Jennifer King: From small NC town of Reidsville to NFL's 1st Black full-time female coach

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Tuesday, March 30, 2021
Jennifer King: From Reidsville NC to NFL's 1st Black full-time female coach
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"It's hard to believe in something or that you can do something that you don't see anyone else who looks like you. It takes a different kind of drive I think to really achieve those things when there's no representation."

WASHINGTON (WTVD) -- From the small town of Reidsville to the nation's capital, Jennifer King is making history as the first full-time Black female coach in the NFL, and she's encouraging other women to break those boundaries as well.

King, 36, has always had her eyes on the field whether it was keeping statistics for her high school team, playing in the Women's Football Alliance or watching the Carolina Panthers practice through the fence when she coached basketball at Johnson and Wales University.

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"I think there were natural boundaries," King said. "I always talk about representation, so it was a boundary of not working in the NFL because I never seen anyone that looked like me working in the NFL. I think those were the only boundaries that society put on it. It wasn't me personally, it was just what I saw and didn't see. I think those were the boundaries but once I realized those were fake boundaries, I was willing to break through them."

King got an early introduction to the sport that would later become part of her career path.

"She started watching football in my lap when she was about 3 years old," said King's father, Bernard. "I thought if she ever got a crack in the door then she could get through and let her be in a position that she could be in a position to the job herself. "

That door cracked open in 2018 when King attended the NFL Women's Career in Football Forum. She shared a table with then-Panthers head coach Ron Rivera.

She made an impression.

Later that year, King became a full-time coaching intern for the Panthers.

"She saw an opportunity to walk through the door and she took it," Rivera said. "When you see people willing to start at the bottom, that's where she is. She started down here, and she's working her way up.


Her father recalled the emotional moment when it sank in that his daughter had made some NFL history.

"It was exciting because you watched her grow up from sitting here on my lap watching the game coming up through punt, pass and play ranks and winning along that level," Bernard King said. "It's been mind-boggling. I remember the first time I saw it on television. I was looking at the Carolina-Duke basketball game last year and going across the bottom of the screen was 'Jennifer King had been hired by the Panthers.' I felt a cold chill. I watch basketball, football all the time, but to see your kid's name going across the bottom of the screen on ESPN, I had cold chills."

Winning is nothing new for Jennifer -- in 2018, she led the Johnson and Wales women's basketball team to the school's first national championship.

Later that year, she won a championship as a football player in the WFA.

Her most recent victory came just a few months ago -- she earning the job as assistant running backs coach for the Washington football team -- becoming the first Black woman hired as a full-time NFL coach.

"The first time I saw her come out on the field at the Washington game, the first game I saw her come out on the field, I'm going that's really her, she made it," said King's mother, Janice. "That has meant so much to us because Black females, we have to tell our Black female girls that yes, you can. You are just as good as the next person and don't let anyone talk down to you because you can do the things that other people are doing."

"Jennifer has always been prepared and ready," said Jennifer's mentor, Jason Tuggle, who coached college basketball with her. "I think there will be other decisions that come down the road that won't be surprising to me either because of who we're talking about."

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Jennifer and her family recognize how big this is not only for women but for Black women.

"Generations back, my family came up through slavery," Janice said. "My great grandmother was sold into slavery, and she didn't see her husband for 20 years before they got back together again. We have to tell Black girls those stories so that they come up through the generations of being denied. We try to instill into our girls that no, you're not being denied. You can do anything that you set your mind to do. "

Jennifer said having strong female role models helped inspire her.

"I think it was important to have those women around me because they were strong women," she said. "My mom worked hard, I saw my sister work hard. For so long I feel like 50% of the pool was where they pulled everything from. At first, Black coaches weren't getting hired for so long. Now, Black coaches are getting hired, and they're opening it up even more to female coaches that they feel add value to their staff. I think it's why it's really important for the coaches that they have now, all the female coaches in the league are where they're supposed to be. It's not any type of gimmick. I'm good friends with all of them. They all are very good coaches and strong leaders and are exactly where they should be."


As doors open for Jennifer, her attitude hasn't changed. Rivera said her humility assured him she was the right person for the job.

Rivera said hiring Jennifer was never about checking off a gender box. He said her Xs and Os on the field will be held to the same standard as the male coaches.

Nevertheless, Rivera is not shy to say he wants to be an ally for women in the NFL and do his part to help move them forward.

"I think it's an amazing thing what she's doing," Rivera said. "She's telling them they have a voice. That's what you're getting with Jennifer King. You're getting a woman that is showing all the other women, not just the Black women, but all the women that we have a voice, we have an opportunity, we can be successful. That's what I'm fired up about. Jennifer is the right lady for us and has done some really good things."

Having people who blaze a trail is critical, King said.

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"Representation is everything," she said. "Sometimes it's hard for people to see things that you can't see. It's hard to believe in something or that you can do something that you don't see anyone else who looks like you. It takes a different kind of drive I think to really achieve those things when there's no representation."

King said the biggest drive for her right now is to be the greatest coach that she can be, and her focus is on making Washington's running backs better. She said that maybe at the end of her career, she will look back and see the magnitude of what she's doing, but right now it's all about living in the moment.