Halftime Report | Jennifer King: A queen in king’s court
For this special Black History Month edition of “Halftime Report,” REVOLT profiled and spoke to Jennifer King, the NFL’s first Black woman assistant coach.
“Halftime Report” is REVOLT’s new bi-weekly sports column. Here, fans of games will find all of the unfiltered sports news that they can’t get anywhere else. From professional sports to college sports, and from game recaps to athletes’ latest moves and updates, “Halftime Report” is the place for sports commentary that you need.
She had the sports world buzzing in January 2021, but Jennifer King’s story began much earlier than that. Prior to making history as the NFL’s first Black woman assistant coach, she was a five-sport star, police officer, professional football player, and college coach. Although her road has been long and winding, she remains relentless in her pursuit of greatness – it just happens to be on an NFL sideline for the Washington football team.
As her first season as a full-year intern with the team drew to a close, King was called to head coach Ron Rivera’s office where she learned that she would make history for not the first or second, but the third time in the 2020 NFL season. After being named the first Black woman full-year intern in the league, she was also part of the first playoff game with women coaching on both sidelines as Washington took on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This time, she was being promoted to assistant running backs coach. News of the promotion was leaked a few days before the team was set to make their official announcement, but it certainly wasn’t by King, herself, who was never really pressed to make a big announcement. That can be attributed to her cool, reserved demeanor – interesting given the field that she is in.
King fell in love with the sport at a very young age, but naturally her parents were concerned for her safety and would not allow her to play. Undeterred, she got her gridiron fix in other ways.
“Man, I was 4 or 5 years old – super young. Once I was 8 years old and the boys could start playing, my parents wouldn’t let me. The coaches wanted me to play, but my parents were scared I would get hurt. I continued to play in the backyard and at school,” the history maker exclusively told REVOLT.
Not playing football specifically did not slow down King’s athletic ambitions as she went on to play five different sports in high school: basketball, softball, volleyball, track and field, and cross-country. Upon graduating college, she found herself reacquainted with her lost love. A friend called her up and told her about the Carolina Phoenix – a tackle football team in the Women’s Football Alliance, or WFA, based in the Triad area of North Carolina. “You know I’ve loved football my whole life, so to be able to play finally – and with women – was awesome,” says King. The team was chock full of great athletes — many whom played sports collegiately so the skill level was pretty high.
After a nine-year stint with the Phoenix, King left to play for the New York Sharks for a year, and concluded her playing career with the D.C. Divas in 2019. In the WFA, she mostly played quarterback, but also got reps as a wide receiver and safety. All the while, King was developing her coaching chops as she served as an assistant for the women’s basketball team at Greensboro College.
“When you’re getting toward the end of your college career, it’s like, ‘OK, what am I gonna do now?’ I think deciding to stay in sports was kind of natural for me and then I had some really good coaches along the way, so moving into coaching was the natural progression for me. One of my guys who ended up being one of my mentors, he was the head coach at Greensboro College, so he offered me a spot when I graduated,” she continues.
From 2006 – 2016, she helped the program rack up five regular season championships, two conference tournament championships, and four NCAA tournament appearances while compiling an impressive 182–63 record. In 2016, King was hired as the head coach of the women’s basketball team at Johnson & Wales where she took a two-year team to the national championship within two seasons. Her coaching record there was 37-10 with a Division III national championship in 2018. Johnson & Wales is located in Charlotte, North Carolina and put King in perfect position to begin her NFL coaching career.
The Carolina Panthers were coached by Rivera at the time. Over time, the coach has spoken at several women’s coaching forums during the annual NFL Scouting Combines and Pro Bowls; this is how he first met King. When an opening became available, he invited her to attend rookie minicamp. Rivera’s wife Stephanie, whom King refers to as “the first Coach Rivera,” was also instrumental in opening up opportunities for women in coaching.
“I had met Coach Rivera at the women’s coaching forum in Orlando at the Pro Bowl and we just built a relationship from there. At the time I was a head coach at Johnson & Wales, which is next door to the Panthers facility. I was only supposed to be there for rookie minicamp, which is two days and it ended up turning into four months.”
King interned with the Panthers during training camp for two seasons before moving on to Washington after Rivera was named head coach there at the end of 2019. By that time, she was an offensive assistant at Dartmouth and was offered an internship with Washington at the conclusion of her college season. That particular move set off her historical season as she became the first Black woman full-year intern at the NFL level.
As if you’re not already impressed by King’s resume, let’s throw in her experience in law enforcement. In between playing, coaching basketball, and attending coaching clinics, she worked on the High Point, North Carolina police force. When asked about her perspective this summer as the NFL finally acknowledge systemic racism and police brutality, King spoke with level, logical words.
“You definitely have experience and knowledge on both sides, so some of the things that I felt were a big deal to people were inaccurate. The information provided wasn’t really how things work, and that’s on both sides. There are times when police really are acting badly and I’m free enough to say that. Some people, I don’t think, can condemn it but when it’s wrong, it’s wrong.
“On the NFL side with regards to Kap (Colin Kaepernick), a lot of that stuff was the owners, not the NFL. People don’t understand that the NFL is just the brand – it doesn’t control hiring and firing and things like that. That’s all on the ownership.
“The league itself is pretty diverse. You look at the league office and there’s women, there’s Black people all around in the office in New York.”
When it comes to the team level, the NFL as a whole has work to do. Although the Super Bowl was a textbook example of how diversification can help in every team’s ultimate goal to win, there is still a considerable amount of work to do considering the lack of Black hires in the most recent head coach hiring cycle. Sunday’s game featured four Black coordinators in Tampa Bay’s Byron Leftwich, Todd Bowles, and Keith Armstrong and Kansas City’s Eric Bienemy. Tampa Bay also boasts two women coaches in Lori Locust (assistant defensive line coach) and Maral Javadifar (strength and conditioning coach). It’s a movement that King does not expect to simply trend.
“There are people of all races and genders that can do really good things at all levels of football,” King said. “That’s what [Washington] did — went out and found people that work at different positions and work for our organization,” King previously told ESPN.
During her first full time NFL season, King has made history three different times and the scary part is that she’s just getting started. Beyond her own accolades and accomplishments, she wants to see more coaches afforded the opportunities that their expertise should have earned them. Growing up, she counts Michael Jordan and Deion Sanders as her favorite athletes during a time when women athletes were not so visible. As the WNBA came about, that changed along with the establishment of professional women’s football. As an individual navigating new waters, she has a bit of advice for little brown girls looking to follow in her footsteps. “Gain the knowledge and be confident because you will be immediately tested,” says King.
As for those attempting to discredit the women’s movement in the NFL as a trend, the proof is in the pudding and Jennifer King is here to serve it.