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49ers assistant coach Katie Sowers is blazing a trail for women in football

49ers assistant coach Katie Sowers speaks to reporters

49ers assistant coach Katie Sowers speaks to reporters during Super Bowl LIV Opening Night on Monday at Marlins Park in Miami.  Credit: AP/David J. Phillip

MIAMI, Fla. – The idea for Katie Sowers was to make history playing football, not coaching it.

But a hip injury ended those dreams in 2016 after eight years of playing quarterback and defensive back – including stints with the West Michigan Mayhem and the Kansas City Titans of the Women’s Football Alliance, and later the U.S. women’s national team that won the 2013 IFAF Women’s World Championship.  

With her football playing aspirations over, the dream soon turned to coaching, and look where she is: a member of the 49ers’ staff with a chance to win a Super Bowl, and already etching her name into pro sports history. Sowers is the first female coach – as well as the first openly gay coach – to participate in the Super Bowl.

Yes, the dream has come true – for her and for her team. And that’s really the message she hopes to send to anyone with similar ambitions.

“Look at me now, and look at us now,” said Sowers, who joined Kyle Shanahan’s staff in 2017 as part of the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship program and worked into a full-time role as a quality control assistant coach in 2019. “All these players, all these coaches, they’ve been doubted in their lives. They’ve faced adversity. We all have. And all you can do is just continue to grind, continue to work, and show everybody what you’re capable of.”

Sowers welcomes being a role model for anyone who’s willing to put in the time and effort – no matter their background, no matter their gender, no matter their sexual orientation. She speaks proudly of her journey and willingly accepts the burden of expectation she has created for herself, while never forgetting her true purpose with the 49ers: helping the players get better and offering suggestions to Shanahan and his staff of assistants.

Along the way, she has received nothing but positive feedback from the players and her co-workers on the coaching staff.

“Maybe I’ve been blessed, or maybe this league is just full of a lot of quality people because, truly, I work with professionals,” the 33-year-old coach said. “It doesn’t matter who you are, as long as they know you’re there to get them better.”

It was through a chance meeting with Scott Pioli, the former Chiefs’ general manager who went on to become assistant GM of the Falcons, that helped Sowers on her journey to the NFL. Sowers is from Kansas City, and after she ended her football playing career became a youth girls basketball coach. One of her players was Pioli’s daughter.

After Pioli went to Atlanta, he looked to get her involved with the organization, and Sowers eventually joined the team as an intern, spending the 2016 offseason and training camp with the team. A year later, Shanahan, then the Falcons’ offensive coordinator, decided to have her contribute on the offensive side of the ball. The Falcons went to Super Bowl LII that season, and after losing a heartbreaking game to the Patriots, who rallied from a 28-3 deficit to win in overtime, Sowers contacted Shanahan to see if she could work for him in San Francisco, where he became head coach.

The two have worked together ever since.

“I reached out to [Shanahan] and asked if there would be potential opportunities available, and he was happy to have me,” Sowers said. “I’m blessed to work with one of the best football minds in the game for all four years of my NFL career. Out of those four years, this is my second Super Bowl that I’ve been to, and that’s due to Kyle and the way he prepares, and the detail he uses to get the team ready.”

The fact that Shanahan is willing to listen to different voices – even one as unconventional as Sowers, is a tribute to his open-mindedness.

“Diversity is so important to build with, whether it’s an organization or a team,” Sowers said. “The more diversity you have, the more power you have. You have more minds that are thinking about different things, bringing in different ideas. The more you can have a diverse set of people, the better your team is going to be. That’s what we’ve found in San Francisco, and it’s been amazing.”

The bottom line: “You’re not looking for a certain type of person, you’re looking for someone who’s good at their job,” Sowers said. “It doesn’t matter who they are, what they look like, what their background is. If they’re going to make your team better, [Shanahan] wants those people.”

Shanahan and his other assistant coaches welcome Sowers’ contributions.

“I know Katie gets a ton of media attention, and rightly so,” said Mike LaFleur, the 49ers’ passing game coordinator. “She’s moving the needle for this whole thing, and it’s so cool. But when we shut the door and go in to work, she just puts her head down and goes to work. She’s been such a huge help to me these three years, but more so this year. She’s just taken it to another level. It’s cool to watch her grow. She knows she has more growing to do, like we all do, but she’s done a fantastic job.”

Sowers has been well received by the players, especially on offense, where her expertise lies.

“Katie’s been absolutely phenomenal,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “For me, personally, my interaction with her is coming to her on questions about [pass] routes, because she works with the receivers.”

It’s more than that, though.

“Just to see a female excel in this line of work is inspiring for all of us,” Juszczyk said. “It kind of lets everyone know that you can accomplish anything, and it doesn’t matter what race, what age, what gender, you are.”

Sowers’ primary focus now is on the AFC champion Chiefs, who present a formidable challenge to the 49ers. It’s also a bit of an adjustment for Sowers to face the team that most of her family and friends from her native Kansas City are rooting for. Sowers herself has a tattoo of the Kansas City skyline on her left arm. “It’s my home. My family and friends mean the world to me.”

But there’s only one team she wants to win on Sunday: her own.

Win or lose, though, there’s more football ahead for Sowers. And even though she has achieved her initial dream of making it to the NFL, there is room to grow. A lot more room to grow.

In fact, she’d one day like to become a head coach.

“Wherever I can impact the game, I’ll continue to work and be the best I can be,” she said. “If that opportunity [to be a head coach] comes up and that’s where I truly feel like I can be a game-changer, that’s the step I’ll take.”

Could that mean being an NFL head coach one day?

“Absolutely.”

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