Jen Welter and Lisa Maurer have a few things in common. Both women stand a diminutive 5 feet 2 inches, have an oversized love of football, and also coach on men’s football teams, which places them in a very small gridiron sisterhood. At last count, it was the two of them, and thousands upon thousands of guys working everywhere else in the college and pro ranks.
Welter, a 37-year-old psychologist who played rugby as a Boston College undergraduate, just days ago began her job as an intern coach with the Arizona Cardinals. Originally from Florida, she has been all over the news of late, heralded as the first woman employed on an NFL coaching staff. The job, helping to instruct inside linebackers, is hers for the duration of training camp and could lead to a full-time position with the Cardinals.
Maurer’s field of play, though similar, is significantly different. For starters, she is a woman, religious, a longtime Catholic high school coach who heard God’s calling and joined a Benedictine monastery in 2007 in Duluth, Minn. Now 45, she is Sister Lisa Maurer, and last year she became the first woman to coach on a men’s college football team, instructing kickers at Division 3 College of St. Scholastica, a school founded on the monastery’s grounds in 1912.
“Everybody’s been e-mailing me,’’ Maurer said with a laugh the other day, reflecting on what it’s like now to have Welter join her in a very tiny football subset, “and they’ve been saying, ‘Hey, she’s copying you!’ And I’m like, ‘Uh, no, I don’t think so . . . I think hers is on a whole different level.’ ’’
But be it Division 3 in northern Minnesota or the NFL big time in the Arizona desert, football is football and coaching is coaching. The job is first and foremost about teaching, making players better, a point that Bill Belichick made again on Thursday between his constant dismissal of nearly every question imaginable on the day his Patriots officially opened training camp.
Bruce Arians, Belichick’s counterpart in Arizona, had the same view of coaching when talking about Welter’s hiring, noting players only care that coaches help improve their performance. “If you can make me better,’’ Arians told the Arizona media, “I don’t care if you’re the Green Hornet, I’ll listen.’’
Amen to that, said Maurer, though admittedly not choosing precisely that word. She found her gender a non-issue last year, a season in which St. Scholastica went a perfect 10-0 in the regular season before losing in Round 1 of the playoffs. She said the only time gender appeared to enter anyone’s consciousness was when a player, in an emotional moment, had a slip of the tongue and uttered something, shall we say, short of spiritual in nature.
“I never had any issues whatsoever,’’ recalled Maurer, who grew up Sleepy Eye, Minn., where her father was a high school football coach. “The cute thing is, because situations can get intense, every once in a while a word might fly out of somebody’s mouth, you know, in the heat of something, and if I am there they will catch themselves and say, ‘Oh, sorry Sister!’ And I’d always chuckle at that, because half the time I was probably thinking the same thing. And they’ll tease each other sometimes, if they’re picking on one another, they’ll say, ‘Hey, Sister is over there . . . I’m gonna go tell Sister.’ ’’
More remarkable, in Maurer’s opinion, was that players freely shared with her sensitive issues in their off-field lives. If a grandparent was ailing, or a big test was on the horizon, or they had a girlfriend question, they’d often seek out Maurer.
“And probably boys being boys or guys being guys,’’ she said, “it’s not like we’d sit down and have a heart-to-heart talk. They’d just kind of walk past me and say, ‘Hey, Sister, my grandpa just died, would you pray for my family?’ And I’d say, ‘OK, gotcha.’ Then they’d just walk away. It’s rarely a sitdown, Oprah Winfrey-like moment. But how precious is that? What an honor that they would even be that vulnerable, because, you know, they are these big football guys.’’
Welter doesn’t have the religious credentials of being a Benedictine nun working for her, but she has her game experience, including a decade-plus playing in women’s pro football leagues. In her purse, she still carries a check made out to her for $12, her total earnings for playing a dozen games in 2004-05 with the Greater Dallas Diamonds. She also has her doctorate in psychology (earned at Capella University in Minneapolis). The latter skill set no doubt will give coach Doc Welter an edge in the listening and confidentiality department.
“I feel like I should e-mail her or at least reach out, or something,’’ said Maurer, not knowing if she truly has advice to share with Welter. “I just want to congratulate her and support her in what she’s doing. I think it’s a great thing that she has the courage and fortitude to do what she is doing.”
As Maurer found out when players opened up to her, guys routinely act differently around women than around other guys, so part of the dynamic changed in Arizona the very moment Welter was hired. Trust me on this. When I first started covering pro sports in the mid-1970s, the media corps in Boston was exclusively a male domain. When female reporters entered dressing rooms later in the decade, often first with resistance from players and other media members, the dynamic changed instantly, in many ways.
If Welter stays on the job, her presence alone will be transformational. Whether she makes an impact on the club’s performance will be determined not by her gender but by her knowledge, her ability to convey it, and then ability and willingness of Cardinals players to follow her lead.
“It is about that she knows what she’s doing, especially at her level, in that she has been there and done that and she brings what she has to her particular team,’’ said Maurer. “I commend her. Hats off. I think it’s totally awesome.’’
Dr. Jen Welter and Sister Lisa Maurer. As of today, they are two coaches working some 1,800 miles apart, feisty pioneers in a workspace they’ve changed by their mere presence.