New Arizona Cardinals coach Jen Welter making history, living a dream
TEMPE, Ariz. — History is made in many ways.
Sometimes, it’s by pure accident. Other times, it’s the result of a long process.
And every now and then, it’s simply long overdue. Such is the case for Dr. Jen Welter, who by all accounts will be the first woman to hold any kind of coaching role with an NFL team when she fulfills her internship with the Arizona Cardinals this training camp and preseason.
The significance of it all is not lost on anyone.
“She came over for OTAs, we met, and I knew this was the type of person that I was looking for to start this,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said.
“I think it’s great; I think it was going to be one of the 32 teams — I’m glad it was us,” Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill said. “I spoke to Commissioner Goodell about it [Monday] afternoon and he was elated and said ‘Congratulations’ and was pretty excited about the fact that, so quickly, we’ve got a (female) NFL official and now an NFL coach who will be joining us through the preseason and training camp.”
And, finally, there is Welter herself.
“I didn’t start playing football to be here; I didn’t even dream that it was possible,” she said. “And I think the beauty of this is that though it’s a dream I never could have had, now it’s a dream other girls can grow up and have.”
Welter said she loved football from a young age, but was not really able to get into the sport until she was done with college. She comes to Arizona with 14 years of professional experience, having helped the Dallas Diamonds of the Women’s Football Alliance win four championships as well as earning a pair of gold medals with Team USA at the International Federation of American Football Women’s World Championship in 2010 and 2013.
Most recently, she played running back for the Indoor Football League’s Texas Revolution in 2014 and then guided the same team’s linebackers and special teams in 2015.
So make no mistake, while her road to this point is one you may not be familiar with, she would not have gotten here without taking it.
Or help from plenty of people along the way, including Arians, who made sure to call Welter “a trail blazer.”
“That only happens with the best possible team, and that comes with the foresight of somebody like Bruce who, just out of the strength of his will, I would say that’s how it happened,” Welter said. “He told me when he offered me the job, ‘I want you to know it’s in my heart to offer you this internship — I don’t know yet if I can make it happen.’ He had to reach out and get all the right support. He had to have the support of a family like the Bidwills. He had to have a general manager with the foresight of Steve Keim to say yes. He had to get all of the right yesses, but it was his heart that made it happen, it was his belief that the Arizona Cardinals was the team that could handle this happening and that he had coaches on his staff that would embrace it, not cast me off to the side.”
Welter said Levon Kirkland, who is also joining the team on a two-year internship, reached out to her Monday looking to get right to work, offering whatever help he could.
“That’s the attitude that all of the interns he has here have, and that’s the attitude that everyone on his staff here. That’s beautiful. You can’t blaze a trail alone, otherwise you’re going to get stuck in the woods.”
In a way, the idea of being the first team to hire a female coach — even as a training camp and preseason intern — could be seen as an unnecessary distraction. After all, the Cardinals have eyes on reaching Super Bowl 50 and there would seem to be no reason to do anything at all that could deter them.
But the best part about this is the Cardinals, for better or worse, see no reason why bringing Welter on board could be problematic. Arians said players just want to be taught how to be better regardless of who it is that’s doing the teaching, which is a sentiment Kirkland — a two-time Pro Bowler over the course of 11 NFL seasons as a linebacker — echoed.
“What I’ve also learned about players in this league that I think sometimes a lot of people don’t know, but these guys, they want to learn,” he said. “They want to learn from the best. They want to be taught.”
Kevin Minter, one of the players Welter will be working with, tweeted a simple, “S/O to @jewelter47….Welcome to AZ coach.”
Cornerback Patrick Peterson, one of the faces of the franchise, wrote, “One team, one goal! Let’s go to work coach @jwelter47 ! #Birdgang #OperationBringLombardiTrophyToAZ”
In short, while the hire of Welter is a big story, it’s also a non-story. Though she and the team are breaking new ground, when the dust settles, she’ll be just another coach looking to make her way through a difficult industry.
As Arians said, he’s “extremely excited about opening this door for a very, very qualified person.”
Now it’s up to Welter to walk through it. She said her expectation going into the job is to learn. Asked what her biggest challenge is, she quipped “the size of an NFL playbook. I’m a doctor, but that’s a lot of work.”
That work begins in earnest this weekend, as players report for training camp Friday before getting started with a month’s worth of practices and games Saturday. Welter said her biggest asset as a coach is being able to show players that any limitation can be overcome with enough preparation and work, that it’s not always about “out-bigging” someone. Her reputation as a player was of one with one of the highest motors on the team, and she has every intention on bringing that mentality to her new gig.
She also can’t wait to get started on something that has been a long time in the making, a dream that is finally coming true.
“I knew as soon as I started playing football that it was my destiny,” she said. “I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew that God had put me on a path and that I had to be smart enough to put my head down, go to work and let him put me to work. That’s what he’s done up to this point.
“What would be a dream? A dream would be staying on. A dream would be staying on. A dream would be sitting there with (Kirkland) and him being like, ‘Man, I’m glad I wrote you up in this fellowship’ or someone else does. But I can’t say what that means yet. I have to live in this moment and be so happy to be right here, because if the work’s not there, it doesn’t matter how big your dreams are because you’re going to be sitting on the sidelines anyway. Well, not on those sidelines; you’re going to be sitting on the side of the road.”