San Francisco 49ers assistant coach Katie Sowers is a pro football pioneer. This season, she will become the NFL’s second full-time assistant female coach. She will also become the league’s first openly LGBT coach, male or female.
“No matter what you do in life, one of the most important things is to be true to who you are,” Sowers, openly lesbian, told Outsports when asked why she is discussing her sexual orientation publicly for the first time. “There are so many people who identify as LGBT in the NFL, as in any business, that do not feel comfortable being public about their sexual orientation.
“The more we can create an environment that welcomes all types of people, no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, the more we can help ease the pain and burden that many carry every day.”
Sowers is the first openly LGBT coach not only in the NFL, but in male pro team sports. She is the second woman to be an assistant NFL coach, joining Kathryn Smith, who was on the Buffalo Bills staff in 2016.
The 49ers did not hire Sowers, 31, to be an offensive assistant working with wide receivers because she is a woman or gay. They hired her because of her football background and to help make them a better team.
“Katie is a baller, 100 percent,” receiver Marquise Goodwin told Bay Area radio station KNBR. “She understands the game. She’s very familiar with the game. She played in a women’s league and it may be a little different, but she definitely has the attitude it takes to be in that room. She brings a great vibe and she understands so I’m happy that she’s on staff.”
In 2016, Sowers worked as a scouting intern with the Atlanta Falcons and came to know then-offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, now the 49ers head coach. Her relationship with Shanahan led her to do an internship this year with the 49ers as part of the Bill Walsh NFL Diversity Coaching Fellowship. Sowers so impressed Shanahan that he hired her as a full-time assistant for the 2017 season.
“She did a really good job for us in Atlanta,” Shanahan told the San Jose Mercury News. “She’s done a real good job here. She helps [wide receivers coach/passing game specialist] Mike LaFleur out just with some rotations. She helps our quality controls with all the stuff they have to do. She’s a hard worker. You don’t even notice her because she just goes to work and does what’s asked and because of that she’s someone we would like to keep around.”
Sowers, who was born in Hesston, Kansas, a small Mennonite town near Wichita, has football in her blood. When she was 8, she wrote a letter about her love of football. “My mom wants me to play basketball. I don’t want to. I want to play football,” she wrote. “My favorite part of football is tackling.”
Sowers played pro football in the Women’s Football Alliance — along with her twin sister, Liz — and helped lead the U.S. to the women’s world title and gold medal in 2013. In a semifinal win that year, Sowers intercepted five passes, returning three for touchdowns. She later was hired as general manager of the Kansas City Titans of the World Football Alliance.
Coaching has always been a passion, and when she got the 49ers job this month, she took to Facebook to share the news and specifically thank one person — Falcons assistant general manager Scott Pioli:
“I was blessed to begin my journey in the NFL because of a close friend and mentor in Scott Pioli. Scott's passion for equal opportunity and his belief in a small town girl from Kansas, allowed me the opportunity to follow my passion. Scott continues to do amazing work, opening doors and breaking down walls in the NFL that for years have shut people out.
“I think we could all learn a little from people like Scott Pioli and find a way to open doors for those behind us. The most important words you can ever tell someone is ‘I believe in you.’ Scott, I know the best way that I can repay you is by continuing to open the door for others and I will do my best to continue what you have started and what you continue to do.”
Pioli has been instrumental in helping two gay people in the NFL who told their stories publicly this year. In addition to mentoring Sowers, he was also was instrumental in former Patriots and Chiefs lineman Ryan O’Callaghan coming to terms with his sexual orientation.
Sowers’ hiring by the 49ers has inspired women who play pro football and hope to crack the NFL coaching ranks.
"Katie's climb through professional football is huge for women everywhere, especially gay woman, and as a gay woman it means a lot to me personally,” said Rebecca Fernandez, a defensive ends coach for the Seattle Majestics of the Women's Football Alliance and a sportscaster and creator of My Gay Life Podcast.
“It wasn't that long ago that I wasn't comfortable being out at work and it also wasn't that long ago when I wasn't sure we'd ever see women on an NFL coaching staff. The fact that Katie can live her dream on an NFL sideline and be who she is, 100%, is so incredible."
Sowers has a girlfriend, Sheila. The two started as close friends after meeting at a football event and a year later started dating.
I conducted an interview with Sowers over email and found her answers thoughtful and insightful:
Jim Buzinski: In your Facebook post you described your route to the NFL as "untraditional." What did you mean by that?
Katie Sowers: Growing up, football was always my favorite sport. However, I started to realize how much bigger the boys I grew up playing football with in the backyard became compared to me. I was forced into the societal norms that told me girls don’t play football.
I always knew I wanted to be a coach but it wasn’t until I found football later in life when I realized that although the road was way less traveled, I wanted to coach football. When I say untraditional, I mean that society is so conditioned to this idea that football is a “man’s game” and anything other than that is far from traditional.
