Jen and tonic

Car­di­nals’ hire of wel­ter was a trend­set­ter, but there’s more work to be done to get more women in the nfl

Chicago Sun-Times - - CHAT ROOM - BY AN­NIE COSTABILE | acosta­bile@sun­times.com | @an­niecosta­bile

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. ✶

MATT YORK/AP

Dr. Jen Wel­ter broke bar­ri­ers when the Car­di­nals hired her as a train­ing-camp and pre­sea­son coach in 2015.

AP, GETTY IM­AGES PHO­TOS

Scenes from Dr. Jen Wel­ter’s first sea­son with the Car­di­nals in 2015 (from top): run­ning drills dur­ing train­ing camp; greet­ing line judge Sarah Thomas, the first fe­male NFL of­fi­cial, be­fore a pre­sea­son game; and ap­pear­ing with then-coach Bruce Ari­ans.

Kathryn Smith

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