“She’s learning from the bottom up,” he added.
“She’s not there to be a token,” he said.
Two years earlier, when Rivera was still coach of the Carolina Panthers, King had approached him at this same event, the NFL’s Women’s Careers in Football Forum. She told him she was the women’s basketball coach at Johnson & Wales University Charlotte, whose gym was adjacent to the Panthers’ practice fields, separated from his team by a black metal fence covered with banners.
At the time, she was weeks away from leading her team to the U.S. Collegiate Athletic Association Division II national championship, but she told Rivera that her real passion was football. For years, she had been the quarterback for a professional team in Charlotte, and many days she would peek through a small gap in the banners to watch the Panthers practice, wishing she could be one of those coaches, too.
Rivera, whose wife, Stephanie, had been a basketball coach and who has long been an advocate for women in sports, was moved. He invited King to come across the fence and meet his assistants. He made her a spring and summer intern, then brought her back last summer to help coach running backs. In between, he watched her get her first full-time football job as wide receivers coach for the Arizona Hotshots of the Alliance of American Football, and he became convinced she had a future in the NFL.
So in December, as he talked to Redskins owner Daniel Snyder about the job he would take in Washington, he told Snyder he wanted a woman on his coaching staff. He wanted to hire Jennifer King.
“I think the ultimate drive for me is to be successful and great at whatever I was doing,” King said. “I think that drive is what got me here.”
‘She pushed her way through’
Though the team officially lists King as a year-long offensive intern, she is for all practical purposes the first African American woman to be a full-time NFL assistant coach. She has her own office, an unofficial role as assistant running backs coach and the same assignments scouting offensive tendencies of opponents that all assistants working their way up receive. Her responsibilities will be similar to those of Katie Sowers, the San Francisco 49ers offensive assistant who in February became the first woman to coach in the Super Bowl.
“All I did was help get the door open for her. She put her foot in it, and she pushed her way through,” Rivera told the women at the combine.
Later that morning, King stood outside the conference room where Rivera had been speaking. She wore the same burgundy Redskins pullover as the team’s other assistants. The night before, she had been in the staff’s interviews with draft prospects, and that weekend she would be watching workouts in the stadium next door. Two years after peering through that gap in the fence, she had completely crossed to the other side.
But while King may have kicked open the door that Rivera had cracked, she does not see herself as a crusader. “She’s not trying to be the first astronaut on the moon,” said Rick Neuheisel, who coached the Hotshots. She loves football and coaching and seems content to disappear into the abyss of game film and practice sessions where most football coaches live.
“I saw women getting opportunities at football and I thought maybe this is something I can do, because I always wanted to do it, but there was no one who looked like me in those positions,” King said. “I went to basketball and was happy, but once some of those opportunities started to happen, I put things in play to make the move to football. … It’s all kind of come together now.”
As a child in Reidsville, N.C., King played tackle football with the neighborhood boys. On quiet autumn days, she would dart around the falling leaves, imagining they were tacklers trying to bring her down. On Sundays, she watched football with her father, rooting for the Redskins. The first Super Bowl she ever watched was Super Bowl XXII, Washington’s second victory, when Doug Williams became the first African American quarterback to win the championship. He became her favorite player.
When she was in junior high and high school, the football coaches tried to get her to come out for their teams, but her mother said no because she worried her daughter would get hurt. So King played basketball, going on to become a star at Guilford College and play a few months professionally in Australia before returning home to take an assistant coaching job at Greensboro College.
She got a job as a police officer in nearby High Point, working day shifts before driving to Greensboro for practices and games. She also got to play football, finally, becoming the quarterback of a professional women’s team, the Carolina Phoenix. The Phoenix went 75-17 in her nine years, going undefeated once.
It was a good life, but in 2016, Johnson & Wales asked her to be its head coach. Friends told her she was crazy to give up the stability of her police job to take over a program that had existed for only two seasons and had won just seven games the year before. But she wanted a team of her own, a place where winning would be expected.
On her first day with her new players, she told them, “We’re not going to be that team everybody wants to play anymore.” She talked a lot about opportunity and the few times in life when chances come along to be great. She told them to be ready when that happened. They won 15 of 21 games that first season, then 22 of 26 and the national championship the next year.
And maybe she would have kept the winning going for years if the Johnson & Wales gym wasn’t next to the Panthers’ practice field, separated from the crunching pads and screeching whistles only by a black metal fence covered with banners.
‘She won her stripes that day’
A few months after King’s first Panthers internship ended, the AAF called. The new league was interested in making her a permanent assistant on one of its teams. Though she had just started her third year at Johnson & Wales, she said yes, leaving her team in the middle of the season.
“I knew what I wanted to do,” she said, “and I knew coaching basketball wasn’t going to get me into football.”
She told her players she was leaving in a postgame speech. She recalls them being shocked. But she also felt they knew she had no choice.
“I think the values I had built in them when I coached them, they understood because I talked about chasing their dreams so much and going after opportunities,” King said. “They were sad I was leaving, but they got it.”
When the AAF’s co-founder and CEO, Charlie Ebersol, asked Neuheisel if he could add King to his staff, Neuheisel said he was happy to give her an opportunity, as long as King knew offenses and could handle equipment for drills. He wondered, though, how the other assistant coaches — many of them men in their 50s and 60s — would react. Could they adjust to a woman sitting at their meeting table?
He sensed apprehension at the start of the first staff meeting, but then King stood up and started talking about how she had always loved football, how she had been a pro quarterback, how she had won a national title as a basketball coach. As she talked, the other coaches sat silent, their eyes growing wider. When she finished, one of the coaches teased her gently, in the way older coaches sometimes do to test someone new among them. She teased the man right back.
“She won her stripes that day in giving it back,” Neuheisel said.
What struck him most about King was how well she fit in. He hesitates for a moment before saying “she was one of the team,” worrying his words could be misconstrued or come across as belittling. But from Neuheisel’s perspective, King was like any member of his staff — breaking down tape, dissecting plays and ditching the JUGS machine during drills to fire passes to the team’s receivers herself.
Growing up, King loved Michael Jordan. He always won, she thought, because he never worried about losing. It’s the approach she brought to basketball, and it’s the attitude she has about her opportunity with the Redskins. “A savage mentality,” she calls it.
“Worrying about losing is like worrying about failing,” she said.
King doesn’t want to think about failing in the NFL. She hasn’t seemed to consider it. Though she had lunch with Williams several times in the weeks before everything closed, she never told him he was her favorite player growing up. “That’s fine. In her role, it’s good to not show too much,” Williams, the Redskins’ senior vice president of player development, said after someone else mentioned it to him. “Everything doesn’t need to be hype.”
Instead she is just another coach, starting at the bottom, watching game film in her new office, hoping to climb higher in a world that was once on the other side of a black metal fence, seemingly impossible to reach.