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How Katie Sowers became the first woman and openly gay coach in Super Bowl history

Katie Sowers has been a trailblazer as a coach for the 49ers. Here’s her inspiring story.

49ers offensive assistant coach Katie Sowers grips a football and looks at the camera, superimposed on background with ”LIV” in white and “54” in pink
Katie Sowers is in her second season as a 49ers offensive assistant coach.

The 49ers are trying to etch their names in the history books with a Super Bowl win against the Chiefs, but one of their coaches is already no stranger to making history. Katie Sowers, an offensive assistant with the 49ers, became the first openly gay coach in the NFL back in 2017. Now, she’s set to be both the first openly gay coach and first female coach to appear in a Super Bowl.

Sowers, 33, is more than that to the players she coaches, her co-workers in the NFL, and her fans. She’s an inspiration to a lot of people, from women who love football or other sports, to LGBTQ people who are unable to outwardly be themselves in public.

Though she set out to be a coach in the NFL — with the end goal of being a head coach some day — she has embraced being a role model. Sowers took an even bigger step in the spotlight recently, when she was featured in Microsoft Surface ad that ran during football games.

In the commercial, she shared a page from her journal she wrote as a young girl. In it, she says she hopes to one day be a good football player.

A voiceover from Sowers adds: “I hoped someday I will be on a real football team. I’m not just here to be the token female. I’m here to help us win ... I would want to tell this little girl to keep pushing herself. Your dream is coming.”

Sowers is living her dream right now.

Here’s everything you need to know about the 49ers’ trailblazing coach.

Sowers had a love of football from an early age

Sowers was born in Hesston, Kansas, where she started playing football with her sister and friends. She’s talked about how football has been a big passion of hers ever since she was exposed to the game.

In another page from her childhood journal, a young Sowers proclaimed tackling to be her favorite part of football. She mentioned her writing in a 2019 interview with People magazine.

“(Football has) always just been kind of a natural love,” she said. “Every time I got a chance to write any kind of journal entry in school, it was always about football. I was constantly talking about it.”

Sowers has always known she wanted to be a coach, but didn’t realize it was even possible for her to do it in football. She knew football as a “man’s game” for a long time.

“I started to realize how much bigger the boys I grew up playing football with in the backyard became compared to me,” Sowers said in a 2017 interview with Outsports. “I was forced into the societal norms that told me girls don’t play football.”

Sowers did eventually play football, and at a high level.

She spent time with the Kansas City Titans and the West Michigan Mayhem in the Women’s Football Alliance for eight years, and also made it on to the United States’ Women’s National Football Team. Sowers played quarterback, wide receiver, and defensive back.

You can even watch her play on the national team in the International Federation of American Football (IFAF) on the organization’s YouTube channel. Here’s Sowers, No. 16, playing defensive back in the world championship game between the United States and Canada in 2013.

But before she began playing professionally, she had to settle for something different. Without a football team to join in college, Sowers played basketball at Goshen College in Indiana, and was met with a giant hurdle when she hoped to enter the coaching ranks after graduating: the school didn’t want an LGBTQ person coaching. Sowers was turned down for an unpaid coaching position.

Via Outsports:

“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.”

Recently, Goshen College issued an apology to Sowers for how they handled things in 2009. The school has since adopted a non-discrimination policy.

“When, not if, we go through these moments of adversity, we can view them as road blocks and feel sorry for ourselves or we can view them as a part of our story,” Sowers told NBC Sports after the apology was made in January. “I prefer to see what happened to me as a detour that put me on a path to where I am now.”

The path she’s on now is one of greatness and inspiration. But there were a few more steps to go through before she landed her current role.

How Sowers made her way to the NFL

Sowers’ career started when she became athletic director for the city of Kansas City, and the coach of a fifth grade girls’ basketball team. As it turns out, one of the people who noticed her was NFL front office executive Scott Pioli, whose daughter happened to be on the team Sowers was coaching. Pioli was impressed with how she coached and quickly learned how much passion she had for football.

