Katie Sowers lives and breathes football. As the second woman ever to coach in the NFL, she helped lead the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl LIV in 2020. Hear from Katie about her groundbreaking journey to the top.
Katie Sowers lives and breathes football. As the second woman ever to coach in the NFL, she helped lead the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl LIV in 2020. Hear from Katie about her groundbreaking journey to the top. From facing job rejection for being an openly LGBTQ person to dealing with social media trolls after her team’s devastating loss, Katie lets her guard down for a vulnerable conversation. Listen on, and get to know her off the field.
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Taylor Trudon: You're listening to the In Culture podcast. I'm your host, Taylor Trudon.
Taylor Trudon: I'm speaking with women from age 12 on about the pivotal moments that inspired their paths, the grit and determination that powers them forward and where they're headed next. I'm really excited to share these inspiring conversations with you on the podcast.
Taylor Trudon: My conversation this time is with Katie Sowers. She's an offensive assistant coach for the San Francisco 49ers. One of the two teams that this year, in 2020, played in the super bowl. Being a coach in what's arguably the biggest sporting event in the world drew a lot of attention to what sets Katie apart. She's the first female coach of the San Francisco 49ers, the second woman ever to coach in the NFL and the leagues first openly LGBT coach. You don't have to be a football fan to understand her impact, or to be inspired by her story, but I wanted to truly understand what all of those first mean to her. I meet Katie at her home in San Jose, California to hear more.
Taylor Trudon: Did you ever think in a million years that you would be at the Super Bowl as a coach?
Katie Sowers: I remember when I was young loving football, but dreaming of one day having enough money to go watch the Super Bowl. I always thought that was a farfetched bucket list type thing. Because when I was younger, as much as football was my favorite sport, it never seemed like an option for me to coach football, even though I always knew I wanted to coach. I've been keeping journals since day one of what it is that I want to do. And coaching was always it. But you don't know that something's possible, even as open-minded as I am, you don't know what's possible until you actually see it, or have some reason to believe it.
Taylor Trudon: I would love for you to paint us a picture. What was it like February 2nd in Miami, Waking up and thinking to yourself, "Today's the day."
Katie Sowers: So when I woke up the morning of the Super Bowl, I am typically nervous. I get the excited jitters for games. But waking up on Super Bowl day was a little bit different. That's a stage that anyone who belongs in sports can dream about being on that stage. And so it was something where typically my nerves go away, but they didn't. And it was constantly worrying about, not necessarily worrying, but more nervous about what was to come and how am I life would change and how my player's lives would change and this drive to be the best in our game. And that's something that everybody works for from the beginning of the season till the end. And we had a chance to make that happen.
Taylor Trudon: When you played at the Super Bowl, obviously things didn't turn out the way you might have expected them to. So when you're faced with a feat like that, not winning the Super Bowl and having all these eyes on you, how do you move forward? How do you keep going after a setback like that?
Katie Sowers: The main thing for me about moving forward after a loss as big as that is that at the end of the day it truly isn't a loss. And I hate to sound cliché, but I like to live by this idea of it's not that everything was meant to happen. I'm not saying that I believe that, but I think that our thoughts are truly the only things that we carry in our life. Everything else is borrowed and we are the narrators of our story. And for me in anything that we come across, any defeat, we have the opportunity to narrate the way in which we view that obstacle, or that detour. In terms of all the times I felt like I wanted that job and I didn't get it. I wanted to do this and it didn't happen. It was actually just setting me up to be where I am right now.
Taylor Trudon: So why football?
Katie Sowers: Football was just always a natural love. And when I stop and think about why I love this game so much, the main thing that comes to mind is the diversity that's needed to create a team and the strategy that's needed. You never find a game that has so many different sizes, so many different speeds, so many different types of people. In every sport that I played, I will never find a sport that's more diverse. And I think that's what makes it so beautiful, because it's all of these pieces doing their 1/11th to create one goal and to win the game.
Katie Sowers: There's not a better sport on this earth. It wasn't until I was an adult that I truly learned the game of football. And thinking back of the resources that I didn't have. I didn't have a college team to play on. I didn't have that film to watch. I didn't have that knowledge of the vocabulary. I still remember to this day, learning the positions in a small pizza shop in Kalamazoo, Michigan. And I can vividly remember the learning process and asking, "Why". And, "Why? Why this, why that?" And I think that in itself made me a better coach. Because a lot of times we get so used to the things that we know that we don't know what other people don't know. And I had the opportunity, and I see it as an opportunity. Some might think of it as you're starting from behind, which I was, but I made it a point that I was not going to wait for someone to teach me the game of football.
Katie Sowers: I made it my mission to learn the game so that when my opportunity came I was ready. And that opportunity obviously ended up happening in Atlanta. And as much as I still thought I knew football, this was a whole new language. Everything that I had learned, I had to decipher what was your typical language of football, what was just concept specific, or scheme specific. So my way of learning, I ended up going through Kyle Shanahan's entire offense and actually creating. every single concept that we had with all the rules written down and created it for myself. But knowing that it could be a tool that could be used for players. And to this day I still have that and I continue to add to it.
