Jennifer King on her coaching internship with the Panthers and women in sports
Jennifer King used to peer through the slats in the fence of the Carolina Panthers' practice fields, which sprawl emerald green under the city skyline just a few feet from where she parks her car each morning.
She would watch the Panthers practice through those slats as she walked into work at Johnson and Wales' athletic facilities just behind Bank of America Stadium, yearning to be on the other side.
A multi-sport athlete, she grew up in Reidsville before excelling in basketball and softball at Guilford College in Greensboro. She developed a passion for coaching, for shaping young athletes and leading them through adversity.
Because nobody would let her coach football when she began her career, King became a women's basketball coach. She was good at it, too, working her way up to the head coach at Charlotte's Johnson & Wales, which she led to a national title last year.
And always, she studied football, and loved it more and more as the years went by. She has played quarterback and wide receiver in a women's tackle football league for nearly a decade, and the more she learned, the more passionate about the sport she became.
She always dreamed about coaching the game, too, but people kept telling her "no." And there were hardly any opportunities for King to achieve what she wanted most.
But this spring, King isn't watching practice through a gap in the fence. She's on the field.
Be ready for opportunity
King, 33, arrived without fanfare to the Panthers staff for the spring's organized team activities and will stay through this week's minicamp, working mostly with the receivers alongside Lance Taylor and Jerricho Cotchery.
She is the first female coaching intern ever hired in Carolina, but Panthers head coach Ron Rivera has known of her for a couple of years.
He has worked with the NFL's career development symposiums, usually held during the Pro Bowl.
King has attended the symposiums for the past couple of years in an effort to wedge her foot in any door she could.
"I went to the Women's NFL Careers forum in Orlando in February," said King. "They single out some of the better candidates who might find opportunity, and we get a chance to meet a lot of executives. I met Coach Rivera there. We kind of connected, and obviously I'm right next door."
Rivera held on to her resume, and she followed up, asking him to speak to some of her athletes in Charlotte.
He also gave her some advice: Stay ready, in case the opportunity comes.
And in her case, it did.
"I think the most important thing I learned from him was to be prepared," she said. "We're obviously given an opportunity to get a foot in the door. But you have to be prepared when you get there."
The job is not glamorous. King works from 7 a.m. to midnight most days to get all of her work done with the Panthers and with Johnson & Wales, and keep up with her film study.
Her job is to learn, to study, and to be wherever she is needed. But her efforts have made an impression on Rivera already.
"She came in cold," he said. "The first week was for her to learn and grow and understand, and then she started to get a little bit more involved, then more and more involved each week. I think it's important. The more people you get involved in the game, no matter who they are, I think it really helps build the fan base, too."
Rivera said he wished he had brought King in earlier in the spring. He also indicated that he'd like to have her stay on the staff through training camp, though he was not sure if that was a possibility when asked this week.
But if not now, another chance could come soon. Women have begun to get more opportunities in the NFL.
Sam Rapoport, the NFL's director of football development since 2016 and a former player in the Canadian women's flag football league, works to build pipelines to NFL front offices and in football operations for qualified women.
Rapoport's efforts have started to make a difference.
▪ Jennifer Welter, a women's tackle football player and coach, made history in 2015 when she was hired by the Arizona Cardinals through training camp and the preseason to coach inside linebackers.
▪ Minnesota hired two female scouts and a scouting intern in 2017.
▪ Kathryn Smith, a special teams quality control coach with the Buffalo Bills, became the first woman in a full-time NFL assistant coaching position during the 2016-17 season.
▪ In 2017, the San Francisco 49ers hired Katie Sowers as an offensive assistant, making her the NFL's second female full-time assistant coach and the first openly gay NFL coach.
▪ And this week, the Baltimore Ravens announced they have hired three women to work in coaching and analytics roles for training camp.
King and Rivera are optimistic opportunities for women around the league will continue to grow, through initiatives such as the Bill Walsh Coaching Diversity Fellowship, of which Rivera and Sowers are members.
"Obviously, we've grown leaps and bounds," King said. "Women are doing some special things.
"I think the cool thing about is not just that you're getting opportunity. It's that the people are actually qualified to be in the position that they're in."
'For the little girls who love football'
King's goal is to be an offensive coordinator in the NFL. She coaches football where she can, at high schools and middle schools, balancing her women's tackle football schedule with her basketball and football coaching schedules.
Just as Rivera advised her, King stays prepared.
And she sees the journey as bigger than herself.
"It's so special to see someone in a position that you never thought you could be in," she said. "It's kind of like (the movie) Black Panther. There never was a black superhero, and now there is. And it's like, 'holy cow.'
"And I think this is for the little girls. I want them to know that if this is what they want to do, they can do it."
Maybe another little girl who loves football will walk past the Panthers practice fields one morning and hear the pads clacking.
Maybe she'll peer through the slats in the fence and long to be on the other side of it.
And maybe that little girl will see King out on those practice fields holding a whistle and a clipboard, and believe that one day, she can be.