Back in October, moments before the 49ers embarked on their Monday Night Football clobbering of the Cleveland Browns, a group of 49ers assistant coaches crammed into an elevator and headed up to their box at Levi’s Stadium. The elevator was silent; befitting of the game’s magnitude. About halfway up the ride, one of the coach’s phones buzzed, setting off his ringtone which, in a prophetic moment, happened to be DJ Khaled’s All I Do Is Win. Laughter ensued and the camaraderie of the assistant coaches was on display. It’s a promising crew that resembles most other NFL set-ups … with one notable exception.
Turn on any American network television show these days – be it a sporting event or The Bachelor – and it won’t take long for an omnipresent Microsoft commercial featuring an emerging 49ers coach to appear. The spot’s central figure is not head coach Kyle Shanahan, whose offensive wizardry has San Francisco one win away from a Super Bowl berth. Nor is it fiery defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, whose sideline antics have become social media fodder this season.
The coach is Katie Sowers, a third-year offensive assistant who works predominantly with the wide receivers. She stoically declares in the commercial, “I’m not here to be the token female. I’m here to help us win.” Sowers has helped the 49ers collect those wins in droves this season but she’s also a revelation whose rise is impossible to ignore.
Sowers’ journey to the NFL involves a heavy dose of talent with a side of happenstance. She grew up in Hesston, Kansas, and was a gifted athlete from a young age. Despite the fact that nobody else in the family played football, Sowers and her twin sister, Liz, were drawn to the sport. Sowers loved the Dallas Cowboys but not in the typical way. She didn’t care about the win-loss record or rivalries. Sowers wanted to don pads and wreak havoc as a Cowboy.
The twins played the sport nonstop. In high school, Katie chatted with the varsity football coach about joining the team. She decided against it only because she excelled at volleyball and wanted a chance of a college scholarship. Football wasn’t going to be it.
It was actually basketball that turned out to be her meal ticket. After college was over and Sowers was figuring out her next steps, she had her “A-ha” moment. ESPN aired a clip of a women’s football game, and that was all the inspiration Sowers needed. She immediately googled local options and soon tried out for the West Michigan Mayhem of the Women’s Football Alliance. There is no salary in women’s football. No agents. Nothing other than a group of women who adore the game.
Sowers entered the Mayhem confused by the terminology and culture, a notion she laughs at today. While she played as a kid, she never had a formal coach. It was the veteran women of the Mayhem who taught Sowers the fundamentals of the game, knowledge that would prove invaluable. Sowers thrived as a quarterback in the WFA and played for Team USA in 2013.
While in Kansas City, Sowers volunteered as a girls basketball coach. In 2013 she was slated to coach a sixth-grade team but due to an administrative glitch was asked to coach fifth-grade instead. In a twist of fate, one of the players was the daughter of Scott Pioli, the former Kansas City Chiefs general manager and soon to be Atlanta Falcons assistant general manager.
Pioli admired Sowers’ coaching skills and soon discovered her involvement in football. The two formed an unlikely bond, one that not only altered Sowers’ career but also her assumptions about NFL executives. Sowers, who is gay, thought Pioli would disapprove of her lifestyle.
“What I failed to realize I was grouping him into a box. Here’s this high up NFL executive and how’s he going to react?” Sowers says. “Knowing his heart and his desire to help people was something I never thought could be possible in everything I assumed about that culture.”
As Sowers would soon discover, Pioli is the backbone behind a litany of initiatives to foster opportunities for women in the coaching and scouting ranks. And he’s a proven friend to the LGBTQ+ community. Former Patriots offensive lineman Ryan O’Callaghan, who came out in 2017 after his playing career had ended, credits Pioli with crucial support when he privately revealed his sexuality to him in 2011.
After getting to know Sowers, Pioli was determined to get her an opportunity. “There’s a balance between helping someone get a foot in the door and helping someone find a job they’re qualified for,” Pioli said.
In 2016 Pioli, then with the Falcons, convinced the coaching staff to grant her a fellowship for minority candidates. Sowers relished the opportunity but was also nervous about whether she’d fit in. That skepticism was instantly squashed.
“I was embraced on day one,” Sowers says. “It’s important to have someone in those leadership positions vouching for you. When you gain the respect of the influencers in the room, everyone follows and that was huge.”
Sowers had plenty of support in Atlanta, including from the team’s offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. When Shanahan was hired as 49ers head coach in 2017, Sowers asked him for an internship. “Kyle’s not going to hire a woman to make a point,” she says. “What’s really cool is that I showed in Atlanta that I could add value to the team. Having Kyle recognize that helped my confidence and set me on a path to become a better coach.”
That fall Sowers was offered a position as an offensive assistant and became the NFL’s third full-time female coach, taking the baton from Kathryn Smith, a quality control coach with Buffalo in 2016 and Lee Brandon, a strength and conditioning coach with the Jets in 1990.
Sowers’ initially shied away from the spotlight, opting instead to hunker down and perfect the playbook. Along the way she built a deep camaraderie with her players, treading a careful line between mentor and friend. By day she might bark at a player, by night she might be his karaoke partner. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was asked about Sowers last week and applauded her importance to the receiving group.
— Melissa Jacobs (@thefootballgirl) January 7, 2020
More recently, Sowers has embraced her platform over the past year. She is a staunch advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and helped inspire the 49ers to launch a Pride fan club last May. Sowers frequently dotes on her girlfriend on Instagram, no longer fearful of rejection from the NFL community.
“If as coaches and teachers, if people don’t believe you, if they don’t trust you, if they don’t feel like you’re authentic, you’re not going to have any buy in,” she says.
When she’s not coaching, Sowers is a regular on the speaking circuit, though she longs for the day when female NFL coaches are commonplace. That normalization may come sooner than anyone could have predicted thanks in large part to the Women’s Careers in Football Forum, where female coaches and scouts get to meet NFL executives and coaches.
Thanks in large part to this special event, there are currently eight female coaches in the NFL. At this year’s forum, Tampa head coach Bruce Arians declared he was going to hire a full-time female coach, citing his desire for a diverse staff. Two months later he doubled down, hiring Coach Lo Locust as an assistant defensive-line coach and Maral Javadifar as a strength and conditioning coach.
“They’re good fits for what we need,” Arians told reporters. “The fact that their gender’s different – who gives a shit”
Bills coach Sean McDermott soon followed suit, bringing on former Dartmouth football coach Callie Bronson as a full-time offensive assistant.
The case for female coaches will only grow stronger if Sowers is soon sporting a Super Bowl ring. Then perhaps we’ll be nearer to an NFL where we dispense with the moniker “female coach” and just say “coach”.