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Episode 66: The Same Game - Dani Welniak

Dani Welniak is the Vice President of Communications for the KC Current, the Kansas City soccer team for the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). Dani has an impressive career as an on-air reporter for the Kansas City Chiefs and as a superbowl champion with the Dallas Diamondz – Women’s Professional Full-Contact NFL Rules Football.

Dani is a confident speaker and shares her stories of overcoming failures and being supported by allies in a male-dominated industry.

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Happy September. It’s Jen Vellenga. Welcome back to the Speak with Presence podcast. Our summer break is over and we are bringing you season three, the KC Voices edition. We’re mixing it up, focusing on Kansas City leaders who have used their voices to influence change. We’re covering the Kansas City metro area.

That’s KCMO and KCK. If you know, you know, this is episode 66, the same game featuring Dani Welniak, VP of communications for the KC Current women’s professional soccer team. Here’s Danni. So everyone has their why, right? Everyone goes into what they do, their work, um, what they do at home with their why.

And yeah. My why’s are kind of in chapters.

Welcome to the Speak with Presence podcast. I’m Jen V. And I’m JRT. On this podcast, we believe perfection is overrated, leaders listen, and we all speak up to influence change. We exist to share the stories of powerful leaders who have used their voices to inspire change. So listeners, what will it take for you to use your voice?

There is no way you can be a woman in sports and not use your voice. So today, we invited Dani to our podcast because she’s been a woman who’s achieved many firsts, including some pretty other significant achievements as a female athlete. Let me tell you, she was the first all-female radio crew to call a football game on a national radio network.

Sideline reporter for the Chiefs, check. 2007 Rookie of the Year for the Dallas Diamonds professional football team. And underneath all of that, three times pro bowler. 2008 Women’s Super Bowl champion, 2010 WFAF gold medalist. JRT, wait. I just want to make sure I heard this right. I know she wants to talk.

We’re not going to let her talk yet. The Dallas Diamonds professional football team. This is a woman we’re sitting here with. I know. Do you know what my dream was growing up was to hit people? She really got to do it. All right, this just touches the surface of her achievements because Danni is also the vice president of communications for the Kansas City Current of the NWSL.

For all of you that don’t know what that is, that would be the National Women’s Soccer League. That is right. Danni, we are sitting here in the conference room on the KC Current property at your headquarters. Welcome to the podcast. Thank you so much for having me. I consider this such a blessing to be graced with your presence.

So I am just honored to be a part of this. You guys inspire so many people on so many different levels without even knowing your impact. So, allowing me to be a part of it is seriously a huge blessing. So thank you. I’ll take, I’ll take it all in while I can. Oh, thank you. We are not worthy. Well, I just have to say.

Don’t tell your boss. Okay, but when we were here interviewing her, which was amazing. Alison Howard. Uh, yes, that would be correct. I was trying to keep it on the download, Jen, but Alison Howard, your boss, the president. I don’t know. I probably went to go find something, and there was this woman that just had this energy, and it was like the lights and the energy just connected us.

We’re so excited that we can be here blessed with your presence and can learn a little bit. From you about what a badass you are. Let’s go. We are just soul sisters, though. I just feed off of y’all’s energy as well. So just to, like, be around you, I feel like my energy level is already up here, but like you just bring it to a whole different level.

So, all right. So I want to get started with the story. Because story is what creates change. So we want to know a time when you spoke up, maybe it was one of the times that led to you being one of the many firsts. I know that’s a hallmark of your career is firsts of things. So give us a story of a time during your career, a moment when you had to speak up for yourself.

Well, I think this is a good question because I think a lot of people in general use their voices in different ways, and I think it has to very much be part of who you are and your personality, and I don’t think that everyone needs to fit into this one shell of okay, I need to be this outspoken leader, or I need to be this leader by example, or I can’t speak up in this moment.

