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Jennifer King never set out to be the "first" of anything. She just always wanted to be the best.
That motivation and hustle took her all the way to the NFL when she joined as assistant coach for the Washington Football team, making her the first African American female assistant position coach in the league's history. King is also only the second female assistant position coach in the NFL behind Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust.
Though it seems almost impossible that we're still witnessing so many diversity "firsts" in major league sports. King is confident that this is only the tip of the iceberg.
The Reidsville, North Carolina native's rise to prominence is a classic lesson in persistence. After graduating with a degree in sports management, King got an assistant coaching position for the Greensboro College basketball team, where she spent nine years. She also played football herself during that time for several Women's Football Alliance teams, which only deepened her love for the sport.
She eventually obtained a head coaching position for the Johnson & Wales University women's basketball team in Charlotte. She was coaching there when she was introduced to then-Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, to whom she expressed her desire to coach football. Rivera invited King to come intern for the team, and her time with the Panthers made her certain that was the job for her.
After interning with Rivera once more, this time with the Washington Football Team, King eventually was hired full-time as assistant running backs coach in 2021.
King says she's proud to help kick in the door for women in the NFL, but on a day-to-day basis, says she never feels excluded or "othered" as a Black woman in this male-dominated sport.
"For me, it's never really been a big deal because no one has made it a big deal," she tells PEOPLE. "No one treats me any differently. Every once in a while, [I may] look up in a meeting and think, 'I'm the only woman in here.' But it's never been a big deal and I like it that way. I don't want to be singled out in any way. And I think that's also a testament to the people I work with and for, [they're] progressive enough that it's not a big deal."
King also thinks her commitment to being authentically herself is what has earned her the respect in the male-dominated rooms. "Throughout the whole process, even when I started coaching basketball, I thought, 'I can only be me,' " she says. "I went in with that mentally for football, too. Being your authentic self is huge and it helps build trust with players. It helps build trust all along the way."
Julio Cortez/AP/Shutterstock Jennifer King
The NFL's overarching diversity problem — both in gender and in race — has never been a secret. Over the years, the organization has caught a lot of flak over their treatment of Colin Kaepernick who famously knelt during the national anthem in protest over police brutality. Kaepernick eventually filed a grievance against the NFL, accusing league owners of icing him out. In 2019, the two parties reached a settlement, but Kaepernick would never again be recruited by another NFL team. There's also been chatter about how Black quarterbacks, who are few and far between, are treated in the league.
King acknowledges the NFL's marred reputation when it comes to race and gender inequality, but says she sees progress on the horizon.
"We have more Black and Brown quarterbacks now than we've ever had, "she says. "There was a time where there weren't a lot of Black quarterbacks because people didn't think they were smart enough to play the position. As the game becomes faster and quarterbacks are required to be more and more athletic, the skillset has changed. Now, guys that can throw and run the ball are valuable in the league. It's cool to see quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson and Russell Wilson doing really great things."
There's also a wider lane opening up for women coaching professionally, in which King sees potential for not only in football but in other major sports as well.
"When you look across sports, you see women coaching in the NBA, women doing things in major league baseball, hockey and [of course] football," she said. "We're making big strides with equality in sports and women having roles in what were considered male-dominated sports."
King also says she looks for ways to help others get their foot in the door, as she's grateful to those who helped her get to where she is today.
"I try to give [women who reach out to me] advice on how I got to where I am, and if I have someone who I feel is ready, I try to connect them with a decision maker to get an internship," she says. "I'm all for helping people because so many people helped me."
Looking back at her game-changing accomplishments, King has every right to brag a little bit. But throughout the conversation, she remains humble yet firm about her formula for success. "I always say, What got me here will keep me here," she says matter of factly. "So there's no need to change or be someone else all of a sudden. I couldn't take myself seriously."
So what advice would King give others who are trying to make inroads in an industry where they don't see anyone like themselves. Her answer? Be the change you wish to see.
"I reached a point where I wanted to work in football, but I only saw one or two people who looked anything like me doing it. [I learned] you have to ultimately be your own representation," she said. "The personal mantra I created for myself was to be 'so good I couldn't be denied.' I wanted to bring so much to the table that it didn't matter that I was a woman. I think it's important for people to find things to add value to themselves when they get those opportunities. Once you get them, it's up to you what you do with them."
Voices for Change is PEOPLE's editorial series committed to elevating and amplifying the stories of celebrities and everyday people alike who are dedicated to making change and uplifting others in the fight for racial justice, gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, climate action and more.