The 2021 NFL season is a record-breaking year with 12 women serving as coaches in the league, the most at one time in NFL history.
Two of these women, Washington Football Team’s Jennifer King and Buccaneers’ Lori Locust, made history this year in their own right. After King was promoted as an assistant running back coach in January, she became the first Black female assistant coach in the NFL. After the Buccaneers won Super Bowl 55 in February, Locust, also known as “Coach Lo,” became one of the first female coaches to work for the Super Bowl champions (alongside Maral Javadifar, the strength and conditioning coach).
While women coaching in the NFL is nothing new, per se, don’t be surprised if you start to see more women taking on roles in the league, possibly even bigger roles than what the women hold now.
Locust offered an idea as to what could introduce more women into the league in the future: putting them on a more direct path to the NFL.
“In order for our pipeline to grow, we really need to go back and see where women are at,” Locust said. “If they’re coaching at the high school level, if they’re coaching at the youth level and kind of grab them there because we don’t have the same type of career pathing that our male colleagues do because we just don’t have that nebulous football relationship that a lot of the guys do. We don’t have that, and that’s OK, but we just have to sort of build our framework backwards.
“So, if we do that correctly, if we identify candidates and the women who are in the pipeline at that point in time are serious about it and can get through the tougher aspects of this, then it can grow,” Locust continued. “But it can’t grow for the sake of saying that we’re just going to see more women, we have to see more qualified women.”
Women coaches in the NFL
* Denotes that these women also work for college football teams.
Locust may have been proposing this idea because her journey to the NFL wasn’t necessarily a smooth and easy path, nor was it for King.
When Locust was 40 years old in 2004, she joined a semi-professional women’s football league as a defensive lineman in her hometown of Harrisburg, Penn. She played for four seasons before a knee injury caused her to retire. The injury launched her coaching career.
From 2008-2018, Locust worked with various football teams, ranging from women’s to men’s teams and high school to semi-professional leagues. Then, in 2018, an opportunity arose in the NFL: an internship with the Ravens.
She worked as a defensive line coaching intern during the Ravens’ 2018 training camp. It was this experience that made Locust want to pursue a career in the NFL, but she knew it wouldn’t be easy.
“Internships at that level are like a blessing and a curse because it’s like you get a chance to do what you really have a passion to do at the highest level, and then it’s like it’s over,” Locust said. “So, you just get a taste of it.”
Upon returning from her internship, Locust had been fired from her full-time job, leaving her without a salary or benefits. As a single mother to two sons, who were both in college at the time, Locust decided to move into a friend of a friend’s house and sell almost everything she owned. She wanted to be ready to get up and move whenever an opportunity in the NFL came about.
She didn’t have to wait too long. In 2019, Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians hired Locust as an assistant defensive line coach. Locust became the first woman to work as a position coach, and she also became the third woman hired to an NFL coaching staff.
So, a leap of faith led Locust to become a coach for a Super Bowl winning team. Her game-worn shoes are also now on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
King, on the other hand, hasn’t stuck to football for the entirety of her career. She went to college for basketball and softball, and it was upon graduating from Liberty University where she began her career in football as a player.
From 2006-17, King played as a quarterback and a wide receiver on the Carolina Phoenix women’s tackle team. She then played one more year for the New York Sharks, and then another year for the D.C. Divas. Throughout her 13 year football career, she additionally coached women’s college basketball at Johnson & Wales University in 2016-18. After her career there, she also began the internship that would change her life.
King was an intern wide receivers coach for the Panthers in 2018, and then an intern running backs coach in 2019. In 2020, Washington hired her as a full-year coaching intern until they offered her the full-time assistant running backs coach position in January 2021.
But, what motivated King to get to this role is watching other women follow their dreams, in movies and in real life.
“Really what pushed me was seeing women getting opportunities,” King said. “I saw the movie ‘Hidden Figures’ and after seeing that, I felt like I could do more, even though I was happy where I was, I felt like that gave me that extra boost to kind of chase after getting into the NFL.”
So, that’s how two of the 12 women coaching in the NFL got to where they are. What about the next generation of women coaches?
In the next 5-10 years, both King and Locust agreed that they expect more women to take roles in the NFL, possibly even being promoted above an assistant coaching position. But, they believe there are still many hurdles to be cleared for women in the NFL beyond the ceilings that have already been broken. King, for instance, still believes there can be more development for the women already working in the league.
“Right now, the ones that are here we’re trying to perfect our craft and get better and better, and ultimately maybe get our own room first and then grow from there,” King said.
What about a female NFL head coach? Locust didn’t want to put a timeframe on the possibility of the first woman to lead a team, and she believes there’s are still steps to be taken before this could happen.
“Think about the type of time, effort and experience that the current head coaches have,” Locust said. “I think the next phase for (women) will be to have not just an assistant coach as a woman, but you have a true head position coach. And, then from there, then you’re going to have a woman coordinator. And, then we can start to have a conversation about head coaching, because if you skip the steps on the way to the top part of it, unfortunately we might be building our house on sand.”
With 10 other women currently in the league to look to, King and Locust communicate with the other female coaches for any advice or for a place to discuss coaching matters. King, Locust and Katie Sowers (Chiefs) communicate through a group chat to talk about things that their friends not in the league just can’t understand. Since this is King’s first season as a full-time staff member, she is just now getting the chance to meet a lot of the other female coaches in person. She said she could see many friendships blooming from those meetings.
They consider themselves a small sorority of women who can understand each other and their passions. It isn’t an exclusive club, though. They are excited to see more women join the league and watch more records be broken.
Editor’s note: Lori Locust and Jennifer King spoke to Sporting News on behalf of USAA to promote the Salute to Service “Women of First” campaign, which highlights women who have “achieved success in their respective careers in the traditionally male worlds of the military and the NFL.” You can watch their ad here.
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