Ref Sarah Thomas, coach Jen Welter part of NFL's historic sisterhood
By Eric Adelson
Special to FOX Sports
There probably aren’t too many football officials who are buddies with football coaches, but when Sarah Thomas got word that she would become the first woman to officiate a Super Bowl, she called Jen Welter.
"I thought of you," said Thomas — who will make history Sunday alongside Tampa Bay assistant coaches Lori Locust and Maral Javadifar — in her Mississippi drawl.
"Really?" Welter said.
Thomas said yes, and then the line judge asked Welter a question: "Do you remember what you told me when we met on the field before our first game?"
It was August 2015 in Glendale, Arizona. Welter was about to become the first woman to coach in an NFL preseason game, as an intern for the Arizona Cardinals. Thomas was about to officiate her first NFL preseason game as a full-time ref. The matchup happened to feature Bruce Arians against Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs, which no one had any reason to believe would mirror the Super Bowl coaching matchup five seasons down the line.
Arians brought Welter in from the Texas Revolution of the Champions Indoor Football league, in which she was a player and then a coach. In his typical, low-key "BA" style, he told her the news over the phone from the golf course, as if he were relaying tee times.
"You’re gonna coach the Cardinals," he said, "so take care of [your team’s] championship, and we’ll talk to you later."
Welter thought, "Did he just say that?"
He did, and a few months later, she was in the Cardinals locker room, ready to make history — and meet Thomas.
"My linebackers were so thrilled when they found out about 'the lady ref,'" Welter says, breaking into a laugh. "’So dope! The lady ref! You should get in her face and challenge a call!’"
Welter had a ready comeback.
"Guys," she said, "what would not be dope would be if I was wrong!"
The players laughed, and Welter laughed, and she took the field for history — and the start of an unexpected friendship.
"That handshake would be a door-opening," Welter says.
The moment was made for television, and cameras circled the scene of the historic face-to-face. Both women signed a play card from that night that ended up in the Hall of Fame.
"It was this weird moment," Thomas recalled to Welter over the phone more than five years later. "I was nervous. I didn’t know what to say. So you smiled and laughed and said, 'This isn’t awkward, is it?'"
They both laughed at the time, and they both laughed at the memory over the phone.
"You were so easy and natural," Thomas told Welter, "and it let me know it would be OK."
This is the Welter Way. She played and coached a ferocious, ruthless sport, yet she finds amusement and peace in many tense situations.
"I’m someone who’s always used humor to deal with big moments," she says.
The big moment will belong to two of her good friends on Sunday: Arians and Thomas. But Welter has friends on both sidelines. She even refused to make a pick for the game because she’s so thrilled for everyone she knows.
It was Thomas’s hire as the NFL’s first full-time female referee in 2015 that helped inspire the idea to bring in Welter, and Arians was the perfect coach to do it. He grew up in the hard-working, diverse town of York, Pennsylvania, in the 1950s and ‘60s, and he remembers race riots erupting when he was in school. At Virginia Tech, he became the first white player to room with a Black teammate.
When Arians finally got to be an NFL head coach, taking over the Cardinals in 2013, he built a diverse staff and kept things that way, first in Arizona and now with Tampa Bay. That included bringing Welter in as a coaching intern. He loved that she had a masters in sports psychology, as he’s a coach who prides himself on knowing how to tune in to players’ needs.
"He does big things and makes them look easy and natural," Welter says.
The two coaches are alike in that way. Before her first practice with the Cardinals, Welter put on a fitted red cap and jogged out to the field. There was no gap in the back of the cap for her ponytail, so she cavalierly chucked the lid to the side. Arians saw it, and before the next practice, there was a cap with a gap waiting for her.
"He just so easily made it easy," Welter says.
Years later, Arians went to Tampa and built the league’s most inclusive staff, with three Black coordinators and two women as assistants.
"It’ll be the most diverse Super Bowl in history," Welter says.
She and "BA" haven’t spoken frequently in recent months, with Arians busy leading the Bucs and Welter coaching youth football and promoting her book: "Play Big: Lessons in Being Limitless from the First Woman to Coach in the NFL." But now it’s Welter who is easily making it easy, at least for Thomas to absorb the news of her place in Super Bowl history.
However, Welter certainly doesn’t think it would be easy to walk in Thomas’s shoes.
"The one job that I would not be anywhere near qualified for is Sarah’s job," she says with a laugh. "I would be too excited."
She transitions quickly from talk of history to talk of strategy, breaking down the big game from both sides of the ball. She knows linebacker play will be a huge factor in trying to stop both Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes.
"It’s like a mouse with cheese," she says. "If they step forward, it opens up the zone right behind them. You have to balance the aggression but not get overly sucked into the run game."
Welter is staying in Vero Beach, Florida, this week, with her parents and her dog. She might drive over to check out the scene on the Gulf Coast. Or, she says, she might just stay on the East Coast and "yell at the TV."
Either way, it’ll be a groundbreaking day for the sport. A lot of that goes back to that first handshake Welter shared with Thomas in 2015 — when they were each one of one, hoping to be one of many.
"I know I'll be excited," Welter says, "when I see Sarah with that ponytail on the field."
Eric Adelson is a freelance journalist based in Orlando, Florida. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @eric_adelson.