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Her championship ring collection is solid — a tangible, shiny testament to her accomplishments as a player in three sports and a distinguished, albeit short, college basketball coaching career.
But Jennifer King — the first Black woman to be a full-time assistant coach in the National Football League — has saved a spot among her half-dozen championship rings for her ultimate prize.
“I keep the one in the middle open,” King said. “I want the big one.”
As in a diamond-encrusted, personalized, finger-engulfing Super Bowl ring.
The 36-year-old North Carolina native, high school and college athletic standout was named the assistant running backs coach for the NFL’s Washington Football Team in late January. The promotion came just before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — with two women on staff and Black men as their top three coordinators — won the Super Bowl.
“It’s obvious that people see what diversity does. I’m a big fan of diversity wins,” said King in a telephone interview earlier this month. “Bring a bunch of different perspectives and ideas.”
King spent the 2020 season as a full-time intern for Washington, helping coach running backs under head coach Ron Rivera, the former Carolina Panthers’ head coach and one of five minority head coaches in the NFL. Washington won the NFC East and qualified for the playoffs, where it lost in the first round to Tampa Bay.
Weeks later, King made history, a move both swift and years in the making in a career borne of hard work and opportune risk-taking, thrusting King briefly into the national spotlight of America’s favorite sport.
For her trailblazing path and first-of-its-kind promotion, King is The News & Observer’s Tar Heel of the Month, which honors people who have made significant contributions to North Carolina and the region.
“I don’t personally see myself like that,” King tells The N&O of the trailblazing tag associated with her new job. “But I see the magnitude that it’s had, whether I want to be or not. To be in this spot for the first time, I embrace it. I’ll keep working hard.
“I want to be great in anything I do. I know that I’ll put the work in. I don’t really think of it as pressure.”
King grew up in Rockingham County, north of Greensboro. And, by the age of 3, her older sister said, she had taken a liking to football. Soon it was love. King watched games on television. She attended games — middle school or high school — whenever she could. And though she wanted to play, her parents were worried about her getting hurt.
When a new football coach arrived at Rockingham County High School, he quizzed other coaches seeking prospects for his team.
“Who is one of the best people I could get to be the QB here at Rockingham?” he asked.
“The best one you can get is Jennifer King,” said Woody Wall, the former girls basketball coach at the school, only half-kidding. “You asked who the best was.”
King didn’t play football, instead excelling at basketball and softball. She set the school record for 3-pointers in a career and a season and led the Cougars to the 2001 state title game in basketball.
King eschewed mid-major offers in each sport to play both at nearby Guilford College, where she started for both squads and earned honorable mention all-conference honors in basketball.
After college, she joined the fledgling Triad-based Carolina Phoenix of the Independent Women’s Football League.
“It was something I’d been wanting to do my whole life,” King said.
She played quarterback (earning league honors seven times), wide receiver and defensive back and helped the team to the 2013 league title. After about a decade with Carolina, King played wide receiver and defensive back for the title-winning New York team in 2018 and for Washington’s team in 2019.
“She was the cornerstone of the franchise,” said former Phoenix coach Tim Holmes. “There’s no one way to describe her. She could pretty much do it all. When your best athlete is also your hardest worker, she was the example for everybody that played with her.”
Her knowledge of the game and understanding of concepts impressed her coach.
“We were having next-level conversations about what was happening on the football field,” Holmes said.
King’s career, however, was taking her other places — many places actually.
She spent four years as a High Point police officer, including working on the domestic violence task force. She also worked as an assistant women’s basketball coach at Greensboro College for 10 years.
She was balancing three careers at the same time. Sometimes, King’s football teammates would come work out in the gym after her basketball practice ended.
“Jennifer’s always all-in on what she’s doing at the time,” said Jason Tuggle, the head coach at Greensboro College at the beginning of King’s tenure. “That was her lifestyle. She wanted to be doing stuff. She wanted to be involved. Wherever Jennifer’s been, she’s just had success.”
At Greensboro College, the team won four regular-season titles, two conference tournament titles and reached the NCAA Division III Tournament four times.
That success led her to Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte as head coach of the women’s basketball team. Success came quick, as the team won the national title in her second season, and she was named national coach of the year.
“I was happy as a basketball coach. We had success,” King said. “Life was pretty good.”
But football was never far away.
King reached out to people in the business and attended NFL coaching clinics for several years. In early 2018, she participated in the NFL’s Women’s Careers in Football Forum, a selective program aimed at helping women connect with coaching, officiating, scouting and athletic training positions in the sport.
