Review of Play Big

Welter, Jen.  Play Big: Lessons in Being Limitless from the First Woman to Coach in the NFL.  New York: Seal Press, 2017.  vii+266.  Acknowledgements.

Reviewed by Russ Crawford

WelterJen Welter has been the first woman to do many things.  She was a member of the first women’s football team to win an International Federation of American Football World Championship.  She was the first woman to play in a professional football game.  She was the first woman to coach a professional football team, and then the first woman to coach a National Football League team.  With Play Big, she is now the first woman to publish a book about her football career.

The book, written with Stephanie Krikorian, tells the story of Welter’s path to being the first woman to coach in the NFL, along with many of the other firsts along the way.  Interspersed with the autobiographical narrative, Welter, who also holds a PhD in Psychology, also provides advice aimed at helping people play big in their lives.  By “playing big,” the author means that people should attempt to live their dreams, no matter how unrealistic others may find them.  Do not allow other’s opinions to stand in your way.

Welter begins with a timeline of significant moments in her life.  A few of those moments include:

  • 1996 – Began playing rugby while attending Boston College.
  • 2000 – Began playing flag football after her graduation from BC
  • 2001 – Began playing tackle football with the Mass Mutiny of the National Women’s Football League
  • 2004 – Began playing with the Dallas Dragons, and Dallas Diamonds
  • 2010 – Played for Team USA in the first IFAF Women’s World Championship
  • 2013 – Repeated as world champion in the second IFAF WWC
  • 2014 – Becomes the first woman to play on a men’s professional football team – the Texas Revolution of the Indoor Football League
  • 2015 – Began coaching for the Revolution, becoming the first woman to coach a men’s professional football team
  • 2015 – Hired by the Arizona Cardinals as the first woman to coach in the NFL
  • 2017 – Named Head Coach of the Australian National Women’s Football Team for the 2017 IFAF WWC (x-xii)

Her autobiography begins with an introduction of how, in 2015, when coaching with the Cardinals, she decided to write personal cards to the inside linebackers she was coaching.  The notes were individualized for each player, and were simple messages such as “Use your speed and leverage; you don’t have to out-big them.”  This story was picked up by the media, and demonstrated that she was bringing something different and new to the ranks of NFL coaches, aside from the obvious.

Her first chapter tells of how when she was young, her first sport love was tennis.  She played very well, defeating girls, and boys, older and larger than herself.  She was a ranked player in Florida, but when her parents took her to see a professional coach; he told her that she was too small to take the next step.  This ended her dreams of being a professional tennis player.  She uses this story to illustrate her contention that people should not allow others to limit their dreams.  She did at the time, but over the course of her life, she learned to ignore the naysayers.

An interesting part of the chapter deals with a visit she paid to a woman reported to be a prophet.  Welter was deciding whether to go to BC for a business degree or to somewhere where she could play soccer.  The woman told her that even though she had decided on the academic route; her destined path was in sports.

Chapter one also tells of her first experience with football.  She had played rugby in college and flag football after while working in Boston, but in 2001, she had a chance to play with the Boston Mutiny.  She quit her job to prepare for her tryout, and made the team.  She created a persona that seemed much larger than her 5’2” frame, and began to play big.  She did so because, even though, she couldn’t increase her actual size, she could “out-little and out crazy them.”  (p. 33)

Chapter two “Be an And, Not an Or” argues that one should not allow themselves to be placed in boxes where they are one thing, and one thing only.  In high school, she was a talented athlete, but also good at math, until a math teacher put her in a box with an offhand comment that made Welter dislike the subject.  She faced the same problem with a self imposed box that kept her from engaging her love for art and painting until later in life.  She credits “becoming an and” as being the number one reason that she made it to the NFL.  (p. 49) It motivated her to go to graduate school and receive her Ph.D.  Her dissertation explored the efficacy of the Wonderlic test that the NFL uses to evaluate prospective draft choices.  She had learned to “no longer living in fear of not fitting in.  I wanted to stand out.” (p. 50)

Chapter three is about her years playing with the Dallas Diamonds.  For me, this was perhaps the most interesting chapter.  She remembers the years playing on a shoestring budget, despite playing on one of the most successful teams in football crazy Texas.  Players receive $12 per year for their play, and even though the Diamonds won four championships in five years, each player had to pay $1,000 for the privilege, and on one trip to California, their hotel was so awful that they all left their rooms to gather by the pool.  The hotel manager chased them away from there because it was where the local prostitutes met their clients.  (p. 59)  This was one of the stories that she told the audience gathered at the Professional Football Hall of Fame on October 16, and the other stories in this chapter about the difficulties that women’s football teams encounter in even getting to a game, provide a glimpse at the lengths women will go to in order to play football.

Chapter four continues the story of her days playing with the Diamonds, but introduces the idea that diversity is a strength – in football and in life.  She relates the story of how Berta Fitcheard-Brydson, a black woman and one of her best friends on the Diamonds, was targeted by a police officer who thought she might have kidnapped Welter.  She uses the story to contend that the officer only saw two very different women, and not two women who shared a passion for football to argue that when people from different backgrounds join together in a common struggle, good things happen – when the officer found out that Fitcheard-Brydson played for the Diamonds he let her go immediately, even though she had an outstanding warrant against her.

