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Blazing her own trail

Guilford graduate goes from DIII dual-sport athlete to first Black female assistant NFL coach

Jennifer King is unafraid of departing from the norm and charting a new path. It’s how she became the first Black female assistant coach in the NFL.

It’s been her M.O. since her time as a Division III student-athlete at Guilford, where she played basketball and softball from 2002 to 2006. King said she had scholarship offers from Division I and II schools to play either sport, but none offered the opportunity to play both.

So she chose Division III.

The decision set the stage for a unique post-collegiate career. Her NFL promotion is just the latest example.

“I think my Division III experience was big in how I became an adult, essentially. I learned how to manage and handle a bunch of different tasks at one time playing two sports,” King said. “My message to athletes is it doesn’t change when you get into the real world. There’s a lot going on. But it helped me balance (everything) just because it wasn’t anything new to have a lot going on in my life or to have to balance several different things because I’ve been doing it for so long.”

King balanced quite a lot to get to the historic place she’s in.

After she graduated from Guilford with a degree in sports management, she started as a women’s basketball volunteer assistant coach at Greensboro. She also became a police officer to make ends meet, and she stayed on the force even after being promoted to a paid assistant at Greensboro.

In 2016, she took a job as the women’s basketball head coach at Johnson & Wales University (Charlotte). (The university was a member of the United States Collegiate Athletic Association during King’s time there; it announced this year it’s beginning a transition process to become an NCAA Division III member.)

King’s 2017-18 team won a national championship. Life was good. But her dream was across the street from her campus office: The Carolina Panthers practice facility. The NFL. Football.

“I had to find a way to get there,” King said.

She decided to “walk away from it all” for football, which she’d played and coached during basketball offseasons after she finished at Guilford.

“I think it’s so important for us to chase what we want, and I was happy in basketball. Don’t get me wrong, I loved what I was doing. I loved the athletes I was able to coach, but I really wanted to be in football,” she said. “I made that decision to take that leap. We have to not be afraid to make that leap, that difficult decision, because it’s so easy to get comfortable in the positions that we’re in. But you can’t do anything special from your comfort zone. You have to be able to break out of that.”

Her first major football opportunity came through a connection she made with Ron Rivera at the NFL Women’s Careers in Football Forum. Rivera, then the head coach of the Panthers, offered her an internship. Rivera invited her back for another internship after she coached wide receivers for the Arizona Hotshots, a member of the short-lived Alliance of American Football.

In 2019, she served as an assistant football coach at Dartmouth. In 2020, soon after Rivera was hired as Washington’s head coach, King was back on the NFL sidelines as a full-time intern. In January, Rivera promoted her to assistant running backs coach.

Of the many things she’s learned during her pioneering career, King said one thing stands above the rest.

“I think my biggest advice for people trailblazing new paths is to be authentic to yourself,” she said. “In my situation, that’s what got me to this position. I always remain authentic.”

Additionally, King said finding a community of people in similar circumstances is crucial. She found some of her community through events like the Women’s Careers in Football Forum and NFL Women’s Summit. She stressed not to limit one’s influences to a certain career field, however.

“It’s extremely important to find mentorship and just a strong circle of friends that push each other,” King said. “I was fortunate to have some strong mentors. Some of them are not in sports. They’re in other areas, but they’re successful in their own right. It’s so important to build that circle because you never know which relationships you build could help you in the future.”

King has now become that person for others. Women look up to her as a beacon of what’s possible in a male-dominated field. King said she is certainly aware of her role and how to best use it to inspire others.

“It’s so important to encourage the next generation because we now have people in positions that we’ve never been before. I ultimately made the decision to be my own representation, and (other women) have representation now,” she said. “It’s important to do a good job for the next generation so when they put in the hard work and dedication, they have maybe an easier path to get to where I am.”

Her best guidance for those following in her footsteps: Be prepared and put in the work. As a former college athlete, she said those two things came naturally. 

“The beautiful thing about athletes is I feel you have a leg up on so many people because of your discipline that led you to be an athlete in the first place,” she said. “That same type of schedule and hard work that got you to the level where you played athletics collegiately will get you into positions to do great things in your career, as well.”