Jennifer King, Assistant Running Backs Coach of the Washington Football Team, is the first African American woman to coach in the NFL and only the second woman to do so behind Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust. She therefore finds herself at the center of change in one of the most change-resistant institutions anywhere.
Is it window dressing or part of a truly transformational shift? And, if transformational, what prepared her to thrive in the spotlight as a designated change agent?
In the Ron Rivera mold of “player’s coaches,” Jennifer was herself an exceptional football player: seven-time All-American quarterback and wide receiver for the Carolina Phoenix women's tackle football team from 2006-17 and wide receiver and defensive back for the New York Sharks, capturing the WFA National Championship. She played wide receiver and safety in the District for the D.C. Divas women's tackle football team in 2019. Just prior to joining the Washington Football Team as an intern, Jennifer was an offensive assistant for the Dartmouth College football team working with wide receivers and creating defensive scouting reports. Before that, she interned with Coach Rivera's Panthers.
Prior to her leap into professional football, she coached women's basketball and was named USCAA Division II National Coach of the Year in 2018 as head coach for Johnson & Wales University Charlotte, which took the division title in 2018. Before all the acclaim, she spent a decade as assistant coach for Greensboro College women's basketball from 2006-16.
Her career jump from basketball to football had its roots in a special invitation from the league’s Director of Football Development, Samantha Rappaport, whose job for the NFL is to entice women into operations. “Sam” invited her to attend the second Women’s Careers in Football Forum in 2018 where she first met Coach Rivera.
“That opportunity was just amazing and kind of spring-boarded me into everything. Essentially, they invite about 40 women from all over to meet general managers, head coaches, owners and different decision-makers, and we got to speak and interact with them, and they got to know us. I met commissioner (Roger) Goodell and we've built a good friendship over the years, and I also was able to meet his wife Jane. When I was at Dartmouth, his daughters actually went to Dartmouth, so we connected while I was there. They've always been very supportive of all the women working in football.”
Despite the encouragement, moving from a successful coaching career in basketball to an uncertain one in football took a “leap of faith.” She attended Guilford College, a Quaker school undergrad and received her master’s degree in sports administration from Liberty University. “Faith has always been big for me. When I walked away from coaching basketball, I essentially went all in on faith because life was comfortable; everything was good. I took a blind leap into the unknown, and relied on my faith to guide me. I felt, even if I fell on my face, I would be okay, and that's something that I will always carry with me.”
Her hiring in Washington followed the appointment of African Americans Jason Wright as team president and Martin Mayhew as GM, a clearly strategic restructuring. As Jason put it to HBO, “If we have a diverse team, we actually get better outcomes, so it’s not about change for change’s sake, but change for what matters.”
Jennifer agrees, adding, “When I was a head coach, it was all about culture for me, so to be in another situation where it's been all about culture is exciting. I think culture wins along with the diversity.”
Which is not to say that stress and crisis didn’t play a role in the pace of change in Ashburn. “We've seen that recently with social justice issues. When you actually see something happen, it changes people's perspective on things. That's been a catalyst for a lot of changes that we've seen in our society over the past year or so,” Jennifer observes.
Visualizing success for her began with sports idols like Olympic athlete Jacqueline Joyner-Kersee and Zina Garrison. Because she knows there’s no substitute for having mentors who are doing what you aspire to do, she meets with several women still in college to encourage their careers in sports. And, recently, she established a non-profit called The King Group with the goal of providing programs and resources for underprivileged kids.
“When I was a police officer, I saw so many kids who were in bad situations. Though they were just 8 or 10 years old, they already had a hopeless feeling about them. I'm hoping the King Group will be able to provide programs and resources for those kids, to give them a positive environment and let them know that they can take their lives in different directions from what they see on a daily basis.” Sports may a catalyst for the group's mission, “but there's a much deeper, deeper message behind it.”
On the field, effective coaching is about more than just the mechanics of the game itself. “I learned a long time ago that it's so important to know things other than just football with these guys. Once they know you care and really know them, they play harder for you.” She styles herself as a quiet communicator. “I'm not a yeller. I don't have to yell and scream at them, I can get my message across without doing that. That's through relationships we've built –when I talk to them and I have something to say, they're listening and paying attention.”
Success ultimately is about winning, but even here, Jennifer says, “I think success is around the corner, just because of all the different points of views you're bringing in... I'm excited to see where we're headed. It’s fun to come to work. We have a good time here and we've had some success on the field. Hopefully, we can continue to do that.”