NORTH ANDOVER — Jen Welter, at 5-foot-2, thinks big — really big.
She dreams of becoming a head coach in the National Football League — yes, matching wits right there with Bill Belichick & Co.
Welter, 41, is one of the first women to play professional football against men, as a running back for an indoor league team out in Texas.
She’s the first woman to have ever coached in the NFL, as an intern with the Arizona Cardinals in 2015. More recently, she was the first woman depicted in the Madden NFL 20 video game, also as a coach.
The odds may be against Welter’s dreams of working the sidelines of pro football, although odds don’t seem to stop her.
But that’s OK too.
The next best thing is developing girls who love the game like she does, so that some day maybe female football coaches — even head coaches in the NFL — won’t be a big story.
A native of Vero Beach, Florida, Welter is hosting a girls-only football camp today in Malden. As part of her trip, the Boston College alumna was visiting a friend and business associate in North Andover.
“I feel like I was destined to do this,” Welter said of her football camps. “Originally it was going to be a one market and build from there the next year and the next year. But I realized that’s not me. I always think big. We started with several markets, and now we’re going to 18 different cities in 2019.”
Adidas sponsors Welter’s camps, which provide four hours of instruction, drills and lectures, as well as some football “swag” and T-shirts, all of which are free to campers.
Welter said the idea for the camps hit her a few years ago, when she was a guest coach at several boys camps.
A small group of girls attended those camps.
“Don’t get me wrong, I loved getting out there with the guys, working it hard,” she said. “But seeing two or three girls out of 100 kids really hit me. That’s a lot of pressure on those girls.
“And then there are all the girls who wouldn’t think of going to boys camp. So it became my focus,” she said.
Welter’s football resume stands up to pretty much anyone’s.
She played 13 seasons in women’s semi-pro football, and she briefly played indoor men’s football, for the Texas Revolution, before spending a season with the team as a coach.
She also coached for a men’s team, the Atlanta Legends, of the now-defunct American Alliance of Football, this past spring.
Back in high school, Welter said she asked to play football as a senior. She happened to be dating the captain of the team.
The coach was Randy Bethel, a former tight end at the University of Miami, who was drafted in the 10th round by the New England Patriots in 1990.
“The team was really bad, I went to (Coach Bethel), who always said I was his favorite soccer player because he would say, ‘she takes everybody out’ with my physical play,” she said.
“His answer was so awesome. He said, ‘Ms. Welter, you’re a heck of an athlete who no doubt would help my team athletically. But I’m asking you not to play, and lemme tell you why. I see this happening: You make some guy look bad. Then his teammate cheap-shots you.
“Then I would have to go kill him and go to jail.'”
She got the message.
While attending Boston College she joined the women’s rugby team, the closest thing to football, and earned a reputation for “roughhousing.”
She later played flag football, which led to a recommendation to play in the women’s semi-pro league.
She’s been involved in the game for nearly two decades now.
Though listed as a running back, as a player, Welter said she was more of a linebacker and rushing defensive lineman.
“I like moving forward,” she said.
The goal of her camps is to not only teach the fundamentals of the sport, like catching a pass, taking a hand-off, throwing a spiral or even pulling a flag, but also to learn about the energy the sport.
“At the beginning of camp, for girls playing for the first time, you will see a lot of timid girls,” she said. “By the end they’re loud and crazy, which is what a football field is supposed to sound like.”
This is the second stop on Welter’s multi-city tour, which started in Dallas and next takes her to New York City.
“The girls will be getting pro treatment,” she said. “We will have pro coaches. Former Patriot Patrick Pass will be there coaching. If a girl wants to learn how to play football or play better, we will help them.
“And we want them to be ready to play some football in Malden,” she said.
Bill Burt is sports editor of The Eagle-Tribune. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jen Welter’s Football Camp
WHO: Girls ages 6 to 18.
WHEN/WHERE: Today (Saturday, Sept. 21), Malden Catholic High School, 4-8 p.m. Campers should report at 3 p.m. to sign in.
Welter’s Merrimack Valley connection
North Andover resident Laurie Miller Voke heard Jen Welter speak during Super Bowl week three years ago in Santa Clara, California (Denver beat Carolina, 24-10). The event was held by W.I.S.E. (Women in Sports Enterprise).
Voke, CEO of Female Fan Nation, was so enthusiastic about Welter’s presentation and love of football that she connected with her afterward. The duo has since teamed up to promote Welter’s football camps for girls. Voke is also her business adviser.
“She is so talented and so passionate,” said Voke. “We become great friends, and I’m behind her 100 percent to help get more girls involved in football. It’s awesome.”