Back in October, moments before the 49ers embarked on their Monday Night Football clobbering of the Cleveland Browns, a group of 49ers assistant coaches crammed into an elevator and headed up to their box at Levi’s Stadium. The elevator was silent; befitting of the game’s magnitude. About halfway up the ride, one of the coach’s phones buzzed, setting off his ringtone which, in a prophetic moment, happened to be DJ Khaled’s All I Do Is Win. Laughter ensued and the camaraderie of the assistant coaches was on display. It’s a promising crew that resembles most other NFL set-ups … with one notable exception.
Turn on any American network television show these days – be it a sporting event or The Bachelor – and it won’t take long for an omnipresent Microsoft commercial featuring an emerging 49ers coach to appear. The spot’s central figure is not head coach Kyle Shanahan, whose offensive wizardry has San Francisco one win away from a Super Bowl berth. Nor is it fiery defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, whose sideline antics have become social media fodder this season.
The coach is Katie Sowers, a third-year offensive assistant who works predominantly with the wide receivers. She stoically declares in the commercial, “I’m not here to be the token female. I’m here to help us win.” Sowers has helped the 49ers collect those wins in droves this season but she’s also a revelation whose rise is impossible to ignore.
Sowers’ journey to the NFL involves a heavy dose of talent with a side of happenstance. She grew up in Hesston, Kansas, and was a gifted athlete from a young age. Despite the fact that nobody else in the family played football, Sowers and her twin sister, Liz, were drawn to the sport. Sowers loved the Dallas Cowboys but not in the typical way. She didn’t care about the win-loss record or rivalries. Sowers wanted to don pads and wreak havoc as a Cowboy.
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The twins played the sport nonstop. In high school, Katie chatted with the varsity football coach about joining the team. She decided against it only because she excelled at volleyball and wanted a chance of a college scholarship. Football wasn’t going to be it.
It was actually basketball that turned out to be her meal ticket. After college was over and Sowers was figuring out her next steps, she had her “A-ha” moment. ESPN aired a clip of a women’s football game, and that was all the inspiration Sowers needed. She immediately googled local options and soon tried out for the West Michigan Mayhem of the Women’s Football Alliance. There is no salary in women’s football. No agents. Nothing other than a group of women who adore the game.
Sowers entered the Mayhem confused by the terminology and culture, a notion she laughs at today. While she played as a kid, she never had a formal coach. It was the veteran women of the Mayhem who taught Sowers the fundamentals of the game, knowledge that would prove invaluable. Sowers thrived as a quarterback in the WFA and played for Team USA in 2013.
While in Kansas City, Sowers volunteered as a girls basketball coach. In 2013 she was slated to coach a sixth-grade team but due to an administrative glitch was asked to coach fifth-grade instead. In a twist of fate, one of the players was the daughter of Scott Pioli, the former Kansas City Chiefs general manager and soon to be Atlanta Falcons assistant general manager.
Pioli admired Sowers’ coaching skills and soon discovered her involvement in football. The two formed an unlikely bond, one that not only altered Sowers’ career but also her assumptions about NFL executives. Sowers, who is gay, thought Pioli would disapprove of her lifestyle.
“What I failed to realize I was grouping him into a box. Here’s this high up NFL executive and how’s he going to react?” Sowers says. “Knowing his heart and his desire to help people was something I never thought could be possible in everything I assumed about that culture.”