The San Francisco 49ers assistant coach tells PEOPLE about the challenges she faced to get to where she is now, and what makes it all worth it

By Greta Bjornson
November 04, 2019 09:00 AM
Credit: Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty

She’s just the second woman to hold a full-time coaching position in the NFL, but Katie Sowers, assistant coach for the San Francisco 49ers, doesn’t let gender define her career.

In fact, it’s not even part of the conversation.

“When you ask any of the coaches who work with me, often they’ll get asked about working with a female,” Sowers, 33, says. “To them, it’s not even something that they think about — and it’s not something that I truly think about. They see me for who I am as a coach, and not a female coach.”

Her team is currently enjoying a record winning streak, holding onto their undefeated status for eight weeks, with Sowers looking forward to more wins this season.

“I’m extremely proud to be a part of the team,” she says.

As a child in Hesston, Kansas, Sowers was fascinated with football. Growing up, she’d go to her grandmother’s house with her twin sister, Liz, where the girls would eat macaroni and cheese and play football in the backyard.

“It’s always just been kind of a natural love,” Sowers says. “Every time I got a chance to write any journal entry in school, it was always about football. I was constantly talking about it.”

Without a football team to join in college, Sowers played basketball while attending Goshen College in Indiana. She’s now the first openly-LGBT coach in the NFL, but as an undergrad, she faced discrimination for her sexuality.

“I was turned down for a volunteer, unpaid coaching position at my former college because of my lifestyle,” she says. “I remember holding back tears and calling my mom right away.”

Because of the college’s religious affiliation, “there was nothing that I could do about it,” Sowers says. “That was, in a way, their right to turn me down, to keep me away from the team.”

But, the experience propelled her forward to the career she has today.

“Instead of it being an obstacle, it was actually a building block for my future and my next step because I had to look elsewhere,” she explains.

Sowers started out her NFL career as a training camp assistant with the Atlanta Falcons in 2016 before joining the 49ers as an intern in 2017. She was promoted to her current role this year, and she’s received a warm welcome.

“It’s funny when people always ask, do the guys respect you?” she says. “I’ve never had any type of negative attitude toward me because I work with true professionals. It’s definitely an organization that is out to create change in our community, on and off the field.”

Now, the coach says, getting more women in coaching positions is a matter of exposure and acceptance.

“Once teams go through the experience of having a woman on staff, they’ll realize that it’s not that big of a deal,” she says. “You don’t know that something exists until you see it. We’re basically creating this environment where we limit what it is that we think we can do.”

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Sowers acknowledges that as a woman, she faces added pressure because of her gender that other coaches aren’t exposed to.

“You’re kind of in the spotlight with whatever happens — it’s easy to remember the female that is on the team when there’s only one of them,” she says.

But to Sowers, what matters most is creating change and seeing her impact.

“When I’m on the field and look around, it all kind of sinks in on how far I’ve come and where I am,” she says. “I see young girls out there almost every game, and someone’s mom or dad is yelling to me, saying, ‘my daughter wants to play football,’ or, ‘my daughter is going to be a coach.’ And those are the moments where it’s worth it.”