Arizona Cardinals Linebackers Learning From NFL's First Female Coach

Published: Friday, August 14, 2015 - 11:23am
Updated: Friday, August 14, 2015 - 2:32pm
Audio icon Download mp3 (5.09 MB)
(Photo by Kristy Westgard - KJZZ)
Jen Welter holds up an Arizona Cardinals helemt.

The Arizona Cardinals made history this summer by hiring the league’s first female coach as an intern during training camp — and Dr. Jen Welter is already making a big impression on the players.

The Cardinals got the sports world’s attention when they introduced Welter last month as part of their staff with head coach Bruce Arians by her side.

At the news conference in July, she was hesistant to go too far about the significance of the event. 

“I could not have dreamed big enough to imagine that this day would ever come. Though it’s a dream I thought would never come, it’s a dream other girls can now grow up and have," said Welter. "So, if that makes me a trailblazer ...”

The 34-year-old Welter, who has doctorate in psychology, is used to getting inside people’s heads. And she’s also used to butting helmets on the football field.  

A 5 foot 3 inch dynamo with arms bigger arms than most men, has been playing football for 15 years. She has played mostly at running back, being hit by the guys she’s now helping to coach — the team’s inside linebackers.

The Cardinals wouldn’t make her available for individual interviews, but after two weeks, Arians is even more impressed with his new coaching intern.

“She’s been fantastic. A hundred times more than I thought it would be. Players have embraced her as a coach. They listen," Arians said. "She’s got really good insight, as they call her Doctor J, there’s a really good rapport out there.” 

Welter’s hiring seems to be a slam dunk in the locker room.

“She fits right in. You don’t even know that she’s a woman when she’s in there giving guys technical input. You can’t even tell that she’s a lady coaching a men’s sport," said cornerback Patrick Peterson, one of the team’s leaders on defense. 

But to find out how Welter is really doing, you need to make your way over to the linebackers — the burly guys in the center of a defense who dish out hits and make the majority of tackles.

Second-year pro Kenny Demens said she’s helped him with technique.

“She’s real big on footwork and eyes. If  you get your eyes in the right place, it’s gonna take you to the ball, it’s gonna take you the ball, it’s gonna take you to where you have to be," Demens said.

Another young player, Kevin Minter, said Welter has helped him get back to basics.

“She’s a stickler on fundamentals. You kind of get away from that, a bit, working on this level, sometimes. With her, she’s always on footwork, staying behind the ball. Having someone reinforce that is kind of refreshing. OK, let me get back to Linebacker 101," said Minter.

And it didn’t take long for Alex Okafor to figure out his new coach was no joke.

“(The) biggest skepticism with her coming in was does she actually know the game, and she does,” Okafor said.

When did Okafor know she meant business?

“When she was kind of coaching me up on some technical issues about hand placement and driving my feet and flipping my hips,” Okafor said. "I was like OK, you actually know what you’re talking about. Let’s get this thing going.”

And even the veterans, like LaMarr Woodley, who signed with the Cardinals in the off-season after a stint in Pittsburgh, said Welter is the real deal, even if she never played in the NFL.

“I think it doesn’t matter at all because of the simple fact that you have a lot of coaches in the NFL that have never played a down of football in life and they’re coaching," Woodley said. "So, I don’t think it’s any different for any woman who hasn’t played a down of football.”

And for the why the Cardinals and head coach Bruce Arians did something that no other NFL team would dare do before, Welter said last month that it was no coincidence.

“He had to get all of the right yeses. But it was his heart that made it happen," Welter said at a press conference. "And it was his belief that it was 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 aside.”

The head coach, known simply by his players as "BA," said his bold move is already paying off.

“We’re just happy to give her this opportunity, and she’s run with it. I mean, she’s really done a great job," said Arians.

But Welter may not be a permanent fixture with the Cardinals. As just a coaching intern, she’s only guaranteed six weeks on the staff.

A decision will be made on her long-term role with the team when the preseason ends in September.

The Show