Sydney Moore ’24, left, speaks with Jennifer King, the first Black woman to be named to a full-time NFL coaching staff, May 3 at Newman Arena.

First Black woman NFL coach shares journey through sports

When Jennifer King first attended the National Football League’s Women’s Forum in 2018, every one of the more than 40 women in attendance held jobs outside the sport. When King returned this year – every woman she met already worked in football.

“It just 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 in Newman Arena.

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

During an hourlong conversation moderated by student-athlete Sydney Moore ’24, King reflected on her journey through college and professional sports, and touched 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-pro, full-contact women’s league. She began her coaching career in college basketball and often worked other jobs to supplement her income, even serving as a police officer in her native North Carolina.

King eventually climbed 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 working in football.

“It’s so important for you to find something that you love,” King said. “Don’t be afraid to better yourself and don’t be afraid to make 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 broke into the sport as an assistant coach at Dartmouth College, and with the Arizona Hotshots of the now-defunct Alliance of American Football. After two years as a coaching 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 Commanders.

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

“I’ve gotten to this point by being myself every day,” said King, who credited coaches and players she met along the way for making her feel welcome. “I think it’s so important for people to find places where they can have the confidence to know you don’t have to show up as someone else.”

While answering a question from the audience, King recalled her first day with the Panthers. Both a fan of the team and a new staff member, she nervously stood against a wall as Luke Kuechly, the team’s star linebacker, approached and introduced himself. While King appreciated the gesture, he needed no introduction – considering she had his jersey at home.

“That set the tone for everything,” King said. “I think we’re entering a new era in sport, where for a lot of these guys now in control, it’s not new for them to have women in these positions anymore. We have a lot of work to do, but I haven’t experienced a lot of the [negative] things you probably 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’s Women’s Forum, Women’s Sports Foundation, and her own organization, the King Group, dedicated to enriching the lives of kids through camps, experiences and community programs.

King also discussed the increased 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, you’ve already experienced,” King said. “You’ve been knocked down and life has happened to you as an athlete, and as you move into leadership roles, you know you’re battle-tested and can lead companies and organizations.”

The talk was sponsored by the office of Black Student Empowerment, in Student and Campus Life, and supported by Cornell Athletics and Physical Education; the Gender Equity Resource Center; and the LGBT Resource Center.

Ben Badua is a creative content manager in Student and Campus Life.

Media Contact

Abby Kozlowski