Insiders

Jen Welter’s Journey Is Unlike Any Other

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Seeking an NFL job has become just as much a part of Senior Bowl week as high calorie, fried foods.

There is no job seeker with a more interesting story or path than Dr. Jen Welter, who spent this summer as a linebackers coaching intern with the Arizona Cardinals.

Welter was among the legions of former players, coaches and executives trying to get five minutes with coaches, owners and scouts in the hope of continuing her dream of coaching in the National Football League.

She became a household name this summer when Bruce Arians made her the first woman on the sidelines as an NFL coach.

“I thank Bruce for giving me that opportunity,” Welter told Football Insiders.

“I think all new coaches should look at her because her résumé is outstanding,” Arians said prior to the NFC Championship game.

Welter broke through the glass ceiling for women, which has allowed Kathryn Smith to get a full-time coaching job with the Buffalo Bills.

“I think it’s an honor to know that what we did in Arizona has really changed the game for other women,” Welter said. “I did the impossible part, which was being the first female to coach in the NFL. And that, no matter what happens afterwards, is one of the greatest moments in the history of women in sports.”

Still, with every mention of Smith, there was a slight emptiness inside Welter.  She’s the one that broke through fearlessly and she’s the one who had to inundate herself in a man’s world, while still being a lady at the same time.

“I had little stuff to deal with, like getting pants for a game,” she recounted.  “I can’t wear khakis, I would look ridiculous.  Then I was offered shorts, and the smallest they had was a men’s medium.  I’m 5-foot-2, that doesn’t look right.”

Would anyone care if another coaching intern, such as former Chicago Bears wide receiver Rashied Davis, was wearing the wrong size pants?

Of course not.

Welter is trying to operate in a man’s world and still being objectified as a woman, at least by the media and a good portion of the millions watching on television.

“I didn’t even think about wearing makeup to a game, but then one of my friends reminded me that I was going to be on TV,” Welter said.  “So I have to put makeup on to look pretty, but I can’t put too much makeup on and be too pretty.”

She’s trying to balance being a beautiful woman, which she is, but not too beautiful or appear to be too glamorous.  This is while trying to prove her mettle as a linebackers coach without playing in the NFL.

“You don’t have to have played in the league to be a great coach. Look at guys like Bill Belichick and Mike McCarthy, they’ve both won Super Bowls and do a great job and have never played,” Welter explained.

The biggest question mark around Welter was how the players would respond to her instruction.  That proved not to be a problem.  She recounted veteran linebacker Lorenzo Alexander having her back when talking to a rookie.

“I was teaching one of the rookies something,” Welter said. “It was something on technique, coming off the edge or something for special teams. Zo’s walking by. Zo’s like a legend. So Zo’s walking by and one guy says, ‘ Zo, what do you think I should do?’ And he said, ‘I think you should listen to her right there because everything she said was on point.’ So when you have the stamp of approval from a vet like that, it’s those things that carry over. It very easily could’ve gone a different way if he said, ‘Hey, don’t listen to that. Come here, rook.’ But that’s the difference. Guys like that set the tone and everybody else falls in line.”

Welter can offer an NFL team so much more beyond being a valuable linebackers coach.  She’s a doctor of sports psychology and has a complete understanding of the mental approach that any athlete needs to have. She also knows what it takes to deal with all sorts of public scrutiny and come out on the other end of it successfully.

Perhaps the best part about the female football player turned doctor turned linebackers coach is that she offers a certain vulnerability when speaking, which makes her completely relatable in the face of her stardom.  She knows that she has to be tough and intelligent, but doesn’t pretend to be a genius of football, like most coaches and former players.  She’s fully aware of her strengths, as well as her weaknesses.

“Don’t try to be something that you’re not,” Welter said. “If they made me coach a quarterback, I would suck. I would be horrible. I don’t know anything about being a great quarterback. I was a linebacker. If you made me someone who yelled at players as a disciplinarian, that’s not going to work either. They would flick me aside and say, ‘What is this little woman doing?’ You have to be authentic.”

If Welter is anything, it’s authentic.  She can be one of the guys, as we talked about the amount of protein when ordering our dinner.  She is also one of the girls, as she told a story about nearly burning her hand off preparing for her opening press conference with the Cardinals.

“I was told that there was an afternoon press conference and I looked down and my nails hadn’t been done in weeks,” Welter said.  “So I went to this place and the nail tech was completely new and she put my hands in acetone.  Then she tried burning off the residue from my nails and actually set my hand on fire!  How would that have looked at my first press conference with first-degree burns on my hand?”

That’s just a day in the life of being the first female coach in the NFL.

She still has to deal with walking the tightrope between being an attractive, intelligent woman and not intimidating weaker men who aren’t ready to hire someone who fits her description.  Then, at the same time, pandering to those who could offer her a job while being much more than a publicity stunt.

When she can put her head down after spending an entire season on the outside looking in, Welter came to Mobile on her own dime to meet new people and make contacts.  She did it while smiling and literally skipping on a cold Wednesday night to Veet’s, the downtown Mobile bar where it’s much more common to run into NFL personnel having a beer than it is to get immediate service.

Many jobs in the NFL are gained by who you know, rather than what you know.  Welter has as much to offer as any available coach, in terms of life experience, education and expertise.  She would be an asset to any organization.  She just needs another coach to take a chance on her, on a more permanent basis.


About Charlie Bernstein

Charlie Bernstein

Charlie Bernstein is the managing football editor for Football Insiders and has covered the NFL for over a decade.  Charlie has hosted drive time radio for NBC and ESPN affiliates in different markets around the country, along with being an NFL correspondent for ESPN Radio and WFAN.  He has been featured on the NFL Network as well as Sirius/XM NFL Radio and has been published on Fox Sports, Sports Illustrated, ESPN as well as numerous other publications.