Though she admits it hasn’t been a “traditional journey,” Jennifer King is thankful for the valuable experiences she’s enjoyed on the road to history.
In January, the football pioneer took another step toward her goal of becoming an NFL coordinator when she was named assistant running backs coach for the Washington Football Team. After serving as a coaching intern in 2020, King’s promotion made history as she became the first African American female assistant position coach in league history.
“She came to Washington eager for the opportunity to work as a full-year coaching intern and learn from our staff,” Washington head coach Ron Rivera told the team’s official website. “She got the chance to experience not only the in-season work that goes into being a full-time coach in this league but also the countless hours that are spent preparing in the offseason as well. She demonstrated all of the qualities that are needed to work full-time on my staff.”
The only other female assistant position coach in the NFL is Lori Locust of the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Still, King insists women have a long way to go as they try to gain an equal footing.
“Obviously in this country, the numbers tell us women are still struggling not just in sports but in the workplace in general when it comes to equality,” she said.
Like Kathryn Smith and Katie Sowers before her, King is doing her part to inspire women to pursue their dreams – even if they may be in traditionally male-dominated industries. Smith became the NFL’s first female full-time coach with the Buffalo Bills in 2016. Sowers became the second in ’18 with the San Francisco 49ers and was the subject of Microsoft’s Super Bowl ad that celebrated her as the first woman to coach in the big game.
“I feel working in football was delayed for me because of the lack of representation, but I am thankful for people like Kathryn Smith and Katie Sowers who really gave me the confidence I needed to pursue coaching football at a high level,” King explained.
Before being reunited with Rivera in Washington, King worked with the wide receivers as an offensive assistant coach for a Dartmouth team that averaged 33.3 points on the way to a 9-1 record and an Ivy League title.
Having a loaded, sports-filled agenda is nothing new for King, who joined her first team when she was eight years old and hasn’t stopped competing since. She played five sports in high school before earning spots on the basketball and softball teams at Guilford College. However, football was always big in her family and the game became her true passion at an early age.
She’s certainly had an impressive run in the sport, earning All-America honors seven times as a quarterback and wide receiver for the Carolina Phoenix of the Women’s Football Alliance from 2006-17. King also played receiver and defensive back for the New York Sharks team that won the ’18 WFA National Championship before playing wideout and safety for the D.C. Divas.
King has also experienced her share of success as a coach. She broke in as an assistant for the women’s basketball team at Greensboro College, which won five conference titles and appeared in the NCAA Tournament five times during her tenure from 2006-16. She then landed the head coaching job at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, leading the program from ’16-18 and earning USCAA Division II National Coach of the Year honors in ’18 when the team won the national title.
“There have been a ton of highlights for me,” King said. “I’ve always been a part of a team and have enjoyed building relationships with the coaches, players and staff along the way. I still talk to people from everywhere I have coached.”
But King also credits the Women’s Careers in Football Forum for opening doors for not only her but all women seeking careers in the game. The program, spearheaded by Sam Rapoport of the NFL, aims to put qualified female candidates for roles such as coaches, officials, trainers and scouts in front of decision-makers from around the league.
“I definitely feel attitudes have changed as we see more and more women stepping into positions that have traditionally been done by men” King said. “I’m all for having the best person that fits the job. If it’s a man, great. But if it’s a woman, I love that. It’s great that more and more people have the courage to break the norms of society and fill the role with a woman.”
It was at the Women’s Careers in Football Forum in January of 2018 that King had a fateful meeting with Rivera, who was then head coach of the Carolina Panthers. She impressed Rivera enough to land internships with the team during the 2018 and ’19 offseasons.
Between her stints with the Panthers, King earned a role as assistant wide receivers and special teams coach for the Arizona Hotshots of the Alliance of American Football. She helped the Hotshots move into a tie for first place while ranking second in yards and points per game before AAF was disbanded.
“Jennifer is a bright young coach,” Rivera said. “Her familiarity with my expectations as a coach and my firsthand knowledge of her work ethic and preparation were big factors in bringing her to the (team).”
In 2020, King helped Washington capture its first NFC East crown since 2015. Her advice to women interested in working in sports is to always be ready for the job you want and remember that networking is everything.
“Three of my football jobs have come from a single phone call and I was literally starting the position within weeks,” she explained. “I’ve always kept myself prepared and studied to be ready at any moment because the sports world moves so fast. Find any way possible to get out and meet people to build genuine relationships. I am living proof of you never know where a conversation may take you.”
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