MIAMI — Google, a list of goals and a greater sense of purpose instilled by her father helped turn Katie Sowers into a trailblazer.
Sowers was earning $800 a month working in elementary school education in 2010.
Was she happy impacting children? Yes. Was she fulfilled? Not even close.
“There was a point in my life where I wrote down my goals when I felt lost, and one of the things I wanted to do was something that nobody ever has done before,” Sowers said. “I kind of spoke it into existence. I just knew I was meant to be a coach. My dad was a coach.”
Sowers, an offensive assistant coach for the 49ers, will become the first woman and the first openly gay person to participate in a Super Bowl when her side battles the Chiefs. She didn’t set out to be the first.
“Then you are racing other women,” Sowers said. “It’s more important than I’m not the last.”
Sowers was one of the stars Monday night at “Super Bowl Opening Night” at Marlins Park not because of her role running the scout team, drawing up play cards or filling a position on the practice field. Her gender and sexual orientation are the reasons.
“I will know we are successful when it’s not a headline anymore,” Sowers said.
Younger women send Sowers notes thanking her for setting forth a path to football at all levels. Older women send Sowers notes wistfully admitting they wish years ago they had the opportunities she has helped create.
Becky Hammon, a six-time WNBA all-star, was hired as an assistant coach by the NBA’s Spurs in 2014. On the day that happened, Sowers posted a note to her Instagram account: “Coming for the NFL.”
“When I found football it all made sense,” Sowers said. “Google does a lot of good things. I was done with all my sports I played in college and I was bored and I was trying to figure out what’s next. I found a team in Michigan and began my football journey.”
Sowers played in the Women’s Football Alliance from 2013-16 and found a way into an NFL coaching internship with the Falcons with help from Scott Pioli — the longtime executive for the Patriots, Chiefs (general manager) and Falcons, and son-in-law of Bill Parcells. Pioli’s daughter was coached by Sowers in youth basketball.
By then, Sowers already had been turned down for a women’s basketball coaching job at her alma mater, Goshen College, based on her sexual orientation, as allowed at the time under Indiana state law.
With Sowers sharing her story on the national stage, Goshen issued an apology this week and pointed to its non-discrimination policy adopted in 2015. Too little, too late for Sowers, but never too late for someone else.
“I have no hard feelings,” Sowers said. “Adversity is something that always happens, no matter who you are, where you are. You can see it as a roadblock or you can see it as a detour. That moment is part of my path that led me here. We just continue to make progress. If we just turn hatred toward the ignorance, it’s never going to get better.”
Now the star of a commercial for the Microsoft Surface Pro 7 laptop, Sowers hopes young girls see the ad — which will be difficult to miss on televisions this week — and ask questions that lead to big dreams.
“It was almost to the point where I had to think about if I was really, truly watching it,” Sowers said, “because my whole life was kind of coming full circle. [Players] are always saying, ‘Katie, you are on the commercial again!’ “
Sowers met open-minded offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan in the Falcons organization, and he brought her with him through the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship when hired as the 49ers head coach in 2017. She was promoted to full-time assistant in 2019 and describes her coaching style as “more of a teacher, more player-oriented” but not a “screamer.”
What are her day-to-day responsibilities?
“Anything that’s needed,” Sowers said. “That’s the mindset you have to have. You are never too good. I walked people’s dogs when I first started as an NFL coach. You are never too cool to walk someone’s dog. You do whatever is necessary to get the job done.”
Gaining acceptance in a male-dominated profession was not as difficult as you think, once in the door, she says.
“Not when you work with the group of guys I work with,” she said. “I had to be myself. The more authentic you are, the more people trust you, the more people buy into what you are saying. If you try to be someone else, you lose all respect.”
Sowers certainly commands the respect now. It only will continue growing with a Super Bowl ring. Or a coordinator job. Or, dare to dream, a head coaching position.
“The future is left to be told,” she said. “It’s still unwritten. I’m going to take a job where I know I can continue to impact. That’s here and today and right now in the present moment.”