'A coach is a coach': 49ers pioneer Katie Sowers is making history, but players just appreciate her ability

Frank Schwab
·5 min read

MIAMI — In a preseason game during Kendrick Bourne’s rookie season, the San Francisco 49ers receiver dropped a couple of passes.

Bourne was an undrafted player out of Eastern Washington, and he was freaking out. He said he was worried he was going to be cut.

An assistant coach came over to him. At that moment, it didn’t matter that Katie Sowers was the rare woman on an NFL coaching staff. It was irrelevant she was the first openly gay coach in the NFL.

She was just a coach.

“I was kind of down, and she just calmed me down,” Bourne said. “She was telling me to live in the moment and this is something I’ve been doing all my life. It calmed me down for real, and I ended up having a really good game. I credit it to her. That’s why I’ll always respect her.”

#WeKeepPlaying
#WeKeepPlaying

Bourne is now in his third season. He played in all 16 regular-season games for the NFC champion 49ers, catching five touchdowns. He added another touchdown in the playoffs. Who knows how things might have turned out for Bourne without Sowers there to coach him at a critical time.

Sowers is unique. She’s a pioneer in multiple ways. She made history in February as the first female and openly gay coach in a Super Bowl. That isn’t lost on the 49ers players. But it’s not a big deal to the 49ers that they’re being coached by a woman.

“Nah,” 49ers receiver Deebo Samuel said. “A coach is a coach.”

Katie Sowers is a trailblazer

Sowers was in high demand during Super Bowl Opening Night. The 10 biggest star players for each team and the head coach get podiums behind a barricade, while the rest of the players and coaches walk among the media doing interviews. Sowers stayed behind the barricade, likely because the 49ers knew she’d be deluged with questions.

And she was. A 49ers staffer shuffled her along the line of the awaiting media. The crowd around her never thinned out during the hour-long session. And Sowers, quite aware of her position as a role model to many, never seemed to tire of answering the questions.

There’s plenty of history made at every Super Bowl, but Sowers’ story is unique.

“There was a point in my life when I wrote down my goals, when I felt lost,” Sowers said. “One of the things I wanted to do was something nobody has ever done before, and really be a trailblazer.”

There wasn’t much of a path for Sowers at that point. But she found football. She spent eight years playing in a women’s tackle football league, the Women's Football Alliance. And in 2014, she took note of Becky Hammon making NBA history as the league’s first female coach and sent a prescient tweet.

Hammon’s big step allowed her to think about being a football coach, and Sowers hopes she’s doing the same for others.

“If you don’t see it, you can’t dream about it,” Sowers said.

Sowers caught a big break when she was coaching the daughter of Scott Pioli, then the assistant general manager of the Atlanta Falcons, on a youth basketball team. Pioli helped Sowers get a gig with the Falcons as an offensive assistant in 2016. She’s in her second year with the 49ers, having come from the Falcons to the 49ers with Kyle Shanahan.

It’s a long way from being a paraeducator at an elementary school making $800 a month, which she was doing about 10 years ago.

“I loved my job, but I knew I was meant to be a coach,” Sowers said.

San Francisco 49ers assistant coach Katie Sowers speaks to reporters during Opening Night for Super Bowl LIV. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
San Francisco 49ers assistant coach Katie Sowers speaks to reporters during Opening Night for Super Bowl LIV. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Sowers is popular among 49ers

The 49ers players like Sowers’ style.

“She’s one of the coolest coaches I’ve been around,” receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. ”She’s kind of laid back, chill. You need that sometimes. Especially in a business where there’s a lot of chaos, a lot of stress. You need a calming voice to tell you everything is going to be all right.”

“When I’m a DB on scout team, when we’re doing our walkthrough, I say ‘Don’t worry, it’s not going to be this hard in a game,’” Sowers said. “They love that, they love when I joke around.”

Go back to Bourne and how Sowers helped him rebound in a game that might have saved his career. Different voices and perspectives can help shape a team. Having a diverse staff can be important to success.

“I’m more of a teacher. I’m not going to be a screamer,” Sowers said. “Bill Walsh always said the most important thing you can say to someone is ‘I believe in you.’ It’s so true. When you believe in someone and you show it, you see progress in them.”

Jen Welter was the NFL’s first female assistant coach, with the Arizona Cardinals in 2015. In March 2019, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers became the first NFL team to hire two full-time female coaches: Maral Javadifar as assistant strength and conditioning coach and Lori Locust as assistant defensive line coach. There will be more female coaches thanks to the success of Sowers and others.

“I don’t see why not,” Sanders said. “I don’t have a problem with it at all.”

“These guys are true professionals,” Sowers said. “As long as they know you’re there to help them, they’re all in.”

Sowers is a big story. She was featured in an advertisement for the Microsoft Surface tablet. She is a big deal, especially to the women and girls she says she hears from regularly. There’s a reason she was mobbed by media. But she said she hopes that sometime soon a woman coaching in the NFL will just blend in with everyone else.

“I will know we are successful when it’s not a headline anymore,” Sowers said.

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