TEMPE, Ariz. -- A football life almost never happened for Jen Welter.
A futbol life, however, nearly did, by way of the tennis courts.
Welter, who was introduced Tuesday by the Arizona Cardinals as an inside linebackers coach, grew up outside Vero Beach, Florida. Like many young, athletic Floridians, tennis was her sport of choice. She was ranked in the state and began traveling for tournaments. At one point in her young career, the father of Mardy Fish, who was the best American male tennis player in 2011, was her coach.
Tennis was her future until her next coach told the 5-foot-2 Welter she was too short and lacked the strength to play in the pros. Distraught and disheartened, she traded in her tennis racket for team sports -- any and all of them.
And for the first time, she had teammates.
“It was nice not to be isolated,” she said. “It was great.”
Soccer became Welter’s sport of choice. She was a two-time captain for her high school soccer team. Also an academic success as class valedictorian, she hoped to earn a college scholarship to play at Stanford. That offer never came.
Instead, Welter played rugby while earning her degree in business at Boston College. After graduation, she traded in her school books for a playbook in the Women’s Football Alliance. She played 14 seasons in the women’s league, the majority for the Dallas Diamonds, whom she helped lead to four titles. She also won gold with Team USA at the International Federation of American Football's Women's World Championship in 2010 and 2013.
During that time, the overachiever in Welter yearned for more schooling. She first earned a master’s in sports psychology and then a doctorate in psychology from Capella University in Minnesota. By now, football was so much a part of her it started to leak into her academics. Welter did her dissertation on the relationship between the Wonderlic test and the success of NFL quarterbacks.
Armed with 14 years of playing experience and three degrees, Welter moved on to coaching last season. She was an assistant coaching linebackers and special teams with the Texas Revolution, a men’s team in the Champions Indoor Football League. The head coach of that team, Devin Wyman, contacted Cardinals coach Bruce Arians about his protégé. Welter said Wyman was the first person she called when she got the opportunity in Arizona.
“When I came into Arizona, I had met with them and [Wyman] had talked to Bruce," Welter said. "I had to share that news [with Wyman]. ... I feel like there are a lot of people mad at me because I haven’t really called them.”
A lot of people helped Welter get to where she is today. Dr. Adrienne Leslie-Toogood, who was Welter’s faculty mentor at Capella, said her mentee has always been a trailblazer.
“It didn’t matter what obstacles came up. She worked harder, she found a way around it,” Leslie-Toogood said. “So, certainly it’s not surprising that she put herself in this position, as well.
“She knows where she wants to go and then she finds the path to get there. She doesn’t necessarily look for the path that’s already made. She’s just like, ‘This is where I’m going to head. Now, I’m going to figure out how to get there.”
Dawn Berndt, the owner of the Dallas Diamonds, is also the manager of Team USA. She believes what Welter lacks in stature, she makes up for in knowledge.
“She is battle-tested and does have knowledge of the game,” Berndt said. “Hopefully a lot of her athletes will give her an opportunity to show what she knows before they judge her on her size. She’s a tiny package. But she’s a tiny package with amazing heart and knowledge. Given the opportunity, she’s going to excel.”
Robert Williams played linebacker for Welter with the Revolution. He said her high football IQ stood out immediately. Welter not only understood the game but used an arsenal of motivational techniques perfected during her time earning her advanced degrees.
“Once we gave Coach Jen a chance, I think everything worked out,” Williams said. “We finally understood that she knew what she was talking about, especially being a doctor, too. She brought a lot of understanding to the game.
“She brought something different than what we got from regular coaches as men. She brought a softer side to football.”
Softer does not mean Welter took it easy on her players or teammates. She had high, yet simple, expectations: You do your job and I will do mine. She stayed on her players, yelling only when it was necessary, he said.
“If it got to the point where she had to keep telling you something over and over, she’d get on your butt,” Williams said.
Welter impressed everyone with her punctuality and work ethic, which dates back to her early days with the Diamonds, Berndt said. Welter was always the first one at the Revolution’s practices and had the field set up before the players were ready, Williams said.
But just because Welter knew football and was an effective coach didn’t mean the 2014 season in Texas was always easy.
“At the beginning,” Williams said, “it was a little shaky with her being a woman. But at the end of the day, once you get her an opportunity and a chance and took the woman out of the equation and just said, ‘She’s our coach,’ everything started coming into play.”
Welter has always been high-energy and positive on and off the field. Former Diamonds teammate Janice Mitchell described her as a “bunny rabbit” because she was “bouncing around” with excitement.
Welter rarely let anger get the best of her and turned negatives to positives, Mitchell said.
“Honestly, words can’t really explain how positive and energetic of a person she is,” Mitchell said. “There’s not a moment where she’s down on anyone. It’s always positive.”
It’s led her to the highest level of professional football for a trial run.
The Cardinals hired Welter as a training camp and preseason intern, meaning she’ll have from Friday until the last preseason game on Sept. 3 to prove she’s worthy of a full-time job. To get there, Welter has to be the coach she knows how to be, former NFL coach Butch Davis said.
“The very first and most important thing is she’s got to develop the trust of the players that she can make them a better player,” Davis said. “Because, in reality, that’s all you, as a player, really wants. They want their coach to help them stay in the league longer and play better and perform better.”