There she met Rivera, whose Panthers trained next door to King’s Johnson & Wales team. She interned with the Panthers during the off-season in 2018 and 2019, first working with wide receivers and then running backs.
In December 2018, King made the big move. She resigned her position at Johnson & Wales, in-season coming off a national championship, to be assistant wide receivers coach with Rick Neuheisel and the Arizona Hotshots of the new Alliance of American Football.
The league folded after eight games, but King was a football coach now.
“I took a chance. It’s so important that I really promote for people to chase what they want to do. You can’t live with regret,” she said. “I made a decision not to live with regret. I got out of my comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to change things up.”
After an off-season with the Panthers in 2019, she worked as an offensive assistant at Dartmouth College, under innovative head coach Buddy Teevens. And in 2020, she was hired by Rivera — now coaching in Washington — as a full-year coaching intern.
“I knew once she got in, they would love her. They would find a way to use her and she would earn a position,” said Tuggle, from Greensboro College. “When opportunity comes, you’ve got to be ready for it, take advantage of it. That’s Jennifer’s philosophy on everything she does.”
In Washington, King just wants to keep getting better as a coach. She said she is concentrating on offense line play, a key factor in the success of running backs. She and running backs coach Randy Jordan have a solid group, including second-year runner Antonio Gibson and pass-catching weapon JD McKissic.
“I always thought she was already the assistant coach,” McKissic told The Washington Post. “She played a pretty good role in my success. … She helped me take that next step. It was just the little things like giving me a pregame workout, things that she did with [Christian] McCaffrey in the past in Carolina. She was able to bring that to Washington and push me in those types of ways.”
The future of women in the NFL
King said she hasn’t heard any comments from players or other coaches about her being a woman on the staff. She jokes that she makes sure not to read the comments.
“Professional athletes want to be coached. If you can help them and make them better, that’s all they care about,” she said.
But King is a rarity in the sport. She’s the first Black woman to be hired to a full-time role and is just the second woman overall. Lori Locust, who was Tampa Bay’s assistant defensive line coach last season, is the other.
The first woman to coach at all in the NFL was Jen Welter in 2015. She worked with Arizona’s linebackers during training camp and the preseason.
Eight women were on NFL coaching staffs at the beginning of the 2020 season, a figure that included King who was a full-time intern, according to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. The other women have worked as full-time interns, overall assistants or as strength and conditioning coaches.
“It’s so important just to open up the entire pool of applicants when you have a position,” King said at a press conference in January. “So far, historically in football, it’s only 50% of the pool. No women are ever considered. For future female coaches coming up, this kind of gets them a foot in the door. It’s up to us to do a good job.”
Washington released a congratulatory video to Jennifer King from tennis star Billie Jean King, herself a fierce proponent of gender equality. Billie Jean King, no relation, said that Jennifer King would “inspire generations of children,” who previously couldn’t see themselves in that role.
King is aware of what her role signifies, saying representation matters. When she was growing up, she couldn’t look at the NFL and see anyone like her working there. Major League Baseball’s Miami Marlins hired the sport’s first woman general manager in November.
“I want for (young girls) to know that they can do anything. It’s been a great few months for women, in general, of things that have been accomplished,” King said, a reference to Vice President Kamala Harris’ election as the first woman vice president. “It’s so important for them to know that they’re strong and capable of doing whatever they want to do. No matter what society may look like for them, they’re able to do it.”
The next step for women coaches in the NFL is to be the top assistant for a position group. Given the pace of change, that could happen sooner than later.
“I can guarantee you she’s already set another bar for herself somewhere,” said Wall, her high school coach. “I sure wouldn’t count the possibility out of her becoming an assistant head coach or head coach somewhere. I’m not saying NFL, but it could be college somewhere.
“If anybody could do it or if anybody would have the confidence in doing it, that’s who you’re talking about. She doesn’t take no for an answer and doesn’t back down from a challenge. She’s going to find a way to get the job done to the best of her ability.”
Those who have been around King aren’t willing to set any sort of ceiling on where she can go.
“I have no doubt that if she decides to be a head coach in the NFL, she can be a head coach in the NFL,” Holmes said. “I have absolutely no doubt about that. If I was in charge of a franchise, I’d have absolutely no reservations hiring her as head coach. If they don’t do it, it’s their fault — not hers.”