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King embracing another 'first' as she begins role with Bears

Jennifer King made history Feb. 21 when the Bears hired her as assistant running backs coach, making her the first female coach in franchise history. To celebrate Women's History Month, details King's journey toward another "first."

Story by Gabby Hajduk

Every player who reaches the professional level can point to their "welcome to the NFL" moment where they realize the stark difference between the college ranks and the pros.

Like most rookies, Jennifer King's moment came almost immediately upon starting her first NFL job with the Panthers as a coaching intern in 2018.

For the North Carolina native, earning the role meant fulfilling a personal goal of reaching the NFL level as coach. It meant over a decade of competing in the Women's Football Alliance while coaching collegiate basketball at Division II and III levels finally paid off.

What King did not realize was achieving her own dream also meant opening a door for young girls and women she didn't even know.

"It happened almost immediately when I got to the Panthers," King told, "just the outpour of support and people sending me messages just inspired and just happy for what was going on. I quickly realized kind of the magnitude of it because I'm super chill and relaxed. So me working with the Panthers, I was excited, but I didn't really think of the historical ramifications of it until things kind of came out."

The support for King has only increased since 2018. Throughout her stops in Carolina then Washington, she received hundreds of messages or letters from kids and young women. She's seen pictures of children dressing up as her on Halloween and for Women's History Month school reports.

"I didn't set out to be a first. I set out to be a coach. I just happened to be one of the first to do it." Jennifer King

Serving as the first female coaching intern in Carolina was just the beginning of "firsts" for the 39-year-old, later becoming the first Black woman to be a full-time NFL coach and, now, the first female coach in the Bears' 104-year history.

Often carrying that title of "first" with her isn't something King routinely thinks about, but it's a sentiment she has embraced.

"I'm not going to get tired of it because it is what it is," King said. "I'm not going to discredit myself by trying to deny it or not wanting to hear it anymore. But at the same time, I didn't set out to be a first. I set out to be a coach. I just happened to be one of the first to do it. But that's not something that I really strived to do when I started this journey.

"I think the work that I put in and just my ability to coach has led me to this point. In this space, when you're a first, almost everything you do is going to be a first. It's something I haven't really thought a lot about. But obviously it took a lot of work to get to this point, so it's something that I'm proud of."

It wasn't until King was 22 years old that she played organized football for the first time. While she competed on her high school basketball, softball, volleyball, track & field and cross-country teams, football was her true passion — one she could only nurture while playing in the neighborhood or watching NFL games with her family on Sunday afternoons.

King can't pinpoint the moment she fell in love with football or knew she wanted to play professionally, because she was just always around the game. Growing up in a football town — Reidsville, North Carolina — with a family who loved the sport, it was always "a big part of our lives."

Then in 2006, after King had just graduated from Guilford College where she played Division III basketball and softball, she met a woman while playing pickup basketball who told her about the WFA's Carolina Phoenix.

"I was all for it," King said. "I had been wanting to play my whole life. So to get an opportunity, it was pretty cool."

King spent the next 10 years with the Phoenix as a quarterback and wide receiver — reaching All-American status seven times and winning a national championship — and in the all while serving as an assistant coach for Greensboro College's women's basketball team.

A self-described "college basketball coach by profession," King took a leap and became the head women's basketball coach at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte in 2016. Two years later in her final season, King led the program to a National Championship and was named USCAA Division II National Coach of the Year.


While college basketball allowed King to get her foot in the door of the coaching world, her sights remained set on working her way into football. In 2017, she connected with Scott Piolo, then-Falcons assistant general manager, who invited her to watch the team practice in Atlanta.

"To see professional athletes work, it was impressive," King said. "I felt like if you want to coach football, why not try to coach at the highest level you can? I was coaching college athletes, which was incredible, but to see professionals work was definitely special.

"I think after seeing that and being so close by, that's kind of when I knew what I wanted to do. Obviously, I didn't know how I would get there because there wasn't anyone who looked like me doing it."

King continued to network in the NFL and built a relationship with the league's senior director of diversity, equity & inclusion Sam Rappaport, who invited her to the 2018 NFL Women's Forum. During the event's breakout sessions, King was sat at then-Panthers head coach Ron Rivera's table.

"We hit it off almost immediately," Rivera told "Just listening to her passion was very impressive, but her overall knowledge of the team — team environment, team dynamics – I thought was really important.

"Also knowing that Jennifer played the game and was playing at a high level, I thought for sure she understood the skillsets and what it took."

"Just being there and being a part of it, she wanted it and you knew it was a transition into something special.” Former Panthers and Commanders Head Coach Ron Rivera

King's experience as a successful head coach at an USCAA Division II program also piqued Rivera's interest. Because his wife, Stephanie, previously coached a women's basketball team at an NAIA school, Rivera understood that in those positions, the head coach did everything like driving the bus to games, setting up hotel arrangements, taking care of travel.

Rivera was sold on King and hired her in Carolina later that year as a coaching intern.

What surprised Rivera about King's jump to the NFL was "it wasn't as dramatic as I thought it would be." Instead of diving in and taking control right away, King took the approach of listening and learning first. Rivera remembers King showing a high level of respect to then-running backs coach Jim Skipper, allowing him to lead the way.