It’s all about, for me, it’s all about listening first and then finding those opportunities as they fit, and they fit you, and they fit your personality, and they fit what you’re going through. So most of my stories aren’t the, I’m going to go out and be really outspoken and go, you know. Make sure that my voice is heard, but instead, a lot of my opportunities come from subtle conversations and speaking up where I knew my voice needed to be heard to make a change.

And so, um, I have two fun stories about the Chiefs Radio Network and being the sports director over at KCTV5 that I like to share that are very different from a lot of people’s experiences. Um, the first one is when I first got up here to Kansas City was about the same time that defensive lineman Chris Jones also got drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs.

And I was in the locker room interviewing different players for my sportscast. And I have this giant Super Bowl ring from my time with the Dallas Diamonds. That is not nearly as big as the Chiefs rings right now, but we’ll get to that in a second. So I’m the only one in this locker room with a Super Bowl ring at this point.

And so I’m walking around talking to different players, getting my interviews, and I walk up to Chris Jones, and we, you know, we have a pretty casual, good conversation. And at the very end of our interview, I go to shake his hand. He shakes mine, and he flips over my hand and goes, what is that, and I go, well, that’s my Super Bowl ring.

And he’s like, oh, that’s so cool. Like, tell me more about it. So we talked a little bit about the women’s professional football league, and I was a slot receiver and a running back. And then, at the very end of the conversation, I go, maybe one of these days, you’ll have one, too.

I say that, and now he has two. So, I’m not going to say maybe I was a little inspiration, but maybe just a little bit. Um, but that was a cool moment because it opened the door for credibility in that locker room, and I think it also opened up other conversations that I could have and relate to some of the players about having that football experience and being able to talk the X’s and O’s.

And one of the… ways that I ended up on the Chiefs Radio Network was their executive producer, Dan Israel, and I had a conversation about helping out, being on the sidelines, being a sideline analyst. And, um, we were in a Starbucks having this conversation about whether I would be a good fit or not. And, um, he brought up a route tree.

And I said, oh, I’ll draw a route tree for you right now. And so I grabbed a Starbucks napkin, and I drew out a route tree. And he said, yep, you’re hired. So on the spot on the spot. So, for anyone out there who doesn’t know what a route tree is, it is it looks like a tree, but it’s all of the different routes that a receiver runs or can run during the course of a game or during a play.

And so, you know, it can be all over the board. Most of the time, it’s zero through nine. And then it’s got different names like fades and posts and slots and all sorts of stuff. But yeah, so those are two, two of some of my favorite moments where it’s not necessarily me speaking up or telling people, you know, that they’re wrong or that I’m right, but it’s more so those opportunities to show off who you are and speak out.

And about things that most people wouldn’t have the courage to do so. Exactly. It’s the confidence piece of going, yeah, actually, I am wearing this ring because I earned it, and I own it, and going, well, let me get a napkin. So many people we talk to, they would go, well, I don’t want to brag about myself, or I don’t want to really, maybe he’ll ask me if I can do the route tree.

No. Yes. That was perfect. Yeah. Half of it is saying it with confidence and just owning it. For sure. For sure. I love those stories. Oh, so good. Well, thank you. And how you named the plays. I learned that as well. Did you name your plays? I mean, they’re very complicated, girlfriend. Of course. I had no, I had no idea until that.

You on quarterback seeing them all three spit out all their plays and how long they are. And how they have to memorize, like they’re words I wouldn’t even use in normal daily life, and to put them all together, 75, East, Penelope, Rudolph, 74 left. That’s pretty impressive. Yeah. At least when you’re memorizing lines in a play, they’re human words and communication about how, the way we actually talk to each other, not, not made up.

Yeah. No, and they’re like, they’re code for something else. So they represent something else. So each word. represents the formation, the player, the athlete, the receiver, the blocking patterns, the production. And it’s, it’s much simpler, I think, than it sounds, but maybe not. Maybe it’s just because I have that profound background that I’m like, Oh yeah, you know, Z slot Y 24 6 toss power trap X zebra Y All right, back on track.

