Like 'Black Panther,' Panthers coaching intern sees herself as role model

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jennifer King can hear the music blaring on the Carolina Panthers practice fields from her office in the gym at Johnson & Wales University on the other side of the team's privacy fence. When the coaches pump in crowd noise for practice during the season, it sounds like a jet is taking off beside her.

Until recently King, 33, only dreamed about being on the other side of the fence that she sometimes peers through on her way to work as the JWU women's basketball coach.

Then two years ago, she was introduced to a program -- the NFL Women's Careers in Football Forum -- designed to open doors in coaching, scouting and front-office positions for qualified participants.

That's how she met Panthers coach Ron Rivera, and their working relationship ultimately led to a coaching internship for Carolina's three-day mandatory minicamp that ends on Thursday.

Also a wide receiver for the New York Sharks in the Women's Football Alliance, King was optimistic this experience would lead to another internship next month, when the Panthers begin training camp in nearby Spartanburg, South Carolina. She got her wish on Thursday as Rivera asked King if she would return in July as a coaching intern for camp, and she accepted.

"Ultimately, I'd like to be an offensive coordinator at the college or NFL level," King said.

King would also like to be a role model for other little girls who peer through the fence and dream of playing and coaching football.

"It's kind of like the [movie] 'Black Panther,'" she said. "There was never, like, a black superhero, and now that there's a black superhero, it's like, 'Holy cow!'

"For the little girls, that's just what I want for them: To let them know, if this is what they want to do, they can do it."

Players treat King like any other coach when she shadows wide receivers coach Lance Taylor, as she did during the Panthers' rookie camp last month. King doesn't hesitate to offer advice, as she did when wide receiver Mose Frazier, who came into the NFL in 2016 as an undrafted rookie out of Memphis, dropped an easy touchdown pass in the end zone.

"I pretty much told him, obviously you're down because you've got limited reps, but you've got to move on to the next play," King said. "I reminded him he already has a limited amount of plays, so he can't get down on one and mess up the next play.

"Hopefully, he took [my message]. He made some plays later in practice."

King can relate to Frazier because like him, she has to take advantage of her limited opportunity because she doesn't know when -- or if -- she'll get another.

"I coach basketball because I thought I had to, because there wasn't another option," King said. "I had to coach basketball because women didn't coach football, even though I would have loved to."

'High football IQ'

King would have played football in junior high and high school, but her mother wouldn't let her.

"The coaches wanted me to, but my mom wasn't having it," she said. "She just didn't want me to get out there and get hurt. I think my dad would have let me."

King knows the sport. She spent nine seasons playing quarterback, and she was a five-time All-American for the Carolina Phoenix women's tackle football team. She didn't move to wide receiver, what she considers her natural position, until the Sharks signed her.

"I was a quarterback because I had a high football IQ, and I could throw and was athletic, but I didn't really want to be there," said King, who is not a fan of the spotlight. "Obviously, I was successful at it because they kept me there. But now that I'm able to play receiver, I've had a great year so far."

The Sharks fly King between Charlotte and New York at least once a week for Tuesday and Thursday practices. She was able to participate in this minicamp because the Sharks have a first-round bye in the playoffs and don't play again until June 30.

Juggling playing football and coaching football and basketball might create problems for some, but not King.

"I would like to think of that as a good problem," she said. "Usually, my day starts around 7 [a.m.] and might end around midnight.

"I don't have a pet or any kids or anything, so it's my life. It's what I do. Sometimes I'll split days. I'll be here for a while, and then I'll run back to my office and see what's going on and be here for meetings and things in the afternoon."

The good thing about this internship is King can run around the corner from where she works at Bank of America Stadium to her JWU office.

"[On Tuesday] I took one of those lime green scooters that you see around town," King said of the electronic rental scooters that have become popular in Charlotte. "I use it to make my trip a little quicker so I didn't have to actually run."

'Normalize females on sideline'

The Women's Careers in Football Forum began two years ago with 220 female tackle football players introduced to careers in football operations. Last year, 18 were accepted to jobs or internships at the NFL, college, high school and Canadian League levels.

This year, 400 candidates were narrowed to 50 for positions mostly in NFL scouting and coaching. King came out of that group.

"Our mission is to normalize females on the sidelines," said Samantha Rapoport, who heads the program as the NFL's director of football development. "I truly believe it's going to change the culture on our landscape."

It already has to a degree. Two years ago, Kathryn Smith became the first full-time female coach in NFL history when Buffalo named her the special-teams quality control coach.

Last year, Katie Sowers was hired as an assistant with the San Francisco 49ers. She also is the first openly gay NFL coach.

The Oakland Raiders recently hired Kelsey Martinez as the first female strength coach in league history. The Baltimore Ravens have hired three women to work in coaching/analytic positions in training camp.

"I feel the league is very serious about this," King said. "They're constantly working to get qualified women into positions. It's not like they're going out selecting random people. They're putting people in place not to just be there but to make an impact wherever they go."

Rapoport believes King has a good chance to turn her internship into a full-time job.

"She understands what it means to be a successful coach, so she certainly is qualified," she said.

Rivera understands

Rivera was interviewed for eight head-coaching positions before Carolina made him the fifth Latino head coach in NFL history in 2011. His wife, Stephanie, was a former women's basketball coach.

He knows what it's like for minorities and women in the work force, so he has been more instrumental than most coaches in helping Rapoport get her program going.

"He's helped spread the message beyond the Panthers," Rapoport said of Rivera, who spoke at her group's forum during Pro Bowl week in January.

Bringing King onto the staff was an easy decision for Rivera and one he wishes he had made sooner.

"The unintended consequence, when there is a woman coach around, the volume kind of settles down a little bit faster than when I'm yelling, which is kind of a neat thing," Rivera said. "It's been good."

Rivera can envision the day when there are women in full-time positions as coordinators and head coaches. He said it's important on many levels, including in getting kids to participate in an era when a big part of the conversation about the game involves the dangers of concussions.

"Part of it, it's all about the fan base," Rivera said of the league, which claims nearly half of its fans are female. "It's also knowing the moms out there that understand the game. It's important because they really do control as to whether their kids are going to play. This is something that has to be developed.

"It helps us in a lot of ways. It also shows everybody deserves an opportunity."

King knows first-hand the importance of mothers understanding the game.

"I tell some of my friends that say their kid would never play football that obviously it's a violent sport, but right now, it's as safe as it's ever been," she said. "They shouldn't just base their decisions on things that have happened in the past."

King has avoided big hits during her playing career, a career that has been highly successful. She helped the Phoenix win a national championship in 2013 as a quarterback and safety, and the Sharks are the favorites to win the title this year.

Her coaching résumé also is impressive. In King's time as the basketball coach, JWU has a record of 182-63 that includes two conference tournament championships and four appearances in the NCAA tournament, including the Sweet 16 in 2011.

"One thing people will like about me with my background is I'm a winner," King said. "In my 11 years of coaching and playing, I've been a part of six or seven championships. I don't know what it is. I just learned how to be successful and how to win."

Her biggest victory would be to get an NFL coaching job that at one time didn't seem attainable when she looked through Carolina's privacy fence on her way to work.

"I feel my first goal of being a [wide receivers] position coach is very attainable," King said. "Obviously, it's not going to be easy. But with my background and people that I know, I will continue to grow as a football coach, as a coach in general.

"I'm just thankful to be getting the opportunity I have right now."