Trailblazing female NFL coach gives credit for her hiring to York High grad Arians
TEMPE, Ariz. — Jen Welter accepts the title of trailblazer, embraces the chance to be a role model for girls and, perhaps most of all, can't wait to get beyond the hype and on to work when the Arizona Cardinals open training camp this weekend.
It's only a six-week internship coaching inside linebackers for the Cardinals, through training camp and the four preseason games. Nonetheless, it marks another barrier broken for women in sports.
The 37-year-old Welter appeared at a news conference at Cardinals headquarters Tuesday and gave all the credit for her hiring to Bruce Arians, saying the coach's "heart made this happen." Arians is a York High graduate.
Team President Michael Bidwill said the move has the enthusiastic support of the organization, which has long been known for hiring minorities for management positions. Bidwill said he spoke Monday night with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who congratulated the Cardinals on the move.
Known as Dr. Jen back in Texas, Welter has a PhD in psychology as well as a season as a player on a men's team, the Texas Revolution of the Indoor Football League.
There are a lot of people who are better than her at the X's and O's of football, she said, "but the heart factor, the intelligent player factor, the being-the-person-with-the-motor-who-won't-quit factor, those are things I know I can add to."
Welter is the latest woman to enter what had been a men-only position. In April, the NFL announced that Sarah Thomas would be the league's first full-time female official. The NBA long has had a female official. And Becky Hammon is an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs and recently was head coach of the Spurs team that won the Las Vegas Summer League championship.
Welter said that for too long girls have been given the wrong message, that it's so important to be pretty.
"We show them as accessories, for no other better way to put it," she said. "We teach them very early on to be pretty, marry well and then act badly and you'll get on TV, and that's what they grow up thinking what fame is or success is.
"I want little girls to grow up knowing that when they put their minds to something, when they work hard, they can do anything."
The hiring came from comments Arians made at the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix last March.
He was asked about the possibility of women coaching in the league.
"The minute they can prove they can make a player better, they'll be hired," Arians said.
A short time later, the coach of the Texas Revolution got in touch with Arians and said he knew someone who might fit that bill.
Arians called Welter and offered her one of the team's six internships, then he got the backing of general manager Steve Keim and Bidwill.
"He had to get all the right yeses but it was his heart that made it happen," Welter said, "and it was his belief that the Arizona Cardinals are the team that could handle this happening and that he has coaches on his staff that would embrace it and not cast me off to the side. You can't blaze a trail alone. Otherwise you're going to get stuck in the woods."
Welter grew up in Vero Beach, Florida, and she told a story a relative related to her about when she could hardly see out of a helmet: She would have the family drag a mattress outside so she could have the bigger kids tackle her.
She played rugby at Boston College but football was her first love. She spent 14 years as a linebacker, most of them with the Dallas Diamonds of the Women's Football Alliance. She won two gold medals with the U.S. team at the International Federation of American Football women's world championships.
A year ago, the first barrier fell for her when she played running back and on special teams for the Revolution, the first woman to play a non-kicking position on a men's professional football team. Last February, she became the first woman to coach for a men's professional team when the Revolution made her linebackers and special teams coach.
Then Arians called.
The coach said an internship is designed as a steppingstone to get a full-time NFL job. Of course that's what Welter is eying.
"My expectations are to learn from the very best in football," she said.
And she feels more than welcome.
"The last 24 hours," she said, "had been getting wrapped around by the wings of the Cardinals."