The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Washington’s Jennifer King is NFL’s first Black female assistant. To players, she’s just Coach King.

Washington’s assistant running backs coach, Jennifer King, worked closely with J.D. McKissic, who had the second-most catches (80) and receiving yards (589) among NFL running backs in 2020. (Julio Cortez/AP)
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J.D. McKissic sat on the bench along the Washington Football Team’s sideline after getting berated by one of his coaches. His team, in a tight December game against the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers, had a shot at an upset that would change the course of its season. McKissic messed up and heard about it, but a push from Jennifer King put him back on track.

“It was a bust by me or something, and I got so angry,” McKissic said Wednesday. “She was just like: ‘Pull it together, man. Let’s go.’ We came out and won the game, and I appreciated her for that.”

McKissic had a career year for Washington, totaling the second-most catches (80) and receiving yards (589) among NFL running backs and becoming an integral part of the team’s future at the position. But his success, he says, was due in part to the work of King, who was promoted this week from intern to Washington’s full-time assistant running backs coach.

King is the first Black woman to hold a full-time coaching job in the NFL, and she is one of only two female full-time position coaches in the league, along with Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust.

“I didn’t have anyone that looked anything like me working,” King said Wednesday in a video news conference with reporters. “To be able to see that, I think, is big. I think it’s super cool to be a part of this and just keep doing a good job.”

To McKissic, King is simply “Coach.”

“I always thought she was already the assistant coach,” he said. “She played a pretty good role in my success. … She helped me take that next step. It was just the little things like giving me a pregame workout, things that she did with [Christian] McCaffrey in the past in Carolina. She was able to bring that to Washington and push me in those types of ways.”

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Before games, King took the field with McKissic, practicing handoffs and throwing him passes from nearly every angle imaginable to get his eyes and body in sync to catch balls that fell low or came in high.

Before practices, the two would be on the field again, running drills she had stored in her memory bank.

“Every time I said I was going to do something, she was out there,” McKissic said. “She would be out there 15 minutes early, and we’d push each other like: ‘Hey, I’m out here. Where you at?’ Whenever I would be like, ‘Coach King, I need you,’ there was never a holdup. It was like, ‘Let’s get it.’ That’s the type of stuff players need.”

At team headquarters in Ashburn, King is just another assistant coach on a young team looking to build on this season’s division title. Yet she is also a trailblazer for women in coaching and women in football — something not even she envisioned five years ago when she was an assistant basketball coach at Greensboro College in North Carolina. She had a good job. A job she knew well. A job that was comfortable, in a sport she had played and coached for years.

That changed in 2016.

“I didn’t really think about coaching football at a super high level until I started seeing Katie Sowers get an opportunity, in Atlanta at the time,” King said. “That’s when a lightbulb kind of went off for me and I started making my way.”

Sowers, an offensive assistant for the San Francisco 49ers the past four seasons before she parted ways with the team this month, was originally hired as a seasonal intern for the Falcons, becoming the second woman, after former Arizona Cardinals intern Jen Welter, to coach in any capacity in the NFL.

Sowers, like King, played tackle football in the Women’s Football Alliance. And she, like King, grew up without an example to watch, another woman on the sidelines to lay the path for others aspiring to coach in the NFL.

“It’s so important just to open up the entire pool of applicants when you have a position,” King said. “So far, historically in football, it’s only essentially 50 percent of the pool. No women are ever considered. I think for future female coaches coming up, this kind of gets their foot in the door. It’s up to us to do a good job.

“I always say: ‘You’re not just going to get here. You have to put the work in. You’ve got to know what you’re doing.’ That’s one thing I love about the other [female] coaches in the league right now. I feel like we’re all where we’re supposed to be. It’s not like we’re here for any other reason. It’s not for publicity. We’re here to work to make teams better.”

King’s start in the NFL came in 2018, but her athletic and coaching accomplishments began well before that. King was a two-sport athlete at Guilford College in Greensboro, finishing her basketball career third on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,601 points, and compiling a .251 career batting average with the softball team.

She switched to the sidelines after graduating and helped lead Greensboro College’s women’s basketball team to five regular season conference titles during her 10-year run as an assistant coach — while doubling as a seven-time all-American quarterback and wide receiver for the Carolina Phoenix of the Women’s Football Alliance from 2006 to 2017.

During a stretch from 2018 to 2019, King led the Johnson & Wales women’s basketball team to a national championship, was named the U.S. Collegiate Athletic Association’s coach of the year, interned twice with the Carolina Panthers, was an assistant coach in the now-disbanded Alliance of American Football, was also an assistant football coach at Dartmouth and played both wide receiver and safety for the WFA’s D.C. Divas.

“I thought I was going for two days for a rookie minicamp [with Carolina] and ended up being there for four months,” she said. “I think after I kept getting called back, the first time I got called back after the rookie minicamp, that’s when I really saw that I could do this because I’m here. It’s up to me now to see what I’m going to do with this opportunity.”

When former Panthers coach Ron Rivera was hired by Washington in 2020, he brought King with him as a full-time intern assisting running backs coach Randy Jordan. King arrived with two years of experience in the offense from her internships with Carolina.

“First of all, she knows the game,” Jordan said in early December. “… When we first started, I leaned on her a lot in terms of the terminology and the different things.”

That experience prepared her for a significant role on the sideline as the team welcomed a new group of backs led by McKissic and rookie Antonio Gibson. And her work since made it apparent she was due for even more.

“You got to credit her on the accomplishment of being the first Black female coach. That’s major. That’s a milestone,” McKissic said. “But I just view her as Coach King, and that’s how she would want to be viewed. I know she’s fit for this job.”

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