This is a problem with us. So, what are the things I valued? Your consistency in the things that are important to you when we think about values. You think about, you know, your God, your faith, mom, husband. Those are good choices, too. Priorities. Priorities. I don’t know. Um, but, and how those people, your belief structure, your foundation, right?

Those, they have been with you through the good. But they’ve also been with you with the trials. And the failures. And so I think the most important part in, in one, in one of the many quotes that I read is, is that you have to realize is that there are oftentimes many more of the trials and failures than there are victories.

So, as much as all of the first and all of the things that we are. So honored to be sitting here talking to you about, there’s all, I mean, 10-time fold of the things that came in the midst of that. So do you have a time when you can think about how you turned?

Man, I feel like my entire life story is that kind of roller coaster, and I think everyone can attest to that. Without your failures, you do not grow. And I am a firm believer that even in your most intense failures and things that don’t go the way that you think that they should, those are actually the moments that open up doors and opportunities.

That you would have never expected otherwise. And so I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason and that nothing is coincidence. And so I believe that, you know, you have your purpose and that the good Lord blesses you and opens doors and sometimes kicks you through doors that you don’t want to go through.

Sometimes those are painful. They are so painful. Uh, but I have, oh my gosh, I have a plethora of these stories. So to be able to just narrow it down to like one or two is kind of tough. All the times that I’ve been told that a woman shouldn’t play football and, um, all the times that, you know, I’ve been told that a woman shouldn’t be in the locker room or that it’s just, you know, um, you’re only going to get, you’re only going to be successful because of how you look.

And those things are just the minor things that add up that you have to. Eventually get over or the times that on, when you’re in TV, it’s crazy because there’s this double standard for women. You have to A, be incredibly knowledgeable, but B, also be well-kept. And so all of the, all of the emails, I kept, I’m going to use that Jen, you need to be more well-kept.

You’re not very well-kept today. It’s not well-kept. Do you have to be beautiful? Right? You have to be. You have to be very, um, attractive. Attractive is a good word for that. Stunning. You have to, you know, capture people’s attention. So all the different times that my look has been criticized or my hair or what I’m wearing or saying someone’s name wrong when another male would be very much like, ah, well, you know, he just got it wrong.

It just happens. Whereas, oh, you said his name wrong because you’re a woman, and because you’re not, you should have known that. How dare you? Um, but all of those throughout my career were obviously incredibly tough, but I think one of the most poignant stories for me that encapsulates being an athlete, being a leader, also being incredibly driven and determined is a lot of times you have these challenges and adversities that are completely out of your control.

And we’ve talked about it before where like you could get fired unexpectedly. You get laid off. Um, for me it was an injury. And so in 2008, the year that my football team ended up winning the Super Bowl. Actually three or four games into it, I broke my fibula in two places running a 26 off G play and, um, the linebackers, one came over the top, one came over the bottom, snapped my fibula in two places.

And so all you hear is a pop pop and my fullback went to lift me up and I just kind of gave out and I’m like, this is, this is not good. So, um, long story short, the rehab process was incredibly painful and strenuous, but I ended up being able to come back and play with a brace in the playoffs and started in the Super Bowl.

And that process is so incredibly difficult physically, but also mentally. So anyone who’s gone through an injury, whether you’re an athlete or not, it is so tough. The moments that you doubt yourself and your recovery. And a lot of times for me having to pray through it with my family and the people around me and having that support system.

Um, if you don’t have that, it’s really, really hard to believe that you can come back and you can be even better than you were before. And ultimately looking back, it did, it made me stronger. I cried through a lot of those practices when I was the slowest person on the field running, because my foot hurts so bad.

Um, but then realizing that you have those people behind your back and the people that are lifting you up and the coaches that end up saying, look, we’re going to start you in the Super Bowl. Like those are the people that I am so incredibly grateful for. And you have to have those people around you. So even though those are.

That’s one of my big stories of adversity and overcoming that. I also look back on that and think how grateful I am for the people that supported me, too. I think there’s going to be a Netflix series on you. She is so into this Netflix, isn’t she? This Netflix series. Well, it’s inspired me. I mean, here’s the thing is I very much appreciate learning.

