Week one during the 2015 NFL preseason opened on a historic note. While the Arizona Cardinals hosted the Kansas City Chiefs at the University of Phoenix Stadium, falling by a score of 34-19, sporting equality took a historic and exciting step forward. With Dr. Jen Welter in her capacity as a coaching intern for the Arizona Cardinals’ middle linebackers, signifying the first game in NFL history to feature a female member of a participating team’s coaching staff; there was another element that added to such a landmark game.
Sarah Thomas, the first full-time female official hired by the NFL was making her officiating debut in the contest. With history being made twice in one night, it was only fitting that the event should be commemorated at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. A flip card of the game was signed by both Thomas and Welter for display in the Hall.
In addition, a photograph of the two along with Welter’s game-worn coaches shirt (of white color with the Cardinals logo on the left) was also placed on display. Beaming with pride, Welter was celebratory on social media, while providing an inspiring message for girls and women looking to make their own dreams come true,
“It’s official, for woman the road to Canton starts with a white shirt…. As a woman who saved my first check of $12 women’s football, and paid dearly to play… A simple white shirt makes a profound statement! @profootballhof thank you for the honor. To all the girls and women out there, let passion, potential, & God’s purpose guide you, not simply a paycheck. That’s #HOF advice in life, not just football.”
Not only was Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians gracious in his assessment of Thomas’ debut, calling her “solid”, linebacker Markus Golden appeared on Arizona Sport 98.7 FM stating that Welter was a really good coach, doing a good job. Welter has certainly gained her own share of new fans. At the Cardinals training facility, fans have been eagerly looking to obtain her autograph. Having earned her doctorate in 2014, she is known affectionately by the sobriquet, “Dr. J”.
Of note, Welter and Thomas are not the only women to have made significant inroads in football this year. Broadcaster Beth Mowins was hired by the Oakland Raiders as their first-ever female play-by-play announcer. In years past, Amy Trask was a CEO for the Raiders, adding to their proud legacy of women in football. Adding to such a momentous hire was the New York Jets appointing Jacqueline Davidson to the position of director of football administration.
For Welter, a two-time IFAF Women’s World Champion that played over a decade with the Dallas Diamonds, football was not her first sport. Attending high school in Florida, she graced the tennis court, following with several solid seasons of rugby with the Boston College Eagles.
Having broken barriers as the first woman to play in a non-kicking position in men’s professional football with the Texas Revolution, she would also coach with the Revolution in 2015. A remarkable show of support must be credited to another individual with strong NFL roots. Former Raiders great (and Hall of Famer) Tim Brown holds the General Manager position with the Revolution and was in awe of Welter’s work ethic and ability to never give up.
The Hall of Fame recognition is one that is highly fitting for both Welter and Thomas. The proverbial icing on the cake for both would be their likenesses on a football card. Perhaps in the near future, Canton shall open its doors to female football players, akin to the Hockey Hall of Fame inducting female hockey players. On the field, Welter was part of an exciting generation for the growth of women’s football, one that featured the likes of Sami Grisafe, Liz Sowers and Donna Wilkinson, not just Hall of Fame athletes, but Hall of Fame people.
Although Welter has drawn comparisons to former WNBA star Becky Hammon, the first woman to serve full-time on an NBA coaching staff (with the San Antonio Spurs), the bigger picture signifies a watershed moment for women in sport. From women’s hockey players such as Hilary Knight, Lesley Reddon and Anne Schleper earning the chance to practice with NHL clubs over this past season to women’s baseball being contested for the first time at the Pan American Games, Welter is part of a group of pioneers that are not just building a new and exciting role for women in sport, they are subsequently building self-esteem and confidence for all women.