My gold medals are two of my greatest treasures. I won them as a member of team USA at the International Federation of American Football’s (IFAF) Women’s World Championship. Alongside the medals, I keep my first ever paycheck as a professional football player: $12 for an entire season.
I had never dreamed any bigger than that. Being the first female coach in NFL history isn’t why I started playing football. Now, because of me, that’s a dream that other girls can grow up with. This is the inside story of how I broke down the barriers of tradition, history, and what was comfortable to play in a men’s professional league, then to coach in a men’s professional league, and finally to get hired as a coach by the Arizona Cardinals in 2015.
Too often, people assume that “breaking the glass ceiling” means overcoming the resistance of men. I have experienced the opposite. My male mentors are the ones that made my dreams a possibility.
It all started in January 2014 when the Texas Revolution, a men’s Indoor Football League team, invited me to training camp. They weren’t just inviting me to watch — they were inviting me to train as a player and to take the field in their preseason games. I was considered one of the top female tackle-football players in the world at the time. Revolution GM and former Oakland Raiders wide receiver Tim Brown said it was an opportunity to showcase my talent as a female athlete. They considered me a long shot to actually make the team roster, but I still took the job.
It was February 15, 2014 when I entered my first game. It was still preseason and we beat the North Texas Crunch, 64–30. I finished with three rushes for a loss of a yard, but it was still one of the best days of my life. I proved that I could get back up when I got hit. I stood back up and asked the Crunch player who tackled me, “Is that all you got?”
Four days later, I was named to the 2014 regular season roster. I made the team and became the first woman to play running back in a men’s professional league. The stakes were too high at practice for me to be treated any more gently than the male athletes. Players were competing for their ability to stay on the team, and for their very livelihood, so they didn’t have the luxury to just step aside for the girl when I rushed through a gap. I took my hits play after play, lined back up and did it again, that’s football.
Taking the field as a player was only the first step in my journey against the odds. The following year, on February 2015, I was introduced as the Revolution’s new linebackers and special teams coach. At first, I turned down the offer. “Jen, very few men are ever going to give you this opportunity,” the Revolution Head Coach Wendell Davis told me. “You’re taking this job.”
It wasn’t easy. At first, some of the guys on the Revolution did not think a woman could coach football. Though they had respected me as a player, many thought a woman coaching was a complete joke. But once I actually began coaching them, these same players changed their opinions entirely. My head coach at the time was former NFL player Devin Wyman and I’ll use his explanation of why those players started to take me seriously. I’m using his account because these are also the words he used when he first convinced Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians to give me a chance in the NFL.
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“She thinks differently, but it’s really good to have that on your staff,” Arians has said. Photo credit: azcardinal.com
Coach Wyman honored me by comparing me to one of the greatest coaches in history: Bill Parcells. He played for Parcells in 1996, and had seen firsthand what a legendary, championship coach was — and saw the same thing in me. Wyman also told Arians that I broke down film exactly the way Parcells did, creating smaller, more digestible chunks to help players understand. Once I displayed my deep knowledge of game tape and my vision on the field (as Wyman explained), respect as a coach followed instantly.
Let me back up. Why was Coach Wyman calling up Bruce Arians on my behalf in the first place? It was because of a comment Coach Arians had made at the NFL Owners meeting that March. Arians said that he believed a woman could coach in the NFL if she could make players better — and that struck a chord with my head coach. So he called him up, and related what I just told you: how I won respect with my coaching prowess. At the end of the call, Arians asked him if I might be willing to join the Cardinals staff as a training camp intern.
When Wyman told me about the call, I was in shock. It took a full day for me to even believe he was serious. I kept asking him, “Really? Coach Bruce Arians? I know you know a lot of people, but really?!” I was sure it would fall through. I even made Coach Wyman promise not to tell anyone on the team that I was being considered. I thought that if word got out, a storm of controversy would squash my dream.
In late May, I was invited to Cardinals OTAs in person to meet the coaching staff and team. “I saw the passion and energy of the person I’m looking for,” Arians said of my visit. But he couldn’t offer me on the job quite yet. He pulled me aside. “This is the right staff, this is the right team, and you are definitely the right woman,” he told me. “I don’t know yet if I can make this happen. I have to get all the right yeses, but I want you to know that it’s in my heart to try.”
After OTAs in May, I waited and waited. But I hadn’t heard had any contact with Cardinals, so I was ready to give up. But when the Revolution made it to the championship game, I used it as my reason to call Arians and let him know. “That’s great, Coach,” Arians replied. “You got a lot of work to do. Go ahead and win that thing. By the way, this internship is going to happen. I’ll give you details next week.” With those words, the chance of a lifetime was mine for the taking. With those words, Bruce Arians became the man who opened the door for women to coach in the NFL.
Photo credit: BBC
I joined the staff as one of seven interns brought on board that year, coaching inside linebackers under two-time Super Bowl champion Larry Foote. Larry is the ultimate player’s coach because he transitioned from being a team captain and leader on defense to being a coach in the space of just one season. He was incredibly smart and translated the plays so easily. Above all, he was practical, telling players exactly what they needed to do to excel — and they loved that. In that way, our approaches were extremely similar. We didn’t pull any punches.
Our communication styles were a bit different, but we complemented each other. Larry is from Detroit, so he wouldn’t know how to sugarcoat something if he tried. I had a bit of a softer touch, so sometimes we played the good cop-bad cop roles. If I were still playing, it would be my dream to learn from someone like him.
