It's the night before the Buccaneers are set to take on their division-rival Carolina Panthers in primetime for the first edition of Thursday Night Football this year. Tampa Bay is the visiting team, and as is customary, the team flew in the day before the game on Wednesday afternoon. Because the game isn't kicking off until 8:20 p.m. the following night, Buccaneers assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust finds some free time on her hands to meet Jennifer King for drinks in uptown Charlotte. King spent the last two seasons as a coaching intern with the Carolina Panthers, with a stop in Arizona coaching the Hotshots of the AAF prior to the league folding, in between.
The two are friends, brought together by the industry they work in. They both played tackle football, they both have made tremendous sacrifices on their 'come-up' in coaching and both are in the early stages of their NFL careers. Oh, and they both happen to be women, too. But they're football coaches first – just football coaches – and they'd like you to remember that.
Locust and King first crossed paths at the second NFL Women's Careers in Football Forum, aimed at cultivating opportunities on the football side of things within the league. The second forum required an invite, which both women received given what they were already doing in the industry. In all, there were 50 women invited, yet only 15 were on the coaching track. There were breakout groups formed and Locust and King found themselves in the same one, along with Panthers Head Coach Ron Rivera.
"It was great to meet people with similar goals and stuff as you," said King. "At that forum, I was making sure I was at Coach Rivera's table. Everything I did was strategic. Just because I was working right beside him, my office was right beside him. So, you WILL know who I am by the time this is over. That was my goal."
At the time, King was the women's basketball head coach at Johnson and Wales University… right next to where the Carolina Panthers practiced. Talk about being so close yet so far. But Locust recalls Rivera immediately engaging with King, given their proximity. She even jokes that she wrote off Carolina on her list of teams for the Bill Walsh Coaching Fellowship, to which both women had been accepted, after seeing King and Rivera interact.
It was through the Fellowship, which aims to give minority coaching candidates opportunities with various Clubs through offseason and training camp coaching internships, that both coaches got their first taste of the NFL. King's plan worked and she landed with Carolina. Locust landed in Baltimore with the Ravens.
However, it wasn't until a coaching clinic put on by the NFL for young coaches with 1-3 years of league experience in Dallas that Locust and King really became close.
"Yeah, that's where we really got cool," King recalls.
It wasn't just King and Locust that bonded that trip. Katie Sowers, who had been in the league with Atlanta and is currently with San Francisco was there, as was Heather Marini, who had held a summer coaching internship with the New York Jets.
"It was cool," Locust said. "It didn't kind of force us to interact, but it kind of did because this is where we want to be. Katie was real open. We went and sat down with her in her room and she was just answering questions and it was just chill."
Male or female, everyone has questions when starting off.
"There wasn't really a roadmap – not that there needed to be one," Locust continued. "Coaching is coaching but there's still inside things that until you get those internships, you don't know what to expect, you don't know how the building is laid out or how to manage your time."
But let's back up for a second. These two coaches didn't just appear in the league one day. That can be a common misconception. Both Locust and King have paid many a due. They have a tremendous passion for the game and in fact, their beginnings in football start just like a lot of us…
"I've loved football since I was like, six," King said. "My sister told me a story I didn't even know the other night. Apparently, when I was like five or six, we went to a high school football game and it was the first time I guess I had been to a game. She said I talked about that game the rest of the week until we went to another one the next week. And I don't even remember this. I guess it's just always been there."
But King didn't find opportunities in football right away. She grew up playing basketball and instead, became a basketball coach. She was successful, too, garnering the aforementioned head coaching job at Johnson and Wales University, even leading her team to a national title. But this was all while playing football in a women's tackle league, where King was the quarterback. She actually turned down multiple offers to join D-I coaching staffs in order to continue playing football. For a while, that's as close to the game as she thought she could get. So, what changed her mind?
"That's because of people like Katie," she said.
"When the stuff with Katie started happening it was like, oh, shoot this might be able to happen. Then they had the forum and then I'm meeting Rivera and we connect when we get back. It's really kind of happening right now."
Keep in mind, this happened over time. This was the result of preparation meeting opportunity for King – as was the case for Locust, too.
"For me, people that know me know how much I love football, right?" Locust said. "I feel like sometimes, people look at us right now and they don't know all the work you put in. They don't know that you played or they don't acknowledge it. I think right now it's becoming more apparent that this is a possibility, but I don't think that the dirty truth of it is being told – it's just not something you can just wake up on a Tuesday and expect by Thursday to be in the league. It's not just months of preparation, sometimes it's years. Sometimes it's not coaching at a high level, it's starting at the bottom and working up. It wasn't just instant."
Locust endured years of 'the grind' to get to where she is, currently. In nine years of coaching high school football, Locust didn't once receive a paycheck. It wasn't until she was coaching in Arena football that she was compensated, and even then it was only enough to cover the gas she used driving an hour and a half twice a week to practice, plus games. Both she and King are full of those grind-related anecdotes.
"I got clowned by my friends one night," King laughs. "They were trying to hang out and I was studying mid-line zone runs and outside zone runs. At midnight. On a Saturday. But you low key prepare yourself and that's one of the things that might be why there's not a lot of people coming up. It's not easy. It's not like oh, I want to coach. It's what do you know? What are you bringing to the table? And obviously to be in the NFL, you have to know a lot and learn a lot at the same time."
Locust, who is the only full-time female position coach in the NFL, is quick to tell you she is still very much learning every day. What little off-time she does have is usually spent studying or meeting with other coaches on staff to make sure she's always getting better. Both she and King know that in order to be qualified and taken seriously in this profession – you have to be able to help your players. At this level, their players are professional athletes at the very top tier of their sport. They've found that all these guys care about is that you can help them. Everything else is really a non-factor. All the pair are trying to do is fit in with the football culture they know and love.
"That's how I feel like I'm in a good spot, when I can tell ain't nothing different," King said. "The players are saying the same thing they would be if I wasn't here. It's not anything disrespectful, but just the culture of everything. It's fun to me. I like it."
"It's a blessing," Locust says of being a part of that culture. "When you walk in and you don't feel like people are seizing up or acting on their best behavior. If they did that, I would be so uncomfortable."
Going forward, the goal for each is to not only get into the industry but stay in it.
"I think the true test was Katie," Locust said. "She was at Atlanta with Kyle Shanahan but when he went to the 49ers, he took her with him. That's the test of success."
For now, the pair will stay in touch as they find their way. In a profession that stresses networking and communication, they along with Sowers, have a group text where they share advice, experiences and the occasional meme to help support each other. Just like any coaches would.