Yes. Learning. And it was great to learn about the quarterbacks, an area that I don’t have much background knowledge on how the world is, but don’t you think it’d be appropriate to have a series on some women’s football? Absolutely, and I feel like the time is right for it. I think so. Let me call my people.

Let’s call, do you have some people we can call on your behalf? I know some people. I know some people who know some things. But right now, I’m really trying to push more of a KC Current slash NWSL Netflix. Yeah, for sure, for sure. When you think about, oh yeah, yeah, yeah, we can go either stance. Oh, okay, great.

But see, if it was about that, then it brings relevance to the work that you’re doing today. For sure, it does. I am a storyteller and can get this down like nobody’s business. Also, shout out to Brittany and Patrick Holmes for the whole segment on the KC Current. So, very grateful for having them, along with Chris and Angie Long as our owners.

Yes, I’ve heard them speak. Oh! You’re correct. It was great. It was so good. And to see them in the stadium, and I was like, I think I know where. Okay, I’m not going to go there. So, for those of you who are listening in and watching The Quarterback, just please watch for the episode where the KC Current is featured.

Yes. Yeah. In the Netflix series. Significant portion. Yeah. So I’m going to pivot this just a little bit. Two, two little pivots. First pivot is to say, when you talk about meeting people in your corner, when you’re going through those. Failures or trials or whatever, like when you broke your foot. Fibula.

Fibula. Because you did relate it to sometimes when people are losing their jobs, or they’re let go or something. They, they get a new job and then they lose that job six months later and they’re like, okay, it must be me. I must be awful. And you said, you know, you get kicked through doors. Um, I just think having people around you who can lift you up and remind you of your power and your confidence and that you remind you of who you actually are, not who you are in this moment of struggle.

Right. And I go back to a story where the good Lord kicked me through a door was going out to Dodge City for my first broadcasting job. And I ended up covering high school sports out there. And the funniest story out of all of this is that I sent my demo tape coming out of college to like 50 or 60 different stations, and only two stations ended up calling me back.

One told me that I wasn’t qualified for the job, which made sense because it was a sports director position, and I’m just coming out of college. Um, and the second one called me out of Wichita, and their news director said, hey, so we got your demo tape. Um. There’s no audio on it, but we really like your enthusiasm on screen.

So could you send us another one? And we’d like to bring you in for an interview. So, um, it’s crazy, right? So I ended up going in for this interview and, um, don’t get a chance to go out to actual Dodge City. I interview in Wichita. So I take one of my friends with me that’s a joy to Dodge City to go check out what the station looks like.

And, um, I am so grateful for Dodge City. I will put that out there because it gave me two of the greatest things in the world. It gave me my husband, and it gave me my first job. And I have a lot of good friends out there. Um, but I literally cried going into Dodge because I didn’t know if I could do this coming from Dallas.

That’s a huge culture shock. Um, and so my friend sat me down at a little Italian restaurant, um, close to Boot Hill, and said, this is your only option. God is kicking you through a door, and you need to take it. And I took it. And like I said, it was the biggest blessing in my life. And I love that entire community and had such a good time and, um, attribute so much to it.

And obviously, now my family is there. So. Um, I, those are the stories that if he hadn’t been there, if my friend shout out to Mary Alba, who was their sports reporter for the Dodge City Daily Globe out there, they were people that I surrounded myself with that lifted me up, that were there for me, that had the confidence to be like, look, your first live shot was really bad.

My first live shot guys. I did weather. I did weather. What? They made this brand new reporter do a weather live shot, and it was, it was not good. Do you have a clip? I do. Oh, I want that. Oh my gosh. My husband also has it, and he sent it. His brother lives out there as well, and um, they had texted back and forth because he was so excited for me to do my first live shot, and his brother saw it and texted him and goes, that’s not, that was not great, not good.

