Girls Sports Month: Jen Welter on competing with boys, her life in football, and growing the game for women

Jen Welter being introduced as an Arizona Cardinals assistant last summer. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

Jen Welter being introduced as an Arizona Cardinals assistant last summer. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

Jen Welter made history last summer when she was hired by the Arizona Cardinals as an assistant linebackers coach during the team’s training camp in Glendale, Ariz. It was the first time in NFL history that a woman had coached and worked alongside men in this capacity.

While Welter’s stint with the Cardinals ended after the preseason, her impact has endured.

In the months since, as she continues to look for her next coaching job, Welter has become an ambassador not just for women in football, but for women’s sports in general. She visited the White House earlier this month, where she heard herself quoted by President Obama, and traveled to Australia to coach women’s football there, as well as participating in a growing number of women’s football events in the United States. She recently launched, intended to connect, celebrate and inspire girls and women in football.

As part of Girls Sports month, USA TODAY Sports asked Welter, who grew up playing tennis as a child, soccer as a teenager, rugby in college and finally came to football in her 20s, to share about her experiences as an athlete and coach and her visions for the growth of women in football.

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Q: What were some of the values that sports taught you as a kid or teenager that carried over into your adult life?

A: A big one is hard work, and what happens when you are willing to do things that other people aren’t necessarily doing. When I was first really got good at tennis, there was a contest at my tennis club that whoever played the most sets in a three month time period would win like a $100 gift certificate to the pro shop, and I just wanted to win. I went out there and I would play every single day, I think I had three or four more sets than the next person below me. It was like, ‘Oh, this is happening. I’m not letting anyone get close to me.’ And I ended up getting really good in that time because I was working so hard. My parents were really great about saying, ‘see, this is what happens when you work hard. You can achieve goals.’ And then bigger picture, it was realizing that if you want to do things in sports you have to be really disciplined in terms of how you take care of yourself. It taught me about good nutrition and working out and I was more conscious about never wanting to get in trouble and have sports taken away from me.

One of the very best softball players I knew, I think she was in 10th grade when I was 11th, and she couldn’t play anymore because she got pregnant and I just remember thinking, ‘I’m not going to let some guy take away my athletic career.’ That’s an important thing for girls, is that you realize when you’re in sports that your body is important not for how it looks but for how it performs. It’s such a big issue. Sports helped me focus on what my body could do. There are a lot of body image pressures in sports, whether it’s running or gymnastics or ice skating or cheerleading, but I think in terms of when you associate your body in terms of it allowing you to achieve your goals, for being the vehicle toward being successful and not just get praised from someone else on how you look, that gives you that self-esteem.

Welter during the first day of Cardinal's training camp. (David Kadlubowski/The Republic)

Welter during the first day of Cardinal’s training camp. (David Kadlubowski/The Republic)

Q: We all know you know from your experience coaching men. When did you first start competing with or against men, and what were some of the pros and cons of that experience for you as a woman?

A: When I played tennis, there was always a lot of competition with guys, because when you were one of the better girls, there weren’t a lot of girls that could play. And I played a lot of team tennis where there was mixed doubles. So it was very normal, and I think that was a very good way to come up in terms of sports because it was really normal to compete with guys because they were on your level. It wasn’t, ‘oh you have to play against girls, or you have to play against guys.’ It was finding someone to play against who would push you where you are. I think that was probably a really great foundation because I never thought of it as girls sports and boys sports; it was just competition where you could find competition.

But then most of my sporting career wasn’t that way. Even most of my football career wasn’t that way. I played the toughest of the tough girls [football], and then it wasn’t until my last year in football that I played with guys. In that, we had a lot of mutual respect for each other, as far as a work ethic, and I know the guys respected how tough I was and how hard I tried, even though I was definitely not out there as the best player on the field. We all got along because of my knowledge and what I was able to do as a girl in football. It was this really high respect on a lot of things that a lot of people wouldn’t necessarily see, and it was those relationships in having played with guys that opened up doors for me to start coaching the same team.

Q: Even in this post-Title IX era, football really seems to be the one sport that is still so male dominated. Where do you see opportunities now for younger girls and teenagers who might be interested in playing? Where do you see the growth?

A: I think there has never been a better time to be a girl or a woman in football. Flag football across the country is one of the fastest growing sports in the U.S. now, and there are five states now where it is a varsity sport, Florida being one of them, my home state. Let’s take this for perspective. In my whole career, until I was with the Cardinals, even though I was one of the best women football players in the world, I never had an opportunity to do participate in anything  that was NFL-endorsed, whether it was playing or them hosting something, or having to do with flag football.

Now, in one week in the beginning of March, I went and coached in the Women’s World Games, which was 224 women from 17 countries competing in women’s tackle football. It was hosted at the New Orleans Saints facility, they hosted the meals and provided the practice fields and everything. And then I literally went from there to Jacksonville, where the Jaguars were hosting their first girls flag football tournament. I just remember being so amazed that here I was participating in two NFL team events, at totally different ends of the spectrum of where it was in football, from girls flag to women’s tackle. I mean, what a better time.

(Matt Kartozian, USA TODAY Sports)

(Matt Kartozian, USA TODAY Sports)

Q: The pioneers for women playing in men’s leagues are people like Katie Hnida, who were kickers, and that was major progress. When do you think we’ll see women playing other positions, perhaps at the NCAA level or beyond? Is that something you see happening?