Katie Sowers: And I do feel like that in itself was me showing the initiative that I'm not just going to wait. I have something to add to this team. I have value to add. And it's something that they had never seen actually drawn up before. And so it put this on offense that they'd been doing for so long in another lens. And that allowed me to become a better teacher and a better coach.
Taylor Trudon: And obviously coaching at the Super Bowl brought you a ton of positive attention. And on the flip side, there is always the haters as I like to say. And I noticed some of the tweets that were being sent that you were tagged in were really just shockingly horrible. "Women have now lost 100% of the Super Bowls they've coached in. She lost and it will go on her record. History was not made. Haven't heard a peep on Katie Sowers since the 49ers lost the Super Bowl." What's your reaction when you hear those things or read those things?
Katie Sowers: My reaction, so I typically don't respond to those tweets. I typically don't see them, but sometimes I do. And I did end up tweeting out something in response, but at the end of the day, the thing that continues to motivate me is when I have someone that can stop hiding behind the computer and come say the things that they're saying to my face, I think our world would be completely different if we had people behaving that way. And you can allow those things to bring you down. But in reality, I know that they are a small population of people and I have so many people behind me. And those are the people that I want to give my energy towards. Those are the people who truly matter.
Taylor Trudon: Right. And I think that's so important because I know there's going to be a lot of younger girls listening and being online, as much as I think there's such a benefit, on the flip side, it does make it easier for trolls. It makes it easier for people who you don't know, complete strangers, to just want to tear you down. And I'm constantly trying to figure out what can you say other than, "Just ignore them." Because that only can work for so long. Everyone has their breaking point.
Katie Sowers: Oh yeah. And the reality is you can't just truly ignore every negative thing that's said. And I think the most important thing is to acknowledge that negativity does hurt. And to say that I see all these negative posts and it doesn't bother me, I would be lying. But the thing that gets me through that feeling of, "Oh wow, that was really harsh of someone to say", the reality is I have confidence in who I am and what I'm doing. And when you have confidence and you build that confidence by the work that you do, by the daily grind that you go through, those words mean less and less.
Katie Sowers: So if anyone listening is finding themselves struggling with words from other people that are negative, at the end of the day you realize that, I learned when I was little you have two cups. And they're trying to fill their cup with what's in your cup and if you allow that then they win.
Taylor Trudon: I'm sitting across from you, you just radiate this self-awareness and confidence, but I think that can be easier said than done. How did you build that confidence? Would you describe yourself as you are always confident when you were a little kid? Was that just something always a part of your identity?
Katie Sowers: I think it was something that was built upon throughout my growing up. I don't know that I've shared this in a lot of interviews, but I actually grew up in my twin sister shadow, athletically. She was always the star of whatever sport it was that we were playing. And I remember truly being her biggest fan. When we were both freshmen, she made the varsity basketball team, which that was like the Super Bowl for us at that time. And it was a big deal in my small town to put a sign up in the front yard that had your name, that you were playing varsity. And my twin sister said she would not put her sign up unless I had one. So she didn't put hers up. And it wasn't that that's what I needed, but that was her showing me that not only am I her biggest fan, but she was mine as well. We loved playing the game and I was so happy for her.
Katie Sowers: And so that in itself, I think, gave me a place to reflect on what's really important in life. Is it being the best athlete, or is it just being the best version of yourself and being authentic? And knowing, "You know what? She is way more athletic than me and I'm okay admitting that. And I'm going to find my own strengths and find who I am as an individual."
Taylor Trudon: Your sister sounds amazing.
Katie Sowers: She is.
Taylor Trudon: Because you were in high school when that happened, right? I just don't know how many teens, or siblings for that matter would just put ego aside and like of their sister or brother and have that in mind.
Katie Sowers: I would love to say that my twin sister and I and my older sister as well, but especially my twin sister, with a twin you have a special bond. But I would love to say we do truly have a special friendship. And when she made it onto the varsity team, which was a dream, my mom always tells me this story. She caught me trying on my sister jersey in the mirror and my mom just started crying. And for me, the biggest smile on my face. I just wanted to see how I looked for that day down the road when maybe one day I'd wear a varsity jersey. And when I actually made it into the NFL and my sister wrote me a letter and said she felt like she was that girl looking into the mirror wearing my jersey.
Taylor Trudon: It feels like you've had a really, really strong support system from day one between your siblings and your parents. How important have those relationships been throughout your career and just your journey?