And I look back, and now that’s also a good testimony to young reporters or people who are just starting out. Like your firsts are gonna suck. Like they’re not going to be great, but embrace them. The suck, because you will grow and you’ll look back on those moments someday like this. Like I look back on that affectionately, whereas in the moment, I thought my entire world was over.

Quit now. Yep. You’re, you’re done. You can’t do other live shots. That means you can’t do sports. You’re done. Can’t do it. But now I look back and I’m like, man, I love the fact that I struggled because look how far we’ve come. Ah, it just gives me goosebumps thinking about it. Me too. Okay, let’s keep going to goosebumps.

You guys are working, working me up for this. Let’s go. I want to know, so as a young woman who wanted to play football, who actually got to. Yeah. Probably saw a lot of boys playing sports that you were not invited to. Yep. So now you have a little girl and every game, home game, maybe more than home games.

She gets to be in the stands of the KC Current, watching women who are some of the toughest athletes out there. These soccer players are unbelievably tough and strong and powerful and inspirational. I just want to know what’s going to be different for your daughter, knowing that she’s starting her life watching women play sports.

I can’t even contain it. Just hear you talk.

Everything will be different. Because she will grow up in a world where… This is normal. Where she’ll get to walk into a training facility and know that it’s hers. Where she’ll get to walk into a stadium and know that it’s hers. Yeah.

And you’re making that happen. In the work that you do every day and the people that you surround yourself with here. I am losing it right now because this is literally one of the biggest reasons everyone has their why, right? Everyone goes into what they do their work. Um, what they do at home with their why and my why’s are kind of in chapters.

Like I started out wanting to create this beautiful path for women in sports and broadcasters and break that mold. And I think that’s feel like I did that, especially in football. There were those opportunities. And yes, I came in on the heels of a lot of amazing women who broke down those doors. Um, but I felt like I was able to add to that, especially here in the Kansas City area.

And now I’ve gone from wanting to impact those women to now wanting to be there for my daughter’s generation and for the generations in between my generation and her generation, and even generations to come that they will know nothing other than women having their own stadiums and having their own training facilities and getting to play the same game that men are playing and getting paid the same as men and this can be something that you do for a living. You do not have to have a second job.

You do not have to do it just because you love it. You can do it because this is an option and because this is a profession for you and for young men and young women to see these athletes and aspire to be like them is just so powerful to me, having been a former professional athlete and not getting paid enough to do that by myself, having to have other jobs.

I cannot, I cannot wait to see where this goes and how it just explodes sports across the entire world. And it’s just surreal. I have so many pinch-me moments walking down to the stadium. And my daughter got to go down to the stadium just a couple of weeks ago. And she’s got this oversized teal helmet on and just the oversized vest.

And of course, I took a ton of pictures having those moments where I’m like, this is the future, and this is what we’re building, and being able to look back on that someday and say, yeah, we were part of the first. Um, it’s just, it’s so surreal that it’s happening right here in our own backyard. Sorry guys.

We got through that. I got through that. Got through it. That’s real. And to think of all the friends that she has, and she will continue to build that because of the opportunity you provided her that she will be able to share that. No. There are opportunities for us. Yeah. There are. There are. Let’s share them.

Let’s talk about them. Let’s participate in them. Yep. Whatever that may look like. Let’s encourage people to want to get on this train and to love this as much as we do. I want people to love these athletes the way that I love my daughter. And I want people to see that their daughters and their sons can do this, too.

And that may seem out of the scope of possibilities. Nothing is impossible because we are literally seeing something that people thought was possible generations ago coming to fruition now, and I’ve told you guys multiple times it’s so interesting how we go back and we look at, simply in your own lineage, right?

My grandma would have never thought this was like, this is totally out of the realm of opportunities. My mom, um, kind of saw, you know, collegiate opportunities as a possibility and could play collegiate sports. And now I remember the moments where. The only real professional opportunity you had was the Olympics or the World Cup.

Those were your professional opportunities, and those were so few and far between for women. And now, the generation behind me and my daughter’s generation will know that this is an opportunity and that you can be professional. It’s amazing how much the world has changed just over that, just over our lifespan.

