Katie Sowers more than 49ers ‘groundbreaking’ coach


Katie Sowers’ pioneering tenure as the 49ers’ first female coach winds down Friday night, coincidentally in her native Kansas City, site of the 49ers’ exhibition opener against the Chiefs.

Sowers, without pomp and circumstance, enjoyed serving as a summer intern in the Bill Walsh NFL Diversity Coaching Fellowship, which the 49ers icon launched 35 years ago to mentor minorities.

Katie Sowers is 1 of 4 female coaching intern in NFL training camps. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

“I always tell people if you think grown men aren’t going to respect women, I’ve seen nothing but respect,” Sowers said. “They say, ‘Hey coach’ in the hallway. They treat me just like they treat everybody else.”

Walsh would be proud.

“Bill Walsh is one of my favorite coaches of all-time,” Sowers added, “and I have a couple of his books I carry with me.”

That includes Walsh’s “Finding The Winning Edge,” a renown coaches’ bible that came out in 1997. Sowers coughed up $300 last year for one of the rare copies, taking it to her internship last summer on the Atlanta Falcons and this year to the franchise Walsh built.

Now it’s Sowers helping author the NFL’s inspiring tale about an eroding gender barrier.

With her cropped brown hair pulled into a short ponytail, Sowers blended in on the 49ers practice field like any other coach and intern at training camp. She not only helped coach wide receivers, she watched, learned and didn’t stand by silently.

“No, that’s why I like Katie,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said of her input. “It would be an issue if you felt like she was in there and you had to be careful what you said, or, ‘Oh there’s a female in there. Don’t swear.’ Katie hangs out. She’s one of the coaches.”

“It’s groundbreaking and all that stuff, but the more normalized it is, the better it is,” Sowers, 31, said. “As a female, the more someone can ask me what I do and I say ‘I coach football,’ the less shock on their faces will mean the better direction we’re moving.”

Katie Sowers, a coaching intern for the San Francisco 49ers, keeps an eye on training camp in Santa Clara, California, Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
Katie Sowers interned last summer with the Atlanta Falcons and stayed on in their scouting department.. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

Were their awkward, battle-of-the-sexes moments?

“Never, never, never,” veteran wide receiver Jeremy Kerley said. “We’ve got a group of guys who have the ultimate respect, anyway. She sits back and comes at you like anyone else would. I love it.”

Sowers beams at having celebrated her last two birthdays as a coach in NFL training camps. Her reward goes beyond birthday cakes from the Falcons’ Julio Jones and the 49ers’ Marquise Goodwin.

She has loved taking notes about X’s and O’s, about how to lead a team, but not about how to integrate herself into the male-dominated world of football.

She’s played football professionally and for the U.S. national team – at quarterback, wide receiver, linebacker and safety. “I haven’t studied the tape but I’ve heard she was very good,” Shanahan quipped.

Her playing career succumbed to an ailing hip last year. But she’s stayed involved as general manager of Kansas City Titans in the Women’s Football Alliance, where her twin sister, Liz, is a star receiver. Katie Sowers also been a USA Football adviser, and she’s been devoted to football since she was an 8-year-old growing up near Wichita in Hesston, Kansas.

At age 8, Katie Sowers wrote a letter declaring her love of football. (Photo courtesy of Katie Sowers) 

Coaching has always been her dream, stemming from a family tree in which her dad, Floyd, coached Bethel College’s women’s basketball team. “I thought I would be (coaching) basketball, because I didn’t know girls could play football or coach football,” Sowers said. “When I realized they could, I turned to football.”

Two years ago, the Arizona Cardinals brought in Jen Welter as the league’s first female coaching intern. Last year, the Buffalo Bills hired Kathryn Smith as the NFL’s first full-time female coach (special teams quality control), and Sowers found a way into the league, too.

Through Falcons and former Chiefs executive Scott Pioli, Sowers landed an internship last summer with the Falcons, whose offensive coordinator was Shanahan. This summer, three only female coaching interns are in the NFL: Odessa Jenkins (Falcons), Phoebe Schecter (Bills), Collette Smith (Jets).

“I feel pretty lucky learning from one of the best football minds in Kyle and his staff,” Sowers, one of eight 49ers interns, said. “That’s been the biggest thing I’ve enjoyed.”

“We were in Atlanta, and people asked, ‘Why did you want to bring a girl here?’ I didn’t even look at it that why,” Shanahan said. “She helped us there and asked if she could do the same thing here. … She helps out. She’s good in the room. It helps her because she learns, too. But I like hearing Katie’s opinion.”

The diversifying NFL has over 50 women working in teams’ football operations, and the 49ers are represented from their business office (Hannah Gordon, Patti Inglis) to training staff (Laura Schnettgoecke). The 49ers, co-owned by Denise DeBartolo York, have a fellowship named in her honor that introduces a female to the franchise’s various departments.

Sowers left her job last year as Kansas City’s director of parks and recreation to join the Falcons, and she then parlayed her internship into a scouting role.

Katie Sowers, 49ers coaching intern, observes San Francisco 49ers practice at Levi's Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017, in Santa Clara, Calif. (Jim Gensheimer/Bay Area News Group)
Katie Sowers, 49ers coaching intern, observes San Francisco 49ers practice at Levi’s Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017, in Santa Clara, Calif. (Jim Gensheimer/Bay Area News Group) 

This year, she has other ambitions: “Find a full-time coaching job, take what I’ve really learned and not be the next Kyle Shanahan but be the next Katie Sowers. I’ll take bits and pieces of everyone I’ve learned from and mold it into my own.”

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