“Football before female.”
That was what Arizona Cardinals players kept in their heads when Jennifer Welter stepped on the field with them this summer as an assistant coaching intern, becoming the first female coach in the NFL’s history.
“It was weird at first,” she tells PEOPLE. “But then the guys were like, ‘Football, football, football. Football before female.’ ”
“You kind of had to know because, as somebody who has played football for a very long time, I was well aware that the NFL was the no-female league,” she continues. “There was no place for us to even look at that as an option, so to have been called to step up on the field, it was so exciting and surreal.”
Welter’s welcome into the world of the league was by all accounts a success – and she’s well aware of the ground she broke.
“I knew it was opening doors for all my sisters,” she says. “It’s something bigger than yourself that makes it so great.”
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The 37-year-old says she got encouraging letters from little girls and mothers from all over the country. But one of the best things she got out of her coaching internship was just proving that she belongs.
“I had a great time with my guys and we obviously got along really well. We proved to everyone and answered the question, Could guys in the NFL be coached by a woman? We showed that, yes, they can,” Welter says.
But one recent decision off the field did draw heat: Welter agreed to walk Floyd Mayweather into the ring for his fight on Saturday in Las Vegas, Nevada (which he easily won).
Mayweather has served jail time for domestic violence against his children’s mother. But Welter defends chaperoning the champ.
“I knew there was a past there, everybody knows. But if we look only at the past, we condemn somebody to have that same future,” she says. “Him reaching out to a strong powerful female who made history in men’s professional sports, the final frontier in men’s sports, is huge.”