As days turned into weeks on the hot, balmy fields of Spartanburg, S.C., the interview requests kept rolling in.
“Can we talk to King?”
It’s rare for the wide receiver coaching intern to be requested for an interview. More rare for the volume of requests to rival those of some of the more household names on the team.
But this King is different. Unique. Exceptional. And not just because her first name is Jennifer.
Jennifer King’s official title is women’s basketball coach at Johnson & Wales University. But she’s also a national champion. In basketball AND football.
Last season, her Johnson & Wales hoops squad won the U.S. Collegiate Athletic Association national championship for the first time in school history.
And then, this summer, King won her second national championship in the Women’s Football Alliance, playing for the New York Sharks. That’s right, she commuted to New York to play football.
“They helped out with some of the resources for me to get up there to play,” King said. “But I also took a part-time job with Delta as a flight attendant so I could fly for free.”
King has played football since she was young. Despite competing in softball and basketball at Guilford College, football was always her passion.
“Growing up I just played in the backyard,” King said. “My middle school wanted me to play. And then the high school thought I could help the team, but my Mom was like ‘No, not happening.’ But we had a neighborhood full of kids and I still played football whenever I could. After college, I played professional basketball in Australia and when I came back to the states, I had someone tell me I should play football. And that’s how I started with the Carolina Phoenix.”
That was 11 years ago. King has been playing organized football ever since.
King is a competitor. She’s also a grinder. How else would she be able to juggle coaching NCAA basketball with playing professional football?
“I guess I’ve always been busy,” King said. “I don’t really have a lot of chill time. I’m just not used to it. When I was growing up, in middle school, sometimes right after school I would have volleyball practice. My mom would come get me, take me to softball practice. I would leave softball practice and go to basketball practice. This is all before I even went home. I played two sports in college, and I was a resident assistant, and did judicial board. I did tours. It’s not really anything new to me. I’ve always been busy.”
Those qualities of competitiveness and resourcefulness are part of what landed King with the Panthers.
She came to Panthers OTAs and minicamp after connecting with head coach Ron Rivera in February at the Pro Bowl.
“I was selected as one of around 40 women to attend the NFL Women’s Forum at the Pro Bowl,” she said. “I actually met Coach Rivera and told him that I’m literally next door at Johnson & Wales. It kind of went from there.
King invited Rivera to come speak to her athletes in the spring and then the conversation continued. After her outstanding work in the spring with the wide receivers and coaches Lance Taylor and Jerricho Cotchery, she was offered a coaching internship spot at training camp.
“I think from Day One, coach Taylor and coach Cotchery have been welcoming,” King said. “Obviously stepping into the situation, you just never know how the room is going to be, whether it’s chauvinistic or what. But they’ve both been awesome, and I think that comes from Coach Rivera. He’s all about it and it kind of just trickles down through the staff and the players.”
King had to grow some into her role. But at the end of the day, she has 11 years experience in coaching others and some fundamentals don’t change from sport to sport.
“I was kind of timid at first, but then I noticed some things I was seeing I would hear somebody else tell them later,” King said. “I was like I guess I should have shared that with them. I think the relationship with the players has been great. Our receiver room is a bunch of guys who are really hard working. I think they are going to surprise a bunch of people this year because I think every position has talent and can really do some things.”
While King feels comfortable in her own skin and truly believes that she can have a future in football, she is also aware that this is a rather rare thing. Her uniqueness is not lost on her.
“I’m friends with Katie Sowers who’s out at the 49ers, and when I first got this gig we talked a lot,” King said. “Stuff like, ‘How were you accepted?’, ‘How did you prepare?’ I think it’s things I already knew, it’s just be prepared and make yourself valuable.
“That’s one thing that people don’t really realize it’s not just something that just happened for me. I’ve been preparing for this for a long time, so I didn’t just get this opportunity out of nowhere and I’m not prepared or don’t know anything about football. It’s been a long journey just to get here. That’s something I talked with Coach Rivera about, too. It’s all about being prepared. And here we are.