By now most people have heard about Jen Welter, the Texas Revolution running back who became one of only a handful of women to play men’s professional football. But few have dug deep enough to discover who Welter is as a person, underneath the helmet. After spending a day with her, she’s much more than just the tough gridiron girl who pops back up after taking hits from men more than twice her size. Here is a glimpse into the life of the real Jen Welter.
Jen suits up for a team workout at the Michael Johnson Performance Center in McKinney.
I receive a phone call from Jen, who tells me her client meetings are canceled, and her schedule is clear until lunch. We make plans to meet at her Dallas house after she stops at the AT&T store.
I park outside Jen’s house and am immediately greeted with a friendly smile and hug by the pint-sized running back, decked out in hot pink skinny jeans and heels – not what I expected from the tough girl portrayed in the media. With her sunglasses on, she looks ever the celebrity, and I’ll admit I was a tad star-struck. As we walk into her yard, I’m welcomed by her rescue dogs, Loki and Tyson. Although Loki, a geriatric German Sheperd, likely weighs more than his 5-foot-2-inch, 130-pound owner, I could tell right away that he’s a gentle giant.
As I walk through Jen’s abode, I’m fascinated by the artwork covering her walls. ‘Who’s the artist that painted these?’ I ask. ‘Me,’ she responds. Definitely not the answer I was expecting, but it opens the door to a whole new realm of conversation. Jen says painting is her balance between the intensity of football and her personal life. “Football is a game to me,” she says. “It’s fun, but sometimes you just need to decompress and be quiet, and that’s what painting is for me. That’s what shocks people the most.”
Analyzing the paintings, I notice a common style, something I would describe as shabby chic oriental. The depth, texture and rich color of her 3D artwork – which literally pops off the canvas – is made even more interesting when she tells me the materials underneath the paint: toilet paper, bubble wrap, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup wrappers, twigs and dryer sheets. When I ask if she sells her work, because seriously – she’s that talented, she says she hasn’t yet, but she does enjoy giving them as gifts. “To me it’s special, because I like gifts that mean something,” she tells me. “I think the best thing we can give anybody is our time, and painting something for somebody is giving them a piece of yourself. Every time you look at it you have that connection with that person. I’d have a hard time selling them because those people [who buy them] don’t know me. People can hear stats about you, but there are so many parts of you that are so completely different. I think something most people don’t understand about athletes is you’re playing a game and a character, and that character isn’t supposed to be who you are in everyday life.”
As I’m taken on a room-by-room tour, Jen points out her DIY projects. Most of her furniture is from friends or secondhand stores, and her bedroom reminds me of a beautiful Japanese garden at night. Faux flowers and vines snake the walls above her bed, standing out against the deep-blue painted walls. Her bathroom even has a wall draped with a bamboo privacy fence, contributing to her Zen zone. “I like each of my rooms to have a mood to them,” she says. “It’s just very peaceful.” A refreshingly different mood than the football “man cave” I expected.
We make our way upstairs, where Jen curses at Tyson, who left her a little doggy present while she was working out. Apologizing for the mess, she shows me her prized possessions – helmets, memorabilia, team photos and a $12 check for her 2004 season with the Dallas Diamonds. “I play for the love of the game,” she explains. “I’m not here to make money or for the fame or glory.” She says she’s never cashed that check to remind herself of where she came from. She shows me the pads and cleats she painted and wore in a now-infamous photo shoot for Team USA. “My team didn’t doll me up,” she says. “I did that photo shoot on my own. I wanted girls to see that an athletic body that maybe some people criticize for being too muscular could still be attractive and feminine. There are so many things that people look to criticize. I want girls to know they can be ‘and’ girls, not ‘or’ girls. You can be pretty and an athlete and smart. For guys we say ‘He’s a Renaissance man.’ There’s no equivalent term for girls. I want girls to know that they can be a Renaissance woman.” Jen goes on to say she doesn’t understand why people still think she’s playing on a men’s football team for the publicity. “If it was just a publicity stunt, I could find something that’s a hell of a lot easier on my body,” she says.
As we head back downstairs and I settle in on the couch with Loki resting his head in my lap and Tyson yapping for Jen’s attention, she tells me more about what football means to her. “It’s a character you create – like your own cartoon character or superhero,” she says, her eyes lighting up and that smile coming back. “When you’re playing football, everything can fade into the background. You can be that superhero, that untouchable girl that can play with the boys. … The judgments are fast. You score a touchdown, and you know immediately what you did right or wrong. I just love it because you always know what your progress is on the football field. It’s measured 10 yards at a time. Imagine if life was like that, always moving forward 10 yards, everything so clear and immediate, whereas life is just unpredictable. It’s always refreshing to know where you stand.”
