If you had met Jennifer King near the beginning of 2018, you probably would have assumed that she had likely found her calling. Coming off of a USCAA Division II championship and being voted the USCAA 2018 Coach of the Year, just about anyone would expect the talented young coach would be buckling down for the long haul in basketball. Perhaps she would be settling in for a long tenure with Johnson and Wales --the North Carolina university she had brought from irrelevance to Champions in two years-- or even eyeing coaching opportunities at Division I programs and beyond.
But near the end of 2018, you might have instead caught Jennifer glancing out of the gymnasium at a black fenced complex of turf fields next door. These fields belong to the Carolina Panthers of the National Football League.
King had always loved football. Growing up in North Carolina, King spent carefree Sundays watching the Washington Redskins with her father. She paid close attention to Doug Williams, her favorite player, as he led the Redskins to a championship in Super Bowl XXII in 1988. Williams would make history that day. With the win, he became the first African American quarterback to hoist the most coveted trophy in the NFL. It’s hard to say if a young King began to have an inkling of what was in store for her nearly 33 years later, when she would shatter another color barrier in that same league with that same team.
Not long after her success at Wales and Johnson, King struck up a friendship with then Panthers head coach, Ron Rivera. He invited her to meet his staff, and hearing of her love for football --and her 10 year career playing in a professional women’s football league while working as a police officer in Greensboro, North Carolina-- he asked her to intern with the team the following spring. She jumped at the chance, leaving her head coaching job to work with Carolina’s skill players during the offseason. Not long after, she received her first full time coaching position as an assistant position coach with the Arizona Hotshots of the American Association of Football.
In the AAF, some of her male colleagues were apprehensive about having a woman on staff, but she quickly gained their trust and admiration with her incredible work ethic and sharp football acumen. Unfortunately, facing mounting financial pressure, the AAF disbanded in 2019 before the end of its inaugural season. King would pursue a number of other coaching opportunities before she was offered a full, year long internship with her father’s favorite team, the Washington Football Team (formerly the Washington Redskins) in 2020 by the team’s new head coach, Ron Rivera.
King threw herself into her new position assisting with the team’s running backs. She created workouts and drills for the players and often worked individually with backs in order to improve their mechanics and knowledge of the offensive scheme. Her work paid off as Washington’s J.D. McKissic cited King’s coaching as a key contribution to his breakout performance in 2020.
Following her successful internship run, she found herself in a similar spot as her hero Doug Williams 33 years earlier. On January 26th, 2021, King was offered a full time position as an Assistant Running Backs Coach with the Washington Football Team. By accepting it, she became the first African American woman to be named an assistant position coach in the NFL, and only the second woman to hold the title.
King’s road to this moment was not clear cut, as no trailblazer’s is, but through it all she showed a resourcefulness and self assurance that guided her to where she is now. At the beginning of 2018 the world saw one path for her, but thankfully, Jennifer King saw another. And thanks to her, she won’t be the only one who walks it.