Playing Big: A Lesson in Being Limitless & Breaking into the NFL | with Jen Welter
Dr. Jen Welter is a ground-breaking, barrier-busting force of nature. She’s a trailblazer, sports pioneer, pHD, passionate leader, world-renowned speaker, entrepreneur, and source of inspiration around the globe. She tackled her football career with fearless tenacity and an unprecedented track record of pioneering firsts, building on her remarkable career in women’s football that included two gold medals with team USA, four world championships, and eight all-star selections. Dr. Jen busted into the men’s game as the first female running back signed to a men’s professional team. Blending her passion for the game with a powerful, unique communication style, she broke through the biggest boys club of all—the NFL—as the first female coach in the league.
Crystalizing her journey into a playbook for overall success, she published “Play Big: Lessons in Being Limitless from the First Woman to Coach in the NFL.” She founded Gridiron Girls, the first national movement for girls and flag football, she’s been honored and quoted by President Obama as a female pioneer and role model, and she’s coached everyone from kids in sports camps to C-level executives on how finding your voice and having fearless conversations can fuel positive change.
Jen is a Florida native, as rare as those are, born to a small family. Her father was a veteran of the Vietnam war and his warrior mentality carried over to Jen. Her mom was an artist and she was always working to humanize him and maintain that family connection. It made a great combination, but they weren’t the most hands-on, which left her free to her imagination and figuring out how the world works on her own.
When she learned about Joan of Arc in school, she told her dad she was lucky to be born when she; if she had been born later, then she’d be burnt at the stake. There’s no way she wouldn’t have tried to put on armor and lead people into battle. That’s just who she was.
In Vero Beach, where Jen grew up, the whole town was obsessed with football. It was always a part of her life, and the people playing were like superheroes to her. She went to Boston College for business school, and it was there that she discovered rugby. She joined the team, and she was coached and played well, but she was too small to realistically compete on a national level. She got her degree and started working as a headhunter, but she felt like something was missing in her life. She played flag football in her spare time, then one day she got a call from a tackle team, tried out, and made the team.
Football has been referred to as the final frontier in women’s sports, but in that moment, Jen made one promise to herself: She would step up to every challenge that the game put in her way. She knew that this was where she was meant to be. She had to find a way to make it work. At so many points along the journey, she felt like there was no next step, but she found a foothold and she made her way up anyway.
After playing for a year, the new head coach asks her to become VP of marketing and earn sweat equity for part ownership of the team. She maxed out her credit card to buy uniforms and ran the coach’s friend’s gym, but when there were only four weeks left of the season, the coach was fired for embezzlement. Jen had to field the team for the rest of the season, but she would still lose her job at the end of the season.
Since there is no clear path for women in football, Jen thought that getting a PhD in sports psychology, along with the practical experience of being one of the best players in the world, would create a unique selling proposition that would set her apart. After winning her second gold medal for the US Olympic team, Jen got a call from a men’s indoor team that wanted her to join. She learned how to be a great teammate, and going into the next season, she was brought on as a coach. That experience led to a connection to an NFL team, where she became the first female coach in the NFL.
If there’s one thing you can pull from her story, it’s that you won’t always have a roadmap to success. Jen could never have worked backwards from where she is today, but she worked to create the best version of herself so she was in a position to take opportunities as they presented themselves. It might not work the way you thought it would, but it will still work out if you focus on controlling yourself.
What Brett asks:
- [02:23] Can you tell us about your childhood?
- [06:49] How did your personality take shape when you were young?
- [21:47] When did you decide football was the thing for you?
- [29:17] How did you navigate playing football while other people made it so hard on you?
- [38:00] How do you get from your low point to breaking into a new high point?
- [45:11] How hard was it playing in a male-driven business?
- [49:29] What does the future look like for you?
Lessons for intentional living:
- If there’s one thing you can pull from her story, it’s that you won’t always have a roadmap to success. Jen could never have worked backwards from where she is today, but she worked to create the best version of herself so she was in a position to take opportunities as they presented themselves. It might not work the way you thought it would, but it will still work out if you focus on controlling yourself.