Loki ambles over to the fridge as Jen continues to chatter about football. “Football is the one place where you truly need diversity, and I think because so many women didn’t grow up with football like the guys did, they don’t see the beauty in it,” she explains. “The touchdown doesn’t happen if all 11 people aren’t doing their job, and the jobs are all very different. It really is the ultimate team sport because you need people of every make and model.” Noticing Loki’s chocolate brown eyes staring at her hopefully, Jen tells me he wants an ice cube – his favorite treat – and that she forgot to stop by the store for a bag of ice. She fills up a frying pan with dog food and sets it on the floor, and Loki quickly forgets about the ice cube. Seeing the time, Jen changes into a neutral shirt with a layered, sheer back, and we head out the door for a lunch meeting at Mi Cocina in Uptown.
As we drive to Uptown, Jen opens up, telling me how her love for football started when she was a little girl growing up in Vero Beach, Fla. “Apparently, I used to dress up in my cousin’s football gear and make them tackle me when I was a child and I thought it was the funniest thing in the world,” she says with a laugh. “I even took one of my friend’s real football gear and dressed up as a football player for Halloween. In Vero Beach, football was like it is in Texas – it’s like a religion. I just loved the game. I loved watching it, and I loved that the whole town would basically shut down on a Friday night and that’s where everyone would be. They’re like your real-life superheroes. I was just fascinated by it.”
Coasting down U.S. Highway 75, I learn about her four years on the Boston College rugby team and about the corporate job she took after graduation and hated. After two years playing for the Mass Mutiny, a women’s tackle football team, Jen moved to Dallas and played with the Dallas Dragons, which folded soon after the season ended. She tried out and made the Dallas Diamonds where, over the course of 10 seasons, she would help win four national championships and represent her country twice internationally in the IFAF Women’s World Championships.
We park and meander through the parking garage where we meet Mathew Lunsford, director of communications and marketing for the Texas Revolution, outside the restaurant. Jen spots our other lunch guest, Cristina Gomez-Jimenez, at an outside table and rushes over to say hello. We sit down, order guacamole, and Cristina tells me about the Fort Worth Can Academies, alternative learning high schools for children who have struggled in traditional settings, of which she is the development director. “Jen has volunteered on multiple occasions, and she comes out and speaks to our students,” Cristina says, turning to Jen. “I don’t know what you said last time, but you had everyone’s attention. You really, truly inspired all the teachers and staff – for weeks I kept hearing about it. The young girls were in tears.” Jen tells Cristina she had shared her journey with the students, including how she overcame an abusive relationship. “Hopefully one day I’ll get to speak at schools and make a living out of it,” she says. “If they’ll listen to me because I happen to play football, then good. It gets their attention. A lot of people have very good messages but you have to get their attention; you have to relate. It’s easy to feel judged when you look at someone else and think they have no flaws. When you share a weakness with someone, it fills that person with trust.”
As the waiter takes our orders – a quinceañera salad with chicken for Jen – I inquire about the partnership Jen wants to impart between the Texas Revolution and the Can Academy. Jen says she wants to get the kids out to a game and have them really be a part of it. She wants them to see the different aspects that go into putting on a football game, and she wants them to explore their talents. Ideas include poster contests and a mentorship program. Mat tells me that, like these kids, many of the Revolution players also came from rough neighborhoods. “They’re sacrificing to fight for their dreams, and that’s why I see a really good synergy [between the team and the Can Academy],” Jen says.
Our food arrives – a quinceañera salad with chicken for Jen – and the conversation gets more lighthearted. Ever the joker, Jen tells me about the first time she stepped foot in the women’s locker room before her first game with the Revolution. “It looked like Sephora killed itself – there was glitter all over the walls!” she cracks, waving her arms around for emphasis. “I love [the cheer team], they’re adorable, but it’s not really the environment I like getting ready for a game in. I’m trying to get my mind right for a football game, and they’re hairspraying their [pantyhose so they don’t rip].”