"If something needed to be done, she jumped right in there and helped out, but then she would step back and kind of melt back into the background," Rivera said.

As Rivera watched King, he began to understand King's approach. While she understood the game and possessed the right coaching qualities, there were still things she didn't know. Instead of trying to act like she had all the answers, she would take a step back and work internally first.

That awareness along while still remaining eager and passionate to show up to work each day left an ineradicable impression on Rivera.

"That really helped me at that point to say, 'okay, she's going to be a good coach because she's smart enough to know what she doesn't know and she'll work on it,'" Rivera said. "The thing that also [stood out] was if we were going to have a meeting at 8:00 a.m., she was already there and she was only volunteer coach at that time. But just being there and being a part of it, she wanted it and you knew it was a transition into something special."

Throughout King's first few years in the NFL she worked in part-time roles while continuing her own professional career. She played for the New York Sharks in 2018 — where she won another national championship — D.C. Divas in 2019 and Washington Prodigy in 2021. During her off periods with the NFL, King also served as an offensive assistant with Dartmouth College and the Arizona Hotshots in the Alliance of American Football.

Those stints kept her ready and helped King earn a full-year coaching intern spot with the Commanders in 2020, once again working under Rivera.

This time around, Rivera saw a difference in King. Her confidence was higher, and her voice was louder. But for Rivera, the most impactful moments came when she met the players.

While Rivera knew some of the players may have been skeptical of King, she quickly earned their respect as soon as they saw her handle the drills and in the words of the head coach, "throw the football like it was nothing."


Rivera also saw veteran running back J.D. McKissic immediately "treat Jennifer as an equal, as a contemporary," which quickly rubbed off on the younger players.

"I'll never forget Randy [Jordan], our running backs coach, came in one day and said, 'hey, coach, she's in,'" Rivera added. "They treated her like a big sister — the younger players —and she was that person they could go to and cry on her shoulder. Every now and then, she'd be sympathetic and show some empathy, but every other time, she said, 'Hey, you got to buck up, buddy. You got to go, let's roll.' She knew how to handle them, too. She had all the elements of a coach."

A year later, King transitioned into her first full-time role, serving as the Commanders' assistant running backs coach, a title she held for three seasons, 

Despite any initial skepticism, King believes building relationships with players has been easier at the NFL level compared to in her other coaching roles. Because the players' success directly affects their livelihood, King has found "they want to be coached and they want to be helped."


King's coaching style has also allowed her to develop deeper connections to her players. Rather than being the assertive coach like she had to be at the collegiate level, King has taken on the role of the calm coach, serving as the players' "little space of peace."

"I think it all starts with your ability to teach — being able to share a clear message and teach everyone in the room," King said. "Everyone learns differently, so finding ways to reach them. I think a lot of that starts with building relationships. So that was one of the first things I did when I started working in basketball or football – just start getting to know your athletes, getting to know the players and letting them know that you care more about them than what they can do on the field or on the court. And that builds trust."

Since 2018, the NFL Women's Forum has been a crucial piece in King's journey through the NFL. It's also the first time she met Bears President & CEO Kevin Warren, who at the time was still with the Vikings.

King remembers being impressed by Warren's life story and admired the "amazing leader" he had become. She left the event feeling like "any organization that he's a part of is going to be incredible."

That sentiment still rang true in 2024 when King traveled to Chicago to interview for the team's assistant running backs position.

"You can feel the culture here when you walk in," King said. "Everyone's so nice and people are all about that same journey — trying to be as successful as possible, which will lead to wins for the organization. You could feel it and I knew when I walked into my interview and as I spoke to people, it was definitely somewhere that I wanted to be. So I was super excited to get the opportunity."

King's coaching role with the Bears also provides her an opportunity to connect with and inspire a new community in the city of Chicago.

"That's what is most important to me is to make sure I'm a good representation so kids can dream, so little girls can know that they can work in the NFL." Jennifer King

Having seen King open doors for girls and women in multiple communities throughout her life, Rivera is confident she will continue being a trailblazer while with the Bears.

"I just think it's the whole point of saying that 'you can,'" Rivera said. "If she can, you can. I think now young women that are serious about the game not just as fans but that want to know a little bit more about the game's intricacies, they can look at her and go, 'man, she's come a long way. That's amazing. She knows what she's talking about. She's accepted. She's earned it.' That's big."

Ron Rivera and Jennifer King a the 2024 NFL Women's Forum in Indianapolis.
Ron Rivera and Jennifer King a the 2024 NFL Women's Forum in Indianapolis.

As King embraces another opportunity to be a club's "first," she's focused on setting the right standard for those who will follow in her footsteps.

"One of the main things that I think about is just being a good role model, being a good example and working hard because I didn't have anyone to look up to," King said. "And for a long time, I couldn't be that representation that I needed to do this.

"So that's what is most important to me is to make sure I'm a good representation so kids can dream, so little girls can know that they can work in the NFL and do different types of things and jobs that may not be more traditional for them to do. That's what I'm most proud of and what I strive to do every day."

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