Chapter five is one of the more intensely personal chapters and deals with her breakup from her fiancé.  This led her to move out of their house and live in her car for a time.  She clung to football as one area of her life that could be controlled and although homeless, she felt free once her relationship ended.  This also occurred while Welter was preparing for her comprehensive exams for her doctorate, so football was a necessary diversion from an extremely stressful period in her life.

Chapter six details the first IFAF WWC in 2010.  Even while playing for the national team, the women still were under-resourced.  In the final game against Germany, they were forced to wear white practice jerseys because their one blue game jersey was too close to the black German gear.  To take advantage of this opportunity to represent their country each player had to come up with $3,000, and take a month off of work.  Although she wrote a blog about the adventure, she was unable to find a publisher for a story she wrote about the team’s reception at the White House, which is indicative of the struggle that women’s football has in gaining any recognition for their sport.

Chapter seven discusses how her debut as the first woman to play on a men’s professional football team came about.  Tommy Benezio, the owner of the Texas Revolution, asked Welter to come out to a practice for a publicity stunt, but she informed him that she would not do it unless she was able to go through training camp with the team.  Chris Williams, the coach, told her she was just too small to play linebacker, her normal position.  If she was to join the team, it would be at running back.  She credits playing with the Revolution as the moment she knew that she was living her destiny.  (p. 136)

An insert between chapter seven and eight also references the anonymity problem women face.  “I played thirteen years of women’s football and became on of the best in the world, with two gold medals, and nobody even knew I existed until I took the big hits from men.” (p. 143)

Chapter eight tells the story of how she went thought training camp, demonstrating her ability to prove that she could take not only the physical demands of playing with men, but also the mental toughness to handle the challenges of fitting in with the men of the team.  She used humor to help her clear that hurdle, and other Revolution players stepped up to welcome her.

After her season with the Revolution, the coaching staff changed.  Wendell Davis took over and when he saw how the team reacted to Welter, he offered her a position on his coaching staff, which she refused.  Davis would not take no for an answer, however, and won her over with the argument that she did not want to hear people saying that “there was a female football coach once, but she quit.” (p. 171)

When a reporter asked Cardinals Head Coach Bruce Arians if a woman could ever be a coach in the NFL, and he replied that she could “if she makes the guys better,” (p.177) it set off a chain of events that ended with Welter applying for and receiving a Bill Walsh Minority Coaching Internship.  Davis suggested Welter should contact Arians to tell him that a woman was coaching men, and a friend told her of the internship program.  Welter and Arians finally spoke, and he encouraged her to apply.

Chapter eleven through fourteen details Welters experience with the Cardinals and discusses the lessons she learned from the experience.  While it was difficult for her to know that her time as an NFL coach was coming to the end as the preseason wound down – she learned that she would not be kept on with the team from a story on her cell phone as she was working out – but she felt proud that the experience had gone so well, and that she had opened doors for other women.  Kathryn Smith became the first full time coach with the Buffalo Bills, and this past summer, eight women served internships with the NFL, and Katie Sowers was named an assistant for the 2017 season with the San Francisco 49ers.

Her final chapter offers her hopes that someday women will have the opportunity to play for more than $1 per game, and not have to pay for the opportunity to make that meager check.  In her conclusion, that follows chapter fifteen, she tells readers how she essentially created a super hero alter ego for herself.  She became Grrridiron Girl, and she leaves readers with the hope that they will find their own super hero within themselves.

Play Big is a good read.  The chapters are short, and for the most part proceed chronologically through her career.  When she writes about her experiences in football, the book elicits something of a visceral reaction.  Readers of books about athletes or coaches are often informed or amused, and Welter’s readers will also have those reactions.  But in some of the sections, they might also feel the urge to go run through a wall, because if she could do so much, they might also.

Where the book slows down is when she is speaking of her ideas about how people – presumably young girls are the target audience – can overcome problems in their lives.  Much of this is rendered in the sort of platitudes that one finds on motivational calendars and the like.  This is not meant to disparage the ideas – platitudes become platitudes because they contain some truth.  But readers who have heard and read various versions of these for years might find them repetitive.

Perhaps the strength of her story is how Welter used her experiences to create her “play big” philosophy.  The problem with these is that they are difficult to carry out, but Welter certainly did, and so this would be a good book to buy for girls who might be helped by athletic participation.

There is something here also for the sport historian.  Her description of the conditions that women athletes often face in pursuing their love for sports makes a good case study.  It is an extreme case – Welter was an exceptional athlete with the attitude that breeds success – but still instructive.

Russ Crawford is a Professor of History at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio.  His area of specialty is sport history, and his current project is a history of women playing football.  Along with several chapters on sport history, he has published two books.  Le Football: The History of American Football in France was recently published by the University of Nebraska Press in August of 2016.  His first book, The Use of Sport to Promote the American Way of Life During the Cold War: Cultural Propaganda, 1946-1963, was published by the Edwin Mellen Press in 2008.

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