It’s crazy. You mentioned this earlier in the podcast, I mean, clearly you know them, you know, Jen and I don’t, but I think to be part of a community, let’s say Kansas City, where you have people that are willing to invest, I mean, these are people, from what I read, you know, that have made a personal financial commitment to build this brand for the future of young girls, and it’s beyond Kansas City.

Yeah. I mean, just in what we’ve learned in a short period of time of being here, this is a global presence. You’re giving opportunities to girls around the world in what’s possible. And it just goes back to the thing you said before of knowing you need supporters to lift you up. Yeah. And they’re doing that.

And I go back to, we talk about how women need to uplift other women and obviously we’re huge proponents of that here. In this room, but you also need men or people who don’t look like you to lift you up as well and vice versa; we need to be lifting people up who don’t look like us who need those opportunities, And there are so many men in my life that lifted me up or gave me those opportunities Whether it was being a sports director, whether it was being on the Chiefs radio network, whether it was being the first part of that radio broadcast for the Cure Bowl and it was men who gave me the opportunity to play football and to start in the Super Bowl, and yes, our owner was a woman. And so you need those strong-headed, fierce independent women that will also build you up, and so everyone needs to realize, I think, that it’s not going to look like, the people who lift you up aren’t always going to look like you either.

And you need to very much lean into that and embrace that. Mm mm. Nope. Usually, they don’t. So, and that goes back to your point. Yeah. Yeah. And I, I’ve found myself thinking about, so we have a couple of, you can imagine who our listener base is. We have men and women, but a lot of women in the career space, but we have a growing contingent of young, really in about the 10-year-old age range.

Okay. Let’s go. It’s, it’s surprising to us, but I’m going to give a shout-out to Mia. I’m going to see the KC Current recently. Let’s go. And I just recently learned, I don’t even think you know this JRT, but a dear friend of mine. I used to work with Melissa’s daughter, Morgan. I just found out that Morgan is playing flag football with the boys, and she wants to play football someday.

So I want her to hear this from you. So, will you give a shout-out to Morgan for us? Oh my gosh. Shout out to Morgan. What position does she play? I don’t know. Do you know? Shout out to Morgan, who’s going to be the very next Patrick Mahomes for the women’s professional football. Oh my gosh. I think that this is going to be absolutely incredible.

Keep crushing it, run through all of those boys because you are just as good, if not better than them, and go into that huddle. Call those plays knowing that you are going to absolutely be a game-changer. Love that mic drop. Yes. So with all of this, we will be back, Danni. We have a long list of things to talk about with you.

Um, but more importantly, one of the things that you need to know is that your voice matters because what you just said on this podcast is going to impact more people than you will ever know. And those are young girls. Those are mid-age, all levels. I’m in over 50! Um, I’m not quite there yet. But, um, it’s powerful.

And you, we appreciate you taking the time to share this because great things are happening in Kansas City, and there are many firsts happening here. If you’re here in Kansas City, you hold an ethical responsibility to want to make change. Yeah. And so we’re all in it with you. We are grateful to know you and we are grateful to know that we will always be your biggest cheerleaders and we will always be here to support you and your voice to share it, to inspire those.

That want to be you someday. Oh, I’m so grateful for you guys. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this and for allowing me to be part of your platform and to impact those people. So, um, I, I am at a loss for words being a broadcaster and being at a loss for words. You shouldn’t ever do that, but I am so inspired by what the two of you do.

So keep it up, keep up the good work. Let the love fest continue. Thank you. We are signing out from the KC Current conference room, and we will be back another time. Thank you so much, Danni.

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Jen V. & JRT

Jen Vellenga and Jennifer Rettele-Thomas are the co-founders of Voice First World®, a communication and executive coaching company. They train executives and leaders on the Presence Paradigm™, a communication technique created from Jen V’s decades of training actors to perform authentically, with presence, on stages, on audio, and video. If you want to learn more about how to speak and lead confidently, book a discovery call at www.voicefirstworld.com/calendar

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