Dr. Jen Welter is only 5-foot-2, but she stands very tall as a force for women.
Last year, Welter made history by becoming the first female coach in the National Football League, hired by the Arizona Cardinals as a preseason intern to work with the team’s inside linebackers.
The NFL opportunity came about after Welter spent a season as a linebackers and special-teams coach with the Indoor Football League’s Texas Revolution. The year before that, Welter actually played as a running back for the Revolution, becoming the first woman to play a contact position in a male-dominated sport. Before joining the Revolution, Welter played for 13 years in professional women’s leagues.
On Thursday, Welter was at Royal Vale School to attend the Greater Montreal Athletic Association’s flag football tournament, with 22 teams representing 17 schools and 240 players taking part — including 110 girls. Welter was joined by former Indianapolis Colts stars Roosevelt Potts and Bill Brooks, along with the team’s cheerleaders, as part of the NFL’s initiative to bring its Play 60 campaign to Canada, encouraging kids to be active for 60 minutes a day to help fight childhood obesity.
None of the kids on the field — with the possible exception of Colts mascot Blue, who showed some pretty good moves while playing quarterback for one of the teams — was having more fun than Welter with her ponytail tucked through the back of her NFL cap, along with eye black and a smile that wouldn’t go away while giving tips to the kids.
This wasn’t an act — it’s obvious this woman from Vero Beach, Fla., absolutely loves anything that has to do with football.
“I’m here to show that the girls are just as important as the boys,” said the 38-year-old Welter, who played rugby at Boston College and has a master’s degree in sport psychology and a PhD in psychology. “I always wanted to play football as a kid, but I never had the opportunity until after college. So to be able to give these girls the opportunity now is priceless to me.”
Welter credits Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians for giving her the opportunity to experience what it’s like to work with NFL players. After the NFL announced last year that Sarah Thomas would become the league’s first full-time female official, Arians was asked by a reporter if he could ever see the day when a woman coached in the league. His response was: “Absolutely. Why not?”
When Welter heard that, she reached out to the Cardinals to let them know there already was a woman coaching a men’s team in the indoor league.
“Bruce Arians is an amazing man,” Welter said. “It was really on the strength of his will and character that it happened.”
When asked if she is able to bring something different to coaching football from a women’s perspective, Welter said: “I don’t know if it’s necessarily a women’s perspective because I think that men and women can learn from each other all the time. I think what made me successful was from my doctorate in psychology I focused on really evaluating the guys as people, not just as performers. And we had a great rapport and a lot of trust. And I made sure that they knew exactly where they stood in terms of feedback.”
One of the ways Welter did that was to write little notes to the players, something that made headlines around the NFL.
“I laughed with them that they sold me out,” she said. “But I think that really resonated with a lot of people that something so simple could go so far.”
One of her notes was to linebacker Kevin Minter, telling him: “Be the leader that you are in calling the huddle.”
Said Welter: “It was just very important reminders about the game of football. Nothing that they shouldn’t have already known. But sometimes you just need to hear it.”
Or read it.
Welter travels across North America now promoting Play 60 for the NFL and is also very involved with the White House Council on Women and Girls, created in 2009 by Barack Obama with a broad mandate to advise the U.S. president on issues relating to the welfare of women and girls. On June 14, Welter will be at the White House for the first United State of Women summit — hosted by first lady Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey — focusing on six topics: equal pay; women’s health care; education; violence against women; entrepreneurship and leadership, and civic engagement.
Welter is shown in the YouTube video promoting the summit and she wants to encourage young girls to dream big.
“I want girls to know that there are no limits,” she said. “Literally, if a woman can coach in the National Football League, then anything’s possible.”
While Welter hasn’t met the first lady yet, she did get to meet President Obama last March at a celebration of Women’s History Month.
“He said that I was a lot smaller than he thought I would be, which I thought was fantastic,” Welter said with her big smile.
“The most shocking part about it was really when he quoted me in his speech,” Welter added about the president noting she was a role model and an example of how there are no longer “glass ceilings” for women.
“I’m pretty tough, but that one almost knocked me off my feet,” Welter said.
It didn’t, though, and she’s still standing tall.