The pressure of training camp is unreal. Players are thrust together to compete for a roster spot, while also working to unite as a team. To fight off the fatigue and keep players awake, we had to keep the meeting rooms extremely cold — shocking their systems from 115-degree Arizona heat. They have a demanding schedule each day and their professional future is on the line. Family is often far away, and even if they are in town, time is severely limited. Players draw a lot from each other, but at the same time, there is a fear of getting too close. Out of the 90 men at training camp, at least 30 will be gone once the season starts.
It truly felt like I had stepped into the reality show Survivor since every single minute was caught on tape, only we also had a playbook as thick as the Bible. The volume of the tape alone was daunting. My greatest surprise was just how much film we watch in the NFL. As a coach, you watch the film from every practice, and then review that film with your players in individual groups and then again in defensive meetings as a whole.
The critics promised me that men in the NFL would never take coaching from a woman. Cardinals linebacker Kevin Minter, who I became extremely close with, told me he was scared the carefree vibe of the linebacker group might change with a woman present. But once I showed them that I was up for the jokes, for the swear words, and for the uncensored talk, we became family. I also treated them as people, not just performers. At work, we get too caught up in the number of tackles someone’s made or how many deals they’ve closed. Building real friendship and valuing the person behind those stats enhances performance. It also made it easy for my players to be themselves around me.
What was it like to be a woman in a men’s locker room? That’s a question I get all the time, but it was a non-issue. Coaches rarely hangout in the locker room before or after games when players are changing. Of course, I went in at halftime or for scheduled meetings. But other than that, the team gathered in meeting rooms throughout the facility or huddled up on the field. So that scenario never really came up.
Locker room aside, there were plenty of funny, awkward moments. I remember one of my players responded to an instruction with “yes, ma’am” instead of “yes, coach.” He realized instantly and apologized so profusely that I had to put him at ease. “I will never be mad at you for good home training,” I told him. “You can call me ma’am, you can call me doc, you can call me coach … Just don’t call me a ‘B’.” It was one of the more infamous moments during all of camp.
Treat me like one of the guys, but it’s okay that I’m still a woman — that was the atmosphere I tried to foster. For example, I was walking beside my fellow coaching intern Rashied Davis, former Chicago Bear. I had tons of equipment with me. He turned to me and said, “I don’t care how tough you are, I’m still carrying your bag.” I handed it over with gratitude and we both laughed.
The players were truly excited for me, and to be a part of this momentous step for women. “Coach, do you realize this is history?” “Coach, you are so tough, I can’t believe you played with guys!” “Coach, we watched your highlight reel, you were a beast off the edge.” It still makes me smile.
I told them that whether their issues were about football or about life, if I could help them, I always would. I guess this is why we were all football on the field, and yet we would talk about life in the hallways. Some of my favorite moments started with “Coach, do you have a moment?”
I knew I had gotten past any preconceptions and become a real insider when players wanted to introduce me to their families. I never realized how many of them already had a female coach in their lives — the moms, grandmothers, or aunts who raised them. Entire families devote their lives for an athlete to ascend to this level in their career. And for many of my players, a huge female presence in their lives had guided their path. One told me that he had never seen his mom cry until she met me, and I told her what an incredible man she created. “We’re proud of what you’re doing with our boys,” she said tearfully.
I loved meeting the fathers, too. One shook my hand and said, “I didn’t know what to think with a woman as I coach.” “I didn’t either, Dad.” I replied and we both laughed. He went on, though. “I didn’t know what to think, but my son just loves you. So I guess what I’m trying to say is … thank you.
We teach athletes never to admit fear and never to admit weakness, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t human. I knew going in that I was working with some of the best athletes in the world, but what impressed me most was how great they were as people. My time in training camp and OTA’s taught me that many people underestimate the caliber of men that are in the National Football League.
In our first preseason game, I wrote notes to my players and left them in their lockers. I wrote memories from camp, words of encouragement, reflections on their best moments, and inside jokes. I never realized how powerful the response would be.
As Cardinals linebacker Kevin Minter told the Associated Press, “She’s a stickler about fundamentals, but she knows a lot about making you better as a person, too — with the notes she left on your locker, the words of encouragement from what she sees on film. She was a real good person to feed off of.”
I think that’s what coaching truly is: the ability to lift someone up and to change his or her life for the better. So many of my mentors have done the same for me, and that’s the only reason I’ve been able to blaze my trail and open these doors for other women.
Welter with Sarah Thomas, the first female official in the NFL in 2015. Photo credit: Kickoff Coverage
My coaching internship with the Cardinals ended on August 31, 2015. Even though I’m no longer with the team, I gained so much from my experience and was able to open the door for other women in the NFL. This past January, Buffalo Bills Head Coach Rex Ryan was considering hiring Kathryn Smith as a full-time coach. He placed a call to Bruce Arians to consult him on how it worked having a woman on staff. Not too long after, he hired Smith as their quality control and special teams coach — the first full-time position offered to a woman. I’m proud to be one chapter in the story of progress.
These days, I’m launching NFL Play 60 in Canada. I get to coach children every day and show them that the dreams you once considered impossible really can come true.by
Dr. J First Female Coach in the NFL, AZ CFollowingardinals. Boston College, MS Sport Psychology & PhD Capella. 14 years Women's Football. yes, anything is possible.