A: I think anything is feasible. It really is about the training you get up to that point. That’s not an easy place to step into. I think in terms of skill positions, we’ll see it more likely. Maybe a receiver, a corner, a safety. Those positions, it really is about raw speed instead of asking someone to step in as a lineman. I would never say anything isn’t possible, but there are just some certain height and weight differences.

Another position that I could see it is quarterback. Sami Grisafe was the Team USA quarterback in 2010 and 2013 was the quarterback of the Chicago Force for a long time and she was the quarterback of her high school in California. She’s amazing, and she’s probably like 5-10. The changes will come when they have the opportunity to do it over a longer time. Now you’re starting to see with the girls that are playing flag, and the level they are playing it and the time they are playing it, it won’t be as much of a stretch.

Q: How much has your life changed since your work with the Cardinals last summer? Do you enjoy this role you seem to be in now as an ambassador for women’s football?

A: I absolutely love it. To know that I was able to break the barrier of becoming the first female coach in the NFL, that was a great honor. But it’s only as great as the things that come from it. It’s just like football. You have a lead blocker, but that blocker is only as good as the running back who follows behind. And that’s what I want to see, the idea that what I did is creating opportunities for everyone else.

As someone who loves football, I love everything about that. I’m committed to helping as much as I possibly can. A lot of the projects I’ve been working on are all about that. It’s about showing girls and women what is possible. I love to say that they used to be able to say football was the final frontier for women in sports, but if a female can coach in the NFL then truly anything is possible. That’s how I see it. It’s important that when you’re the first at something, to embrace that it wasn’t just about what you did, it’s about what you can do for others to be involved.

Q: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced since, especially in terms of getting your next coaching job, and how are you trying to meet those?

A: The challenges are always the questions of what’s next and who will open the door? Football is still the ultimate boys club, I’m not going to lie. It has taken men who have been willing to bet on me to have had these opportunities. So that’s going to be the challenge for me or anyone else.

There are so many qualified and very dedicated people in football, not just myself, who are always looking find their place, and of course that’s the biggest challenge. Being someone who didn’t come up through the system, it means you don’t have as many of those personal connections. A lot of coaches may progress not based on just what they know, but who they know. It is a combination of that, so a lot of what I’ve been trying to do is balance being an ambassador for women and girls who love football and also making personal connections with coaches that are in the National Football League, because that’s a much different thing to know of somebody and to really know them.

Welter talks to NFL official Sarah Thomas before a preseason NFL game. (Cheryl Evans, AZCENTRAL Sports)

Welter talks to NFL official Sarah Thomas before a preseason NFL game. (Cheryl Evans, AZCENTRAL Sports)

Q: A lot of the efforts it seems that the NFL puts into women in football is about women as a financial market and what the league can sell, or pitching things to women that have to do with stereotypically female things, like fashion and cooking. Does that bother you? And if so, how do you think the league can address female fans better?

A: I think they are trying to figure it out. The league has made some great efforts to bring in some very qualified women at the very, very top, like Dawn Hudson [the NFL’s chief marketing officer] and Cynthia Hogan [NFL’s senior vice president of government affairs]. I met a lot of these women at the Super Bowl for the first time, and I think that’s been their way to really start figuring out how women’s voices can best be heard.

But I think of course it changes when you see women in a different, organic way. The response they got from having me in Arizona shows a different response level from female fans and what they want and where they want to see the game progress. It’s by taking note of things like that, and really integrating women into all facets of the game that they’ll really start to see that engagement. I’ve heard it for years, for girls and women, ‘I think I would love football, but it intimidates me because I don’t know it that well.’ That’s not talking down to people, it’s that way for a lot of people. Football is a great strategic game, but if someone hasn’t told you about it, it is a little intimidating. You’ve kind of got to know what to look for, what to watch.

When we really talk football and bring people closer to the game in that way, and we let them learn it in every facet, then that’s a much better way to make people integrated into it. You’ll probably still need to have both, tailgating is fun and part of what makes the sport great, but I think that women can be a part of every part of the game. We need to not only encourage that but encourage women to know the finer points of it.

MORE: Read all of our Girls Sports Month stories

Q: What are you hoping the impact of you coaching in the NFL will be?

A: I think it’s so great for young girls and guys of all ages to see how powerful a message it is to have a female coach in the NFL. It not only changes what girls think they can do, but it also changes how guys look at women, because obviously the NFL is the highest level of American sports, and if guys at the highest level of football can not only embrace having a female coach but also thrive under the situation, then to me there is no limit in what women can do. It’s really important for guys to see that, and because once it has been done, it can’t be undone. Now you’ve seen what it seen what it means to be a coach in a whole different way. I just love what that does for everybody going forward.

Some of the most powerful statements I’ve heard are from people who say that I have changed their thinking. I just love that and I feel honored to be role model to young girls. I just had the opportunity to go to the White House for Women’s History Month, and I got to meet President Obama. We joked a little, he said I was smaller than he thought I’d be. I took pride in that, I think I told him that if I was taller I probably would have played basketball and then he would have liked me more.

One of the things that was so powerful, and that I never would have imagined, is that he actually quoted me in his speech and said I was a role model, in reference to his daughters and how they’re growing  up now in a time where no one can tell them what they couldn’t do.

What a powerful time for women and girls in our country. … So many people want us to be so much further, but I see it as endless possibilities. We’re on the brink of the best time we’ve ever seen, not just for women and girls in football, but for women and girls in our society as a whole.

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