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Jen and tonic: Welter was a trendsetter, but there’s more to do to get more women in NFL

Jen Welter became the first female coach in league history in 2015, when then-Cardinals coach Bruce Arians hired her to be part of his training-camp and preseason staff.

Former Cardinals assistant coach Jen Welter watches from the sideline during a preseason game against the Chiefs in 2015 in Glendale, Ariz.
Former Cardinals assistant coach Jen Welter watches from the sideline during a preseason game against the Chiefs in 2015 in Glendale, Ariz.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Growing up in Vero Beach, Florida, 140 miles east of Tampa and 140 miles north of Miami, Dr. Jen Welter remembers the lights of Friday night football and the players she thought resembled superheroes.

She fell in love with a game that didn’t have a place for her yet.

Welter obviously had no idea then that she would go on to make history multiple times in her football career, both coaching and playing.

The most historic moment came when Bruce Arians, the coach of the Cardinals at the time, hired her in the summer of 2015 to be part of his training-camp and preseason coaching staff, making Welter the first female coach in NFL history.

She joined the Sun-Times in the Chat Room this week.

What was a significant turning point in your football career?

Dr. Jen Welter: Becoming the first female to play running back in professional men’s football. I think that was really important for a number of reasons. I used to think, when I was playing women’s pro football, if I could just make one more tackle, one more play, do one more good thing or sack another quarterback that the world would realize women can really play football. Nobody gave a damn about me until I got tackled by men.

How did the opportunity with the Cardinals present itself?

DJW: When Sarah Thomas became the first full-time female [official] in NFL history, a reporter asked BA [Bruce Arians] if he could ever see women coaching in the NFL. Up until that point, it wasn’t even a conversation. I talked to Devin Wyman [coach of the Texas Revolution], and he said: ‘‘We should call Bruce. If you get his number, I’ll talk to him.’’ I ended up talking to BA’s assistant, and I wasn’t expecting BA to call back. A couple of weeks later, I walked into practice and Devin said: ‘‘You’ll never guess who called me. It was Bruce Arians.’’ From there, Bruce ended up inviting me out to OTAs, and we really hit it off. We talked about one of the best receivers coaches he met when he was coaching in Mississippi. He said her name is Dot Murphy. He talked about the fact that nothing had changed all these years later. He said: ‘‘I really think it needs to change, and I think we have the right team here to do it.’’

What did it feel like when the NFL made its first full-time female coaching hire?

DJW: What was so cool about Kathryn Smith’s hire was that Rex Ryan called BA first. Rex wanted BA’s insight. It was such a compliment because we were the ones who set the standard. This opportunity is here because of what we did.

You’ve said in previous interviews that everything is about a sense of omission when it comes to football. How do you feel the sport and the NFL are doing with confronting that today?

DJW: When you look at football, you have to look at all the places where we can address [the lack of female representation], and I don’t think it’s just up to the NFL to do that. The NFL is one place, and obviously it’s the biggest platform. It’s up to teams to change how they approach women in the game. Anywhere that you don’t see women, you are reinforcing for girls that they don’t belong. You don’t have to tell them; they see where they are not.

You recently published a children’s book called ‘‘Wearing a Mask Says I Love You.’’ What inspired this book, other than the obvious?

DJW: I was watching Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s press conferences. One day he said something along the lines of, ‘‘It’s not about me, it’s about you, and I wear a mask to say I love you.’ I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a book,’ and started writing a hero story focused on wearing a mask.

You started your youth girls football camp Grrridiron Girls in 2017. Do you see that continuing despite the pandemic?

DJW: The impact COVID-19 has had on Grrridiron Girls has been one of the most challenging things personally. The Bears would have been the first team to have their second annual Grrridiron Girls camp with me this year. They also had their girls camp in Halas Hall. All of those girls got to experience this iconic venue. That was somewhere the Bears created change within their wheelhouse. I want to see more big changes, more equality, but we have to push the top from the bottom. We will either pivot to do more virtual events and/or hopefully more in-person camps at the end of 2020.