First Black woman NFL coach shares journey through sports

When Jennifer King attended the National Football League Women’s Forum for the first time in 2018, every one of the more than 40 women in attendance worked in jobs outside of sports. When King returned this year, every woman she met was already working in soccer.

“It shows the tremendous growth that women have had in this sport,” said King, the featured speaker at “Breaking Barriers: The First Black Woman to Coach in the NFL,” an event held May 3 at Newman Arena.

“This is something that other women in the league coach and I take very seriously, just to be great,” she said. [role] Models and being the representation that we didn’t have for the people coming behind us.

During an hour-long conversation moderated by student-athlete Sydney Moore ’24, King spoke about her journey through college and professional sports, touching on topics ranging from the importance of diversity and representation to the growing opportunities for women in athletics.

A former student-athlete at Guilford College, King spent 13 years playing in the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA), a semi-professional, all-conference women’s league. She began her coaching career in college basketball and often worked other jobs to supplement her income, even working as a police officer in her native North Carolina.

King eventually moved up the coaching ranks and in 2018 led Johnson & Wales University, Charlotte, to a 22-4 record and its first United States Collegiate Athletic Association Division II championship. Despite the success, King left college basketball the following year to pursue her dream of a career in football.

“It’s very important for you to find something that you love,” King said. “Don’t be afraid to improve yourself and don’t be afraid to take that leap into the unknown. When you get opportunities in life, you have to take them.”

Today, King is one of only 12 women to hold full-time coaching positions in the NFL. She entered the sport as an assistant coach at Dartmouth College, and with the now-defunct Arizona Hotshots of the American Football League. After two years as an intern with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, King accompanied then-head coach Ron Rivera, whom she met at the 2018 NFL Women’s Forum, to the Washington Captains.

In 2021, King was promoted from intern coach to the role of assistant running backs coach at Washington and became the first Black woman named to a full-time NFL coaching staff. King recently accepted an assistant coaching position with the Chicago Bears, becoming the first female coach in the franchise’s 104-year history.

“I got to this point by being myself every day,” King said, crediting the coaches and players she met along the way for making her feel welcome. “I think it’s very important for people to find places where they can have the confidence to know that you don’t have to look like someone else.”

While answering a question from the audience, King recalled her first day with the Panthers. A fan of the team and a new employee, she stood nervously against the wall when Luke Kuechly, the team’s star linebacker, approached her and introduced himself. While King appreciated the gesture, he didn’t need any introduction, considering his shirt was already in the house.

“That set the tone for everything,” King said. “I think we’re entering a new era in the sport, where for a lot of these men who are in control now, having women in these positions is not new to them anymore. We have a lot of work to do, but I haven’t experienced a lot of that.” [negative] Things that you might think I would have because people are so much better and we’re moving into a new generation.

A strong advocate for continuing to grow opportunities for women in athletics, King remains involved with the NFL Women’s Forum, the Women’s Sports Foundation, and her own organization, The King Group, dedicated to enriching the lives of children through camps, experiences and community programs.

King also discussed the growing interest in women’s sports and the important lessons she and other women can gain from participating in athletics.

“All the things that can happen as a leader, I’ve already gone through them,” King said. “You’ve been defeated and life has happened to you as an athlete, and when you move into leadership roles, you know you’ve been battle-tested and can lead companies and organizations.”

The lecture was sponsored by the office Empowering black students, in student life and campus, and supported by Cornell University Athletics and Physical Education; Gender Equality Resource Center; and LGBT Resource Center.

Ben Padua is a Creative Content Manager for Student and Campus Life.

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