Pioli, who became assistant general manager of the Atlanta Falcons, offered Sowers a coaching internship in 2016. It was part of the Bill Walsh NFL Coaching Diversity Fellowship, an initiative started by the legendary 49ers coach to encourage and mentor minority coaching candidates. Sowers credits Pioli as a mentor, and the executive is also notable for having helped former Patriots and Chiefs offensive lineman Ryan O’Callaghan come to terms with his sexual orientation.

With the Falcons, she worked with assistant head coach/wide receivers coach Raheem Morris in coordinator practice drills. She also spent nine months as a scouting intern with Atlanta.

In 2017, she followed former Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to the 49ers, where he took over as head coach and she spent another year in the Coaching Diversity Fellowship. The next season, she was promoted to an offensive assistant and remains in that role today. She was just the second woman to earn a full-time job coaching in the NFL after Kathryn Smith, who was with the Bills in 2016.

Sowers is an all-purpose offensive assistant, but her focus tends to be on receivers. When the 49ers made her internship into a full-time position, Shanahan talked about her role with the team.

“She helps (receivers coach) Mike LaFleur out just with some rotations,” Shanahan said. “She helps our quality controls out 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. Because of that, she’s someone we would like to keep around.”

Sowers maintains that her goal is to one day be a head coach in the NFL — and she’s positive she could do it.

Sowers’ coming out story has made her an LGBTQ role-model

Sowers came out to her family in college, and she says there were challenges, but that they were supportive of her. But coming out to your family and having your orientation be part of your public identity are two different things. In 2017, Sowers was contacted by Outsports, and she agreed to publicly come out in an interview with them.

Sowers put herself out there as a lesbian, despite technically being a coaching intern at the time. She became the first openly gay member of an NFL coaching staff when the piece was published.

“No matter what you do in life, one of the most important things is to be true to who you are,” Sowers told Outsports. “There are so many people who identify as LGBT in the NFL, as in any business, that do not feel comfortable being public about sexual orientation.”

This was only a few years removed from the NFL where Michael Sam was ousted after very brief stays with two teams in 2014. Since Sam, there have not been openly out active players in the NFL (though that will hopefully change this year with offensive line prospect Scott Frantz).

“The more we can create an environment that welcomes all types of people, no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation, (or) religion, the more we can help ease the pain and burden that many carry every day,” Sowers told Outsports.

Sowers also said she believed there are a lot of people involved in the NFL who are LGBTQ. And that’s part of the reason she agreed to make her orientation public — as a sign that yes, it is possible for marginalized groups to succeed in a straight male-dominated sport, even if it can be an uphill battle.

When Sowers came out, she became the first openly LGBTQ coach not just in the NFL, but in male pro team sports.

Sowers is making an impact for the 49ers on and off the field

For the 49ers, Sowers is simply a coach who does a great job. The prevailing opinion from the players and coaches is that she shows up to work and does her job the same as any straight male coach would.

“She’s been tremendous,” quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said before the 49ers’ first playoff game this January. “Katie was here before I was, but just what she does with the receivers, all the skill positions guys, how she interacts with them — it’s special. She’s feisty, man. Katie’s awesome out there. She’ll get after guys. It’s fun to be around.”

“She’s one of the coolest coaches I’ve ever had,” wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said leading up to the Super Bowl. “I like being around her. Just how she goes about her business and how positive she is.”

Fullback Kyle Juszczyk was also complimentary when asked about her at the 2018 Pro Bowl.

“Katie’s been phenomenal,” Juszczyk said, via Outsports. “She’s someone we’ve been able to lean on. If I ever have a question on a route or something, no hesitation and I can go talk to her. She’s a phenomenal asset to our team.”

While the 49ers treat Sowers the same as they would any other coach, she’s still a huge inspiration to many, particularly young girls.

Sowers was signing autographs for women and girls before a preseason game in Denver when it fully hit her that she was making a difference.

“I had multiple families call me over and thank me for the doors I am opening for their daughters,” Sowers told Outsports. “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.”

Sowers has a chance to add even more to what is shaping up to be an incredible legacy when the 49ers play the Chiefs in the Super Bowl. She can go from the first openly gay woman coaching in a Super Bowl to the first openly gay woman winning in a Super Bowl.