Jennifer King was named assistant running backs coach for the Washington Football Team in January. The assignment made her the first Black female full-time coach in the NFL. King, 36, previously served as a full-year coaching intern with the team. In her own words, King details her journey to NFL and how she intends to inspire the next generation of female coaches.
Football was my first love.
I’m from a small town in North Carolina, and Friday night football is a big deal. My family would go to the “big game.” We were always at football games or watching them on TV. But never in my life did I think I’d be working in the NFL. I’ve played basketball, softball, some tennis and football. I coached basketball and softball, I’m a huge sports fan, and I love playing them. But, I never thought this was an option.
Becoming the first Black woman to coach full-time in the NFL is an unknown journey.
Zina Garrison was one of the first Black woman I ever saw playing sports on TV. I started playing tennis because I watched her play on television. Garrison messaged me on social media when I was named assistant running backs coach for the Washington Football Team in January. That was special. She was one of my go-to people growing up. I always loved to watch her matches.
It’s been nice to receive messages from these idols, these great women. I even got a congratulations message from Billie Jean King. I’ve been able to speak with some incredible people in the past few weeks. I genuinely appreciate all the love and support people have shown me.
Those messages serve as a reminder that I need to help out the next generation of women coaches. I’ll be able to answer the questions they may have, I’ll provide guidance. I’ll at least try. I want to make that connection with them because they’re on deck to go next. Me being here is an example. It’s an example of the opportunity they could have one day.
Some think football is complicated [for women]. But I’ve never felt that. The game has given me so much. The friendships, the coaches, the teams — everything I’m getting now is just a bonus. This is just the icing on the cake.
And of course, there are critics or those talking on social media about me being named in this role. But I don’t read the comments. When my friends try to tell me what people are saying on Twitter, I reply, “I don’t care.” I don’t worry about the noise, and I don’t want them to worry about it either. I’ve always said that as long as Coach Ron Rivera and the people inside the Washington Football Team organization know that I’m supposed to be there and feel comfortable enough to have me in this position — because I earned it — that’s all that matters. And the team’s growth matters. What other people say doesn’t impact me.
So why would I worry about it?
It’s all on football right now. I want our running back group to be one of the best, if not the best, in the league, just in our production. And that’s just building on what we did last season. We had a pretty good run last year, but there’s still lots of room for improvement. I want to make sure they’re better. That’s my goal right now, and that’s all I’m focused on. You’ll see that as we win more games our confidence will build up. I’m here to shine a light on the next season.
The only time football disappointed me was when I couldn’t play. I played in the neighborhood and at school. The middle school and high school coaches wanted me to be a part of the team, but my parents wouldn’t let me because they were scared I’d get hurt. I started playing all the other sports, and I was fine with it. I was still able to go to games and cheer on my friends. But I didn’t know what would happen with football until I graduated college and started playing again, and I started coaching some then. That’s when I really reconnected with football.
I had the typical childhood dreams. I wanted to be a professional athlete or a police officer. I played tackle football professionally, and I was a police officer [in High Point, North Carolina, from 2014 to 2016, holding that position while coaching]. I knocked those goals off the list. But, I was always a natural leader, from pee-wee leagues to college. I’ve always been the kind of person who could handle a lot on their plate. In a way, this all adds up.
When I decided to make that jump from being a head coach for the [women’s basketball team at Johnson & Wales University – Charlotte] to going to the bottom of the totem pole of this unknown NFL journey, starting as a full-year coaching intern, at least to my face everyone has been very supportive of me pursuing this dream. I don’t know what they were saying behind my back. I have a great circle of friends, so they also encouraged me and were excited to see me start something new. My family has always been very supportive. Anything that I wanted to do, they supported me.
I’ve had great coaches and mentors along the way. When it was time for me to decide what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, coaching was a natural fit. I started with coaching women’s college basketball at Greensboro College. That was my first job. It showed that you could have fun, work hard and win all at the same time. It wasn’t just like, grind, grind, grind, and not have any fun. That laid the foundation for my coaching philosophy.
Growing up, I wanted to win no matter what. I had to be the best. I didn’t care about trophies. I wanted them because they signified the win. As I started coaching, of course, we want to chase wins and championships, but I want my guys to have a good time doing it.
What I offer the Washington Football Team goes beyond my core coaching skills. I relate to the players. I’ve played and coached quite a bit now. I’m able to communicate and be a supportive voice for them. It’s important. And yes, I want to win, but I want those relationships to be strong because that’s what it’s about on the NFL level.
For next season, of course, I want to win the Super Bowl. I saw Tampa win, and I saw my friends [Lori Locust and Maral Javadifar] do it. I want to do that. That’s next. I’ve talked to Lori and Maral, and all of the eight women coaches in the NFL are all very happy for them. They did something great. Any year you get to win a Super Bowl is special because you never know if you’ll make it back. It’s also a celebration of the hard work you put in.
I’m a huge music fan, and I read a lot. And there’s a song that continues to inspire me when I think about all that I want to accomplish in the new year. I’m not even sure who initially performed it, but it’s called “Nobody Knows,” and it’s in an old Steph Curry commercial. [Louis Armstrong released “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” in 1958.] But, the chorus is, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.” It speaks to struggle, and how the things you’ve overcome helps you get to where you are, where you should be. And it inspires me. It might not be an easy road, but you’ll get there.