As we get up to part ways, a couple at the table next to us asks Jen if she competes in anything. ‘She’s a ballerina,’ I quip, as Jen laughs and strikes a pose. After some prodding about her physique, Jen admits that she plays football. The man immediately recognizes her and says he wants to see her play. Mat hands him a card and relays the team’s schedule. It’s obvious that this recognition makes Jen a little uncomfortable, and as we walk back to her car, she tells me why: “One of the things that’s kind of a challenge for me is knowing that all those women [on the Dallas Diamonds] are playing now. That’s been such a big part of my life for so long, and it’s one of the places I dominated – I was one of the best in the world. To go from being one of the starters to this, where I’m lucky to get on the field for a play, is really challenging, and yet it’s the support from those women in a lot of ways that keeps me going.”
‘So why did you quit women’s football for this challenge?’ I ask her as she eases onto the highway. The easy answer is to be a role model for girls to never give up on their dreams and continue to push the envelope, because anything is possible. “I almost feel like I’m taking one for the team by not playing right now but for being on the men’s team,” she says with a sigh. “You have 24 players on your roster, but you can only dress 20 players for each day. When I say you’re fighting from the ground up, you’re fighting to go from number 24 to number 20 to dress for the game. In 13 years of playing women’s professional football, I’ve never missed a game. So to be practicing every day with these guys and know they’re going to travel to Nebraska this weekend and I won’t be with them? That’s hard. It’s even harder to know there are women that I love that are dying for me to come back to play for them, and they start this weekend. I’m an athlete, I’m a football player, and what I love to do is play. I’m fighting just to be there. I’m used to being one of the best as opposed to being the person fighting for that last spot to even be recognized on the team. That’s a very tough place to be in, but to me it’s also what makes it really special, too, because it would have been easy to have just played in those first two games and then to say I made history and be done.”
Jen’s phone rings; it’s an unknown number. She answers, and it’s clear she doesn’t know this person at first. Fifteen minutes later, when we’re back at her house, she hangs up and informs me she got the part as a female bodyguard in a web series. She says she’s always loved acting and when she was younger she had to choose between acting and athletics; she chose the latter.
As Loki munches on Kibble, and Tyson nuzzles Jen, I ask her some basic questions. Favorite music, favorite movies … that kind of stuff. She enjoys all types of music, especially hip-hop or rap before a game or practice. I was surprised to hear she doesn’t really watch movies, but prefers to help schools and attend charity events in her free time. “I love public speaking – it’s exhilarating,” she says. “I love chilling with my dogs and taking them for walks. Instead of just watching a movie, I’d rather engage with people. I write blogs, too, and am trying to work on a book.” And speaking of books, her favorite is “The Mists of Avalon” by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Otherwise, when she’s not working out or playing football, Jen works as a sports psychologist. “The psychology of an athlete is what I do,” she says. “It’s always a different puzzle or a challenge.”
With that, I left Jen to run back to the AT&T store – her text messages weren’t coming through – and headed home to relax a little before her practice.
I arrive at Hendrick Middle School in Plano, where the Texas Revolution are practicing. It’s a beautiful evening with a slight breeze, and it’s easy to spot Jen among a sea of massive men. From across the field, I can tell she’s in the zone. As I watch her do drills and take hits from men twice her size, I’m amazed how she keeps getting back up and hustling right back in line. “It’s been an experience I never thought I’d go through, but having her on the team has been a great thing,” says Clint Solomon, Revolution receiver whom Jen affectionately refers to as Solo. “It’s been a lot of fun for the guys and myself. She’s very positive. She brings a lot of energy to the guys and to the game, and she’s a great athlete. I’m learning a lot just by having her on my team. Not many girls would have the courage to play football with these big men.”
It’s obvious Solo has taken Jen under his wing as he tells me how she’s like a little sister on the field, but at the same time she’s like one of the guys. “You gotta look out for her because she’s so little,” he says, laughing. “Sometimes you can’t even see her, but she’s right there in front of you.”
In all seriousness though, Solo says he’s proud of Jen and what she’s doing for the sport and for women. “God only made so many women who are able to do what Jen is doing,” he says. “She’s giving women another mountain to climb, another goal to set for themselves. We have a good, young team and we’re building. Jen has been nothing but positive to our team, and in my eyes we’re blessed to have her. I thank her a lot for all she’s doing. Look out for the Revolution.”
As I watch Jen pop back up every time she’s knocked down, forearm bloodied from a previous wound that ripped open, I remember that not only is this fierce femme footballer physically outmatched, she’s playing a new position and hasn’t thrown in the towel or complained once. This tiny woman, with her larger-than-life charisma, is doing something not many other women have done before, and she’s doing it with blood on her shirt and a smile on her face. And no matter how she finishes out her first men’s pro league season, there’s one thing that can’t be denied – she’s starting a Revolution, one yard at a time.