Buzinski: Describe your role with the 49ers and what is the most fulfilling aspect of it?
Sowers: I am serving as an offensive assistant for the season. In this role, I help with the wide receivers, break down film of opponents we will be facing, assist with practice scripts and player rotations, and really anything that is needed throughout the course of the season.
The most fulfilling aspect is having the ability to impact the lives of these young men chasing their dream of playing in the NFL, as well as serve as a role model for young girls who might happen to see me following my passion. I am a strong believer that the more we can expose children to a variety of different opportunities in life, the better chance they have of finding their true calling.
I would have loved to see women in this role when I was growing up because I think it would have allowed me to follow my passion even earlier. If you can’t see something happen, sometimes it’s hard to believe it can. We don’t know what we don’t know, and I didn’t know football was even a possibility for women.
Buzinski: Was it hard to earn the respect of the players?
Sowers: Not at all. I have been blessed with two great NFL organizations where they pride themselves in the quality of players that they have on their roster as not only athletes, but as professionals.
It might be slightly different for them at times because they are not used to a female in this role, but all of these men have been taught by women at some point in their life. They are respectful, they call me coach, and they respect me for chasing my passion just like they are chasing theirs.
Buzinski: Does having played the sport give you any insight to what your players are going through and how do you use that knowledge?
Sowers: I do not think a person has to play the sport to be a great coach, but I do think it gives you some insight that other experiences can’t.
What is interesting about the growth of women’s football is that a lot of these women such as myself truly started to learn the sport at a later point in life. This can be a setback, but I honestly feel like it has helped me to learn the game more than if I would have started young.
I had to work that much harder to find answers for myself by constantly reading football books and by holding myself accountable for my football knowledge. I knew that this was not something that was just going to be given to me, and instead of feeling sorry for myself, I knew I had to work. No one ever said it would be easy, but they did say it would be worth it.
Buzinski: You're 31 — is there a career track or goal you have your eyes on?
Sowers: My goal is to be a head coach in the NFL or college. I love leading people and I have a passion for this game.
Buzinski: Why do you think being publicly LGBT is important?
Sowers: No matter what you do in life, one of the most important things is to be true to who you are. There are so many people who identify as LGBT in the NFL, as in any business, that do not feel comfortable being public about their sexual orientation. The more we can create an environment that welcomes all types of people, no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, the more we can help ease the pain and burden that many carry every day.
Buzinski: Do the 49ers know and did the Falcons know about your orientation?
Sowers: My orientation first came up with Scott Pioli who is the assistant GM for the Atlanta falcons prior to my internship. At first, I was nervous to tell him as many are in new environments, but it came up in an everyday conversation about my family and life back home in Kansas City.
I could not have asked for a more open minded and accepting group of people to work with. I never once felt judged and I was treated just like anyone would want to be treated: as a typical person working to build a career.
Buzinski: Do you think, assuming they are qualified, that an openly gay male coach would be accepted by today's NFL players?
Sowers: I do believe that an openly gay male coach would be accepted just like anyone else. What most people need to remember is that the NFL is a place of work for these players and it is a job that provides for their families. They are professionals and what you will find is they act like professionals in everything they do.
One thing that you need to do in any team sport is adapt to people who might be different than you and respect them as your family. Who a coach loves has no impact on the way they coach football and if they are unable to make that adjustment, they will have a hard time in any job or team they are a part of.
Buzinski: Do you think being a woman succeeding in the NFL will be more difficult than being openly LGBT?
Sowers: I believe women will have obstacles breaking into this field just because of the societal norms we teach our children at a young age.
Buzinski: How long have you been out? Was it an easy or challenging process for you?
Sowers: I came out to my family in college and it has had its challenges, but I’ve been blessed with an open minded and very loving family who wants nothing more than for me to be happy.
As I was finishing college, I actually got turned down from a volunteer coaching job (basketball) because I was a lesbian. I was told “because of your lifestyle, we ask that you do not come around the team.”
That moment really impacted me because it was the first time I truly felt judged because of my sexual orientation. I was so passionate about coaching and to feel like my opportunities were limited because of who I loved was hard to deal with. However, without that experience I would not be where I am today.
Buzinski: During Saturday’s 49ers preseason home opener, you were signing autographs for some women and girls. Describe that moment.
Sowers: Signing autographs served as one of those moments when I realized the reality of the impact I was having on people. I had multiple families call me over and thank me for the doors I am opening for their daughters.
I even met a few young girls who were so excited to see me and tell me their own story of the sports they play. It was a special moment that I will remember for a long time.
Buzinski: Final question — which 49ers wide receivers should I draft for my fantasy team?
Sowers: All of them.
Katie Sowers can be followed on Facebook or Instagram (@katesowers5).