appearing in one game at running back for the Texas Revolution in the (formerly all-male) Indoor Football League. In the process, she became the first female non-kicker to play in a professional men’s game. She made such an impression that, despite her gender, the Revolution later hired her as a linebackers coach. 

"I got into men's pro football the most painful way possible, I actually played," Welter said. "So, it was a season on the Texas Revolution that literally changed my life. It did. It was painful, it was tough and it taught me so much. I was used to being one of the best women in the world. One of the baddest (females) on the block in women's football. And then stepping into the men's game, that's not the case. I'm scratching and clawing and fighting to be on the practice squad. And in that, I had to learn a lot."

A 5-foot-2, 130-pound running back, Welter took her fair share of punishment in her professional debut for the Revolution against the North Texas Crunch in February of 2014. Nearly an exact year after that game, Welter was hired to the team's coaching staff and never looked back.

Yet, when the opportunity first presented itself, Welter initially turned it down.

"We became so close and it was that closeness, honestly, and the relationships that led into me coaching," she said. I walked into an event and ran into the guys. We were in the offseason, I hadn't seen them in a while and literally they picked me up and tossed me around like a football because relative to them I am one. And it caught (then-recently-hired Revolution head coach) Wendell (Davis's) attention. He said, 'Who is this girl that all my guys love?' And his defensive coordinator was like, 'Coach, that's your running back.'

"Wendell started grilling me on football. What was good, what wasn't. And the next day, he called me and he said, 'All I could talk about was how you have to coach this football team.' And I said no. He's like, 'No, what do you mean no?' And I said, 'No, girls don't coach football. I can't do that.'"

What changed her mind? 

Nothing, really. Davis practically signed the paperwork for her. She was forced into an uncomfortable role that she had not even asked for.

"He was like, 'You're going to do this.' And I basically was like, 'Nope.' I hung up on him. So, the next day he called me back and told me about myself. He said, 'Do you remember how I told you not a lot of guys were going to give you this opportunity and you were taking this job?' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'Good. I took it for you. You're coaching for me. And by the way, you can't quit. Otherwise, the entire narrative will be we had a girl once and she quit when it comes to women coaching in men's football.'

"Boy did he have my number."

***

Former Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman Calais Campbell was named the 2020 NFL Defensive Pro Bowl MVP.

He became idolized during his stint in Arizona from 2008-2017, transforming into one of the leaders within the organization throughout his tenure. Welter developed a special bond with the players on the team in her intern preseason of 2015. They held a reverence for her that even she did not fully anticipate.

Welter was well-respected and earned the credibility that she received. It is evident when she attends events five years later, such as the 2020 Pro Bowl, and shares moments with guys she interacted with at the time. Campbell being one of the chief among them.

"He basically tackled me, which was awesome," Welter said. "After the Pro Bowl, he was Pro Bowl MVP. Everybody wants a piece of his time. He's like, 'Man, I miss you, coach. I've got to tell you, I know there's other women who are now in the NFL and I'm so proud we were a part of it.' 

"And he's like, 'I just have to tell you, I almost called you the other day because I had to check everybody and be like, we had the original. And it was so special.' We really did. It was such a collective effort and the support was widespread through the organization. Everybody was doing their part."

***

Welter attributes much of her general acceptance by the Cardinals players and brass to the approach Arians took when first initiating the idea.

"The players were proud to be a part of history," she said. "They would say it all the time, 'Man, Coach, I never imagined that I would have a female coach. This is so cool that we get to be a part of it. You better give us a cameo in the movie one day. I want in it, I don't want to just be talking, I want to be in it.' To have that response, a lot of it was really just a testament to the team and the guys and the coaches. Also, to Bruce Arians and how he set that situation up. 

"I asked BA about how it was so successful because a lot of people, when they're making change it's really difficult. They don't necessarily have the buy-in that we had really at every level on the Cardinals. We had the players, we had (owner Michael) Bidwill we had (general manager) Steve Keim. And all of us have great relationships to this day because of how the situation was set up. BA told me, 'Well, the first thing I did was go to the locker room and talk to the players. I talked to the leaders of the locker room and said this is something that I really feel strongly about and I want to do. Are you guys OK with this and will you be behind it?' And when he had their buy-in, then he got the organizational buy-in."

Some of those leaders are still a part of the Cardinals locker room today. Campbell (now with the Baltimore Ravens), wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, linebacker Kevin Minter (with Arians in Tampa Bay), cornerback Patrick Peterson; all of these guys weighed in and pre-approved Welter's inclusion on the roster.

They were also pivotal in the spread of her acceptance.

"That's what you want, to be put into a position where you're treated just like the guys are, but not like a guy," Welter said. "You have the same access to this, that and the other and they allow you to grow as a coach.

"I think in giving them some ownership and having them really be a part of the decision to lead by example and create change was a lot of the reason why the guys were so wonderful. I'm complimented by that trust and willingness they had to bring me into their world every day. They know I'll fight for them to the ends of time."