49ers coach Kyle Shanahan on assistant Katie Sowers
On any given Sunday in the predominantly Mennonite mid-Kansas community of Hesston (population approximately 3,800), the scene played out about like this:
Twins Katie and Liz Sowers would finish up Sunday dinner (aka … lunch), put together their list of eligible players and call the boys one by one to set up a game of tackle football.
Typically, that meant some rough-and-tumble three-on-three ball in a rotation of backyards. Sometimes, a boy might opt to referee, which wasn’t a necessity for the games but made for a face-saving way out for those who thought the girls tackled too hard.
“I remember we would make boys cry,” San Francisco 49ers assistant coach Katie Sowers said, laughing and adding some of that might have come from their technique: Seize “their shirts, spin them around and throw them down.”
With no formal opportunities to play football then, this was as close as the girls could get to the game that fascinated Katie enough that as an 8-year-old she was constantly writing about her love of the game.
Among what she called “journal entry after journal entry after journal,” maybe nothing said it better than this one from about age 8: “My mom wants me to play basketball. I don’t want to. I want to play football,” she wrote, adding that her favorite part of the game was tackling … or “tacolilng,” as she spelled it then.
Even if they initially wanted to steer the girls to more conventional sports, parents Floyd and Bonnie indulged the attraction. When she was about 10, Sowers recalled, the girls got helmets and shoulder pads — “real helmets and real pads” — as Christmas gifts.
All of which turns out to be a lot more than cute memories.
Being encouraged to become who she is goes a long way towards explaining how Sowers on any given Sunday now is the NFL’s second full-time woman coach, not to mention its first and only openly gay coach, man or woman.
With all that comes an enormous sense of appreciation and responsibility for Sowers, an offensive assistant for the 49ers.
“It’s a fine line right now between wanting to be treated just like everybody else but also knowing that part of the job is making sure I’m visible for all the young people, boys and girls,” she said.
There are many reasons Sowers has made it this far, not the least of which is sheer force of will and the essential help of former Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli (more on that in a minute).
But it starts at the start with her father, a former longtime women’s basketball coach at Bethel College, and her mother, who for nearly four decades was the director of the Hesston College Nursing program.
“They were never trying to force us into a status quo; it was (about) what made us happy,” she said this week as the 49ers prepared to play Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium, adding that they were immediately supportive when she came out during college. “They are the definition of unconditional love.”
That’s one of the reasons this will be an emotional return to the region for Sowers, 32, who is a former player with and general manager of the Kansas City Titans of the Women’s Football Alliance and athletic director for Kansas City Parks and Recreation.
Her entire immediate family, including Liz and older sister Steph’s family are in the area now. And so are her parents, who just celebrated their 50th anniversary even as they contend with the severe stroke Floyd Sowers suffered on a visit during Memorial Day weekend.
While he’s “cognitively all there” and starting to get some movement back on his right side as Liz takes care of him full time, Katie Sowers said, he can’t walk or speak now. So this is the only opportunity he’ll have to attend one of her games for the foreseeable future.
“He’s probably my biggest fan,” she said, “so having him there is going to be special.”
No doubt he appreciates how special having her here in this role is, too.
Via a circuitous route that started in Hesston and gained momentum in Kalamazoo, Mich., when she started playing for the West Michigan Mayhem during what she calls her “victory lap” (getting the credits she needed to graduate) from Goshen College in Indiana and playing for Team USA.
It all came to a pivot point when she settled in Kansas City after getting her master’s at Central Missouri. Among her jobs at the time was coaching youth girls basketball, which led to meeting Pioli through his daughter, Mia.
Pioli had just lost his job with the Chiefs amid the chaos of his regime and was soon on his way to Atlanta as an assistant general manager. In the interim, he became what Sowers calls a second father figure and later helped bring her to Atlanta through the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship.
In contrast to Pioli’s public profile running the Chiefs, and indicative of plenty more there than most perceive, he was a voice of wisdom and compassion with Sowers — just as he had been for former Chief Ryan O’Callaghan as he contemplated suicide.
“He goes out of his way to help people, even knowing that there is nothing in return that he can probably get,” she said.
Pioli also helped Sowers find a voice for her concerns about whether her sexual orientation might be a factor in her opportunities — as she had experienced before when denied a volunteer assistant job at Goshen.
She had been reluctant to tell him, realizing now that she herself had been stereotyping. But when it basically came up in casual conversation, he said, “Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
“He even felt bad that I felt that way,” she said, adding that he asked, “‘What can I do to seem more open?’”
In Atlanta, she made an impression on then-offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and caught on with him in San Francisco through the Walsh program. Shanahan hired her last fall for a job that includes working with receivers, breaking down film and assisting with practice scripts.
“Just how she handled herself in the building with the players and in our meetings, it was a pretty easy decision for us,” Shanahan said Wednesday, adding, “We thought we’d be worse (off) if we let her go. She helped our receivers, helped our receivers coach, there were things she added.”
As for the matter of whether Sowers might be considered a trailblazer, Shanahan preferred to talk about her specifically.
“When you have someone who’s like that, I don’t really think about whether she’s a man or a woman; I think about how much she can help us,” he said, adding that it “depends on the individual.”
In this case, as 49ers receiver Marquise Goodwin told the San Francisco Chronicle last season: “Katie is a baller, 100 percent. She understands the game. She’s very familiar with the game. ... (She) definitely has the attitude it takes to be in that room. She brings a great vibe and she understands, so I’m happy that she’s on staff.”
Meanwhile, as much as normality is what Sowers strives for in this, she also made the decision last year to discuss her sexual orientation with Outsports. As she put it then, she wanted to help “create an environment that welcomes all types of people, no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion … (and) help ease the pain and burden that many carry every day.”
After that interview was published, she said many players stopped by her office to lend their support and tell of siblings and friends who were gay.
Moreover, she said, part of being a great coach and leader who one day hopes to be an NFL head coach, part of having people believe what you’re saying, is to have the integrity of being authentic and to “feel real.”
Something she’s just about always been able to feel — starting at home with being encouraged to become who she is.
“If it wasn’t for my parents,” she said, “I don’t think I would even be close to where I am.”