Jennifer King holds the title of the first Black woman to become a full-time football coach and is currently the Assistant Running Back coach for the Washington Football Team. Her successful career in sports is not just beginning though, as she was a star multi-sport athlete all her life, along with serving as the head coach for the Johnson & Wales women’s basketball team. In this episode, Jennifer discusses how she got to where she is today, along with the importance of different perspectives when leading a team.
Check out Jennifer working with the Nike x NFL Girls Flag Football Partnership here.
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A LOOK INSIDE THE EPISODE:
Q: You were quite the athlete- 7 time All-American Quarterback and Wide Receiver for the Carolina Phoenix Women’s Tackle Football team- How did you get here today? They don’t have women’s football in college.
A: Now actually they’re getting flag football which is actually really cool. But, I always loved football and actually in middle school and high school the coaches wanted me to play, but my mom wouldn’t let me. She thought I would get hurt, so I didn’t do that, I just played everything else. But once I graduated college and was done playing basketball, I started playing women’s football and it’s huge. There are two major leagues in the country, the WFN and the WNFC and they both have some really good teams and some really good talent. They’re getting some really good sponsors now too, so I think it’s only a matter of time until hopefully they can secure some kind of TV deal and not just streaming. It’s one of those things where it’s really big for us that play it, but a lot of people have no idea what it is. But it’s been great.
Q: How do you make that transition from playing and all of a sudden you’re coaching?
A: It was interesting just because I didn’t see anyone that looked like me coaching football at a higher level, so I started coaching college basketball, even though I really love football. I was happy with it. Obviously we had success and things were going well. I was even a volunteer assistant when I first started, so I did all these other jobs so I would be able to coach. And my last job before I left, I was a police officer for like four years while I was coaching college basketball, so I was all over the place. Fortunately I was able to get a head coaching job and that’s when I moved to Charlotte and when I moved there, my office was right next to Carolina Panthers practice facility so every day I could see them, hear them practicing. That’s how close we were, it was just a fence that separated my office from their practice facility. And one day I was in Atlanta recruiting and I got a message that appeared in my brain to reach out to Sam Rapoport, who works for the NFL. She was in charge of diversity, so she didn’t know who I was. I blindly emailed her, she responded within five minutes, it was almost immediately, and that kind of got the ball rolling. She introduced me to Scott Fiolie, he’s been a great mentor for me, and at that time he was working for the Falcons, so he invited me down to just kind of spend the day at training camp to see what it’s like. And I knew then that’s what I wanted to do. But obviously I’m a head college basketball coach, still in the program. We had a lot of success, we actually won a national championship that year. So but football was still pulling at me and I was able to go start an internship with the Panthers after we won that championship, that’s when I was there first. I met coach Rivera, the women’s coach for them by the league and I just had to find a way to shoot my shot. He was next door but had no idea who I was so I had to find a way to do that and find a connection once I did that. He invited me over, which I thought was going to be for two days and I went over there kind of hungry to learn and to grow. To bring something to the table as well because I think going over there as a head coach, I knew what I wanted from assistance and I kind of took that over for my two days and two days turned into about 4 months, there in my first internship. I just kept growing and bringing things to the table and it just kinda took off.
Q: Were you worried when you were making that transition coaching a men’s professional sport?
A: Not really, I guess there’s naturally a type of nervousness switching sports and then obviously at the highest level. But, at that time I had been a coach for almost 10 years, so I think I was kind of settled in and I was confident and I was a head coach as well, so I was used to being in the front. So, even though I would be coaching men at a professional level, I wasn’t that nervous. And then I think once I got there, any nerves that I did have immediately left just because I was so welcomed in and that really felt good.
Q: You get titled as making history as being the first African American woman to become a professional coach. Does that carry any weight, any stress for you? How do you feel about that?
A: I think it’s one of those things I will probably look back on 20-30 years from now to really appreciate being at that level of firsts and kind of a groundbreaker. But, I just wanted to coach football and that is how I got in. Even when it happened and I got my promotion, it never crossed my mind that it was a first. I was just so locked into what I was doing, but I think there is a certain responsibility to it. I don’t feel extra pressure just because I put enough pressure on myself to be really good every single day. So, I don’t feel any added pressure from that, but it is a certain responsibility I feel to do well and to be a good representation just because I am essentially a representation I didn’t have. So I think it is important to be a role model for everyone.
Q: People are saying that a female at this position might bring a different perspective and I’m thinking to myself maybe because of gender but just you alone, you as an individual, are going to bring a different perspective- that winning perspective, for one. So is there a female perspective that we haven’t seen in the sport? And then your own perspective, what do you feel you’re bringing?
A: I don’t know if there is a big difference, but I think it is so important for staff to be diverse because everyone has their own experiences and how they view things and they have come about it. Even when I was a head coach, I didn’t want a whole staff of black females like me, I wanted it to be a diverse staff, I wanted a man, maybe a white guy. I just wanted everyone because everyone brings different things to the table and it’s so important to have staff that look different. And I think there is no coincidence that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the most diverse staff in the league and it worked out pretty well for them. I think that people are on to something now, bringing more diversity into their staff. I think last year at the women’s coaches forum, almost every team in the league was represented to kind of get their eyes on not just the next crop of coaches but also on the business side and scouting side. So I think people are definitely more open and kind of curious to see the different points of view that females can bring because essentially they have limited their whole pool to about 50% instead of opening it up to everybody. You never know what that extra percentage of people could bring to the table to help you to be successful.
Q: The NFL has a women’s career and football forum, can you tell me about that?
A: Sam Rapoport started it and now it blew up. It has definitely blown up into a machine almost. I think over 40 women who attended are now working on NFL teams. And it’s not just coaching, it’s on the business side, the marketing side, all over the place. Essentially what it does is identifies the top 40 or 50 women all over the country, and sometimes abroad, and they put them in a symposium style conference at the combine. So everyone’s already there so essentially you’ll have roundtables with owners, with head coaches, with general managers, with decision makers and they put them in front of these people to start building those relationships from that. And that’s a lot of the time the only thing people need is that opportunity and it’s a great program and it’s been very successful and the league has really embraced it.
Q: What do you want to say to the young ladies out there looking to start or get involved? A: I think the biggest thing is to start developing your skill set in whatever you want to do. Obviously I talk about coaching because that’s what I do, but it relates to everything else. It’s developing the skill set in which you want to do, reaching out to people who do what you want to do, and don’t be discouraged by the no’s. And once you do that and start developing those relationships, hopefully those can lead to opportunities to get your foot in the door. And when you get your foot in the door, and you get opportunities, it’s up to you, what you do with it. So I think that’s why it’s so important to be prepared when you get those opportunities and knock them out of the park. So many times people want things and they have aspirations to do things, and then it’s given to them immediately and it’s like, “Oh my god, I wasn’t ready for this.” But this is what you wanted, so you have to be prepared and that’s kind of what I did. It took some sacrifice, but I was able to do it and I think what I did and what I was able to do is no different from what anybody else can do. It’s just building those relationships, building your skill set, and when you get those opportunities, be ready to knock them out of the park.