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Jock Talk: 49ers' out coach Sowers prepared for her role

by Roger Brigham

49ers assistant coach Katie Sowers, center, makes a point to co-hosts John Zipperer and Michelle Meow Tuesday during an appearance on "The Michelle Meow Show" at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco. Photo: Steven Underhill
49ers assistant coach Katie Sowers, center, makes a point to co-hosts John Zipperer and Michelle Meow Tuesday during an appearance on "The Michelle Meow Show" at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco. Photo: Steven Underhill  

When 49ers assistant coach Katie Sowers spoke at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco this week, she was witty, thoughtful, sensitive, down-to-earth, intelligent, and candid.

In other words, just about everything you'd want in a coach.

When Sowers was just a little girl, she knew three things for certain. She loved playing football, she wanted to coach football, and she was attracted to other girls. She and her twin sister, Liz, who is also a football-loving lesbian, would call up every boy in the neighborhood to get them to play. Their father gave them used football gear - smelly and raggedy equipment worn out by the local college team - for a gift one year and they thought it was the most glorious gift ever.

The other thing that came through in Sowers' appearance Tuesday on the club's "The Michelle Meow Show," is that she is a planner who puts in the work to prepare for what she wants to do. She knows she's not ready yet to be a head coach, but that goal should be attainable after she absorbs a few years of football wisdom for other coaches, entering all of her learning and experiences in the journal she keeps.

Sowers, 32, is the second female coach in the NFL and the first out lesbian. She came to the 49ers from the Atlanta Falcons, where she interned under now Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan, through the Bill Walsh Minority Fellowship, whose application at the time had no box for her to indicate she was a woman or had played professionally in the Women's Football Alliance.

And yet, here she is.

She told the audience she grew up in a very religious Christian family and came out to her mother when she was a junior in college. She'd just broken up with a longtime girlfriend and went into the living room, where she intended to open up to her mother, who was watching television.

Before she could say anything, her mother noticed she was crying and asked her what was wrong.

"It's about my best friend," Sowers began. "We were together a long time, but now we're not dating."

"Well, Katie," her mother said after a gulp and a pause, "there's more to life than people."

Which, of course, the women found both wise and funny, good for a laugh to replace the tears. Most importantly, it broke the ice and Sowers knew things were going to be OK.

There were no women's football programs at school, so she played basketball (her second favorite sport) and soccer and ran track. She needed a fifth year to finish her degree after her varsity eligibility ran out, so she thought she'd go to her college coach and volunteer to help coach the team.

The coach had other ideas. He told her that since she and two other women had graduated, "We got rid of all that stuff. It's nothing personal. We don't want you here."

It was the first time she had run smack into outright homophobia, and it was entirely personal.

And yet, here she is.

"I felt I lost my identity," she said of the incident. "Sometimes bad things happen to you that put you exactly where you need to be. I knew then I wanted to coach. It inspired me to go on the internet and find a team."

She found a women's football team to play on in Michigan.

"That's when I realized I can coach."

Even coach men, even though she's a woman.

"Coaching is leading and teaching," she said. "I don't think there's another situation where you'd say a woman can't coach or that a woman can't lead."

She later was quarterback for the Kansas City Titans in the Women's Football Alliance, eventually becoming the Titans' general manager. After her internship with the Niners ended in 2017, Shanahan named her an assistant coach last season.

Now she is here, assisting the other coaches, working at the games, running workout sessions, acting as a sounding board, and encouraging athletes when they feel they are vulnerable.

"Bill Walsh often said the most important thing you can tell an athlete is, 'I believe in you,'" she said.

So that's what she does, fits in, plugs away at her job, listens to all the football knowledge she can, setting it all down and doing her best to absorb it. She's part of a staff and a team that looks poised to make a move up in the standings this year, returning to the football relevance that earmarked the franchise so many years ago. She's excited by the competition, by the chance to be a part, by the chance to grow.

And yes, that's why she is here. She's not here as a publicity stunt or some touchy-feely effort to humanize a franchise. She's here because she's all about football. She's here because she's just about everything you'd want in a coach.

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