49ers offensive assistant coach Katie Sowers is breaking many barriers in NFL
Kickoff was still six days away Monday when Super Bowl LIV made history.
The moment arrived when an offensive assistant for the San Francisco 49ers stepped onto the stage as the NFL opened its championship week.
Katie Sowers is the Super Bowl’s first female and openly gay coach.
“In order to dream about something, you’ve got to see it,” she said. “You have to know that it exists. You have to know that it’s out there. That’s what’s important.”
So there she was with the rest of the 49ers, more visible than ever before, standing between two prominent media scrums, one shouting questions at tight end George Kittle and the other at defensive tackle DeForest Buckner.
The players were seated on risers and armed with microphones.
Sowers was on her own, flanked by security guards and positioned behind the sort of barriers used to corral lines at airports. But she was no less popular than either of those star 49ers.
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At one point, Sowers’ scrum became so aggressive that one of the security guards had to demand order while urging everyone to take one step back.
“This is not what I thought of when I was writing a journal about being a coach, knowing I wanted to be a teacher, a coach or a counselor,” Sowers said. “This was not it. But it’s part of my path. It’s part of what brought me to where I am. It’s changing lives. So I’m happy to be here.”
Those journal entries became the basis for a television commercial that debuted recently, featuring Sowers reading some of her childhood thoughts and hopes aloud.
The spot is designed to sell the latest in technological toys. But the message is about dreams and the importance of chasing them from early on, which explains why the ad includes footage of Sowers as a kid, a kid flipping a football.
“It was unreal,” she said of the first time she saw the commercial. “It was almost to a point where I had to think was I really watching what was happening. It was kind of like my whole life was coming full circle.”
Sowers, who is in her fourth NFL season and third with San Francisco, was born in Kansas City Chiefs country — Hesston, Kan., a small town north of Wichita. She grew up playing backyard football with her twin sister, Liz, and the neighboring boys.
She graduated from Goshen College in Indiana, where she competed in soccer, basketball and track. From there, she earned a master’s degree in kinesiology in 2012 from the University of Central Missouri.
At one point, wanting to launch her chosen career, she offered to become a volunteer coach for the Goshen women’s basketball team. But she was turned down — because of her sexual orientation.
Recently, the Goshen College president, Rebecca Stoltzfus, released a statement apologizing to Sowers and citing now-outdated laws that made such a decision possible.
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“We don’t just need women fighting for women,” Sowers said. “We need men fighting for women. We need straight people fighting for gay people. We need white people fighting for black people. We need people who are different from us to join together to create change.”
She was always drawn to football, back as far as elementary school, when she’d run around in her Deion Sanders jersey. When it came time in school to do a speech about a hero, Sowers chose Sanders.
After college, she played eight years in the Women’s Football Alliance. Sowers also was a member of the U.S. women’s national football team.
She began coaching girls’ basketball in Kansas City, where one of her players was the daughter of Scott Pioli, the former general manager of the Chiefs.
In 2016, with Pioli now working for Atlanta, the Falcons hired Sowers through the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship.
That’s where she met Kyle Shanahan, who would go from being Atlanta’s offensive coordinator to San Francisco’s head coach.
“It really just takes someone who’s open-minded to the idea of trying something different, something they’ve never seen,” Sowers said. “I’m blessed to have Kyle as one of those coaches.”
Other NFL teams — Arizona, Buffalo and Tampa Bay among them — have employed female coaches. Eight women, including four full-timers, coached in some capacity this season.
Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, an offensive lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs, is the NFL’s only active player who is also a physician. Now he gets to play in the Super Bowl against the 49ers.
None, however, ever had reached the league’s biggest, brightest and loudest stage before Monday, an event that has become as predictable as Super Bowl media night suddenly looking very different.
The dream is really happening for Sowers, whose family remains in the Kansas City area, along with her heart. She even has the K.C. skyline tattooed on her left forearm.
The rise has been an impressive one; Sowers smiled when recalling that her first duties in the NFL included walking the dogs of other team employees.
“I have a job to do here,” she said. “As surreal as this is, I have to focus on that job. Being the first female and getting all this publicity ... it’s being visible to younger women and everybody really. But the most important thing is making sure I’m not the last.”
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