Updated: Feb 22, 2019
ATLANTA – When you’ve done everything else Jen Welter has, making a shoe is easy. Welter was the first woman to play contact pro football (with the Texas Revolution of Champions Indoor Football), the first woman to coach in a men’s pro football league (also with the Revolution), the first woman to coach in the NFL (as an assistant with the Arizona Cardinals), and is now a defensive coach for the Atlanta Legends in the Alliance of American Football, which is starting its debut season in February.
The 41 year-old, who also holds a PhD in sport psychology, has always been committed to, as she puts it, “kicking glass.” It’s no surprise the glass motif is prominent on her custom 1-of-1 football cleats, which were developed at the adidas Speed Factory in Atlanta, along with other sayings she’s been known for over the years. What may be surprising is what these cleats represent.
“It’s probably one of the coolest landmarks in my career, because it was something that always bothered me when I was playing,” Welter says from a 7-on-7 tournament at Booker T. Washington High School on Thursday of Super Bowl week. “I’d have to wear tweener sizes, so I couldn’t ever wear the good cleats. Here I am, one of the best athletes in the world, and I have to wear junior cleats or soccer cleats.”
There was a true gap in need, as football becomes a more inclusive sport, to have a performance cleat for women. How could athletes be expected to perform at an elite level if they didn’t even have shoes designed for them?
“It was always something I really dreamt about,” Welter adds, “was having a female football cleat. Because to me, it was like, ‘How can you say men and women are equal, if we don’t have equal footwear?'”
Welter had her foot scanned at one of her football camps she was coaching at in Portland. Certain things were noticed off the bat. When wearing cleats, Jen noticed there’d be excessive rubbing at the cuff of the cleat, which caused discomfort and broken skin, so they lowered where the shoe ended. She also noted that she, and other players, were carrying less weight than 300-pound linemen, so for her especially, a more flexible cleat was preferred — think a hybrid of a receiver’s cleat with a soccer cleat.
The result was a true to form cleat for her; something that had never existed before.
“With NFL guys with the size and shape that they need, they’re completely different than her size and shape,” adidas senior design director Todd Rolak says. “We made them less stiff and structural. She wanted them more flexible and more comfortable. The collar around the edge, she had some rubbing from some of her cleats that she wore. She got cut a couple of times on some different collars, so we tuned that to the height that she wanted it. From a collaboration standpoint, we worked with her. ‘What do you like? What don’t you like?’ Then, we took her starting point as an inspiration. We ran about three or four concepts. ‘What do you think of this one? What do you think of this one?’ We just involved her in the process, both for functional and for visual, for her input to – literally – deliver the first women’s football cleat ever.”
Rolak paused and shook his head, looking out to the field where the 7-on-7 was being played.
“It’s pretty insane that you can say that. I can’t believe that it’s 2019, and that’s the first time.”
The rest of the design (which came in an ultraboost version as well) is her wearing her “emotions on her foot” as she says. The colors match those of the Atlanta Legends. There are additional sayings (“Play Big” and “Dream Bigger”) on the outside, and hand-written motivational scribes on the inside of the shoe. As part of the relationship, she’ll be hosting coaching clinics over multiple years to help teach the game to girls, and each of those girls will have cleats with tracking technology so there’s more than just a baseline for what this shoe means. It’ll evolve the same as any other adidas cleat, and match the needs of the athlete.
There’s no better person to be leading the way than Welter, who is committed to bringing the game to as many girls and women as possible.
“There’s only one first,” Rolak says. “There’s, literally, only one first. She’s the first, and that’s who I want to roll with. We kind of feel that way. We’re the original sports brand, and she’s an original, so it’s kind of a match made in heaven. It’s perfect. I’m excited about wherever it leads us, and she’s gonna lead us there because of what is needed for women and where she thinks we should steer.”
If football is the “final frontier,” as Welter likes to say, for women in sports, anything can be accomplished from there. For her, it all starts with representation.
“It matters,” Welter says. “It matters. It means everything.”