Jennifer King knows she has to study twice as hard. Even before she became the Carolina Panthers’ first female coaching intern, she pored over playbooks and delved into areas of football strategy she felt were a weakness. Mind you, this was on top of her highly successful day job as head coach of the women’s basketball team at Johnson & Wales University — where she won a Division II national championship and was named national coach of the year this spring.
Females are not getting opportunities they should in football, according to King. “So you want to be prepared when you get there, and not blow the opportunity. It just makes everyone look bad. … I studied, so when the opportunity presented itself, I’d be ready and not have that deer-in-headlights look,” she says.
For King, 33, the work paid off with a position coaching wide receivers during Panthers rookie camp and training camp. While the internship is done, King is “very confident” she can find a place with the Panthers, given her discussions with the team, and one day achieve her goal of becoming the NFL’s first female offensive coordinator.
King is part of a small but growing cohort of women working in the game — three other women have served as full-time assistant coaches (Kathryn Smith with the Buffalo Bills, Katie Sowers with the San Francisco 49ers and Kelsey Martinez for the Oakland Raiders). She earned one of 50 coveted spots — out of hundreds of applicants for 2018 — at the NFL Women’s Careers in Football Forum, part of the league’s push to break up its male hegemony.
King was hired as then-Panthers owner Jerry Richardson — whose statue still stands outside the stadium — sold the team, amid reports of rampant sexual harassment and racist comments. NFL players’ mistreatment of women and the league’s sometimes halting disciplinary response has been a long-running saga in recent years. Still, King says she has never witnessed or experienced any sexism on the job.
King with wide receiver Torrey Smith at the Panthers and Miami Dolphins preseason game on Aug. 17, 2018.
She grew up about two hours away in Reidsville, North Carolina, where she played five sports in high school on top of serving as student body vice president. At Guilford College, King was a resident adviser in the dorms while playing basketball. She played professional hoops in Australia, falling in love with travel, before starting her coaching career. “She does what she says she will do and more,” says Porschia Holmes, one of King’s childhood friends. “She has literally been building a legacy her whole life.”
King has long held a passion for the gridiron, including playing in the full-contact Women’s Football Alliance in which she also won a league title this year. She buttonholed Panthers Coach Ron Rivera at the women’s coaches forum to let him know she was just down the road from Bank of America Stadium. Then, when he came to speak to Johnson & Wales varsity athletes, King reconnected, and this time Rivera gave her information about the Panthers’ rookie camp.
Through her studies and her internship, King found that the most successful NFL coaches all share common traits: “They read and they learn.” And, like King, they win.