Katie Sowers: The relationships, especially my family. They mean everything to me. And it hits me hard when I, when I hear the Mother Teresa quote that says, "If you want to change the world, go home and love your family." Because there are days when I'm like, I'm so far from my family. And there'll be days when I question is this really meant for me? Because we all do regardless of where we're at. Not saying it's not, because I know that this is, but we all have those days. But at the end of the day it's not about being there physically, it's about being there for them whenever it's needed. And I know that my family has been my biggest support and I hope that they feel the same for me.
Taylor Trudon: In what ways have you stayed the same as your kid self and Kansas playing basketball and what ways have you changed?
Katie Sowers: The ways I've changed. I've had more gray hair now, but I truly think I've stayed the same more than I've changed. And when I was younger I remember trying to tell my parents, I am such a mommy's/daddy's girl, it's almost embarrassing, but it's not because I'm so much of that. I don't care. But I remember writing them letters about trying to explain how much I loved them at an age that I don't feel like typically many kids do. And so just this love of my family and knowing that they come first beyond anything else, I think that has always been my foundation.
Taylor Trudon: What would you tell young people, young girls who maybe don't have that support system the way that you did? How can they lean on other people to get that?
Katie Sowers: My biggest advice for people who don't necessarily have a support system that they feel like is valuable would be to branch out. Because oftentimes, we just don't understand the people around us, or we assume that people are going to think differently than they really do, or we assume that they think more negatively of us than they really do. And so my advice is really just branch out to those people that you feel tied to, that you feel drawn to and create those connections.
Taylor Trudon: You've been the first of so many different things. And I'm curious if there are moments where it feels a lot of pressure to be the first female NFL coach, to be the first openly gay female coach.
Katie Sowers: So the way that I always envision... It was never my goal to be the first. I think we all strive to do things that not a lot of people have done. I think that's pretty natural. But when I say I want to be the first female to do whatever it is, I'm then racing everybody else. And so for me that's never been important. But obviously the reality is it is. It's headlines and it's changing. And of course there, there are definitely hardships that come with it. The NFL is making huge strides to make sure that women on staff feel just as accepted and have access to just as much as anybody else. But there were not all those rules in place when I first started, a long time ago. And sometimes you didn't know where you were going to be placed, or what you were going to have a in terms of was I going to have a mirror, or a restroom? Or was I going to have to go to the public restroom? Which I did on multiple occasions.
Katie Sowers: But the cool thing about that though is I've seen the way in which growth has been made from the bottom. I've seen when everyone was just wide-eyed, didn't know what to do, but to now that there's plans in place and progress is being made. And so it's really cool to watch and think back to those times when those issues did come up. And I can't say that I was happy about them when they happened, but to see the progress, I wouldn't change that experience for the world. Just knowing that it's now not going to be an issue for somebody else, makes it so much easier.
Taylor Trudon: Do you find that when, or maybe in the beginning as you were starting out in your career, did you find that people were receptive to your ideas? Or was when you got a little bit more clout, or you had more experience than they were like, "Okay, now we'll take you a little bit more seriously."
Katie Sowers: I never truly felt like anyone didn't take me seriously. And maybe that's the narrative that I created. But looking back, when you are authentically yourself and you mean well and you, you want other people to do well and succeed and that's your goal and you allow people to see that, there's not a lot of people that are going to look past you. And when you bring something to the table that says, "You know what? I make our team better." You're taken seriously regardless.
Katie Sowers: One of the things I've learned throughout my time in a male-dominated field is oftentimes we assume that women don't know something until they prove that they do. Whereas men, we assume they know something until they prove they don't. And I went to a ballet practice and Kansas City, a professional ballet practice. There were men and women, but stereotypically you think of women, right? If we're going to stereotype, football is men, ballet is women. But the director was a man. And I thought to myself, How weird would it be for me to go up to him and say, "Wow, do the women listen to you? Are you taken seriously?"
Katie Sowers: And it was a moment where I realized just how lopsided our society is in terms of the way in which we view women leading men. And just leading people in general. When in reality, I say this all the time, but women have been leading people, leading men for years, generations after generation. Mothers, grandmother's, teachers, everything, and we've never once questioned their ability to lead. There's all these barriers that we subconsciously put on people. And it's not just men doing it to women. We all do it to each other. And until we are aware of our own bias, we will never progress forward.
Taylor Trudon: Is there a moment when perhaps you were younger, maybe like a teenager, or in college where you faced a no. And in hindsight you're able to look back and say, "That was supposed to happen because it only fueled me to push further and to want to succeed." Was there a moment like that?
Katie Sowers: So, my dad was a collegiate basketball coach and I always knew I wanted to coach. And football was my favorite sport growing up, but I thought, well, since I'm not going to play, or coach football, I'll coach basketball. I went to a Mennonite college who at that time had policies that didn't allow openly gay people to teach at their school. I was taking my victory lap, it was my fifth year, I was just taking a little extra lap and so I had some extra time. And so I knew they needed practice players. I knew they needed help with the staff. And I said, "I'm willing to help for free, because it'll help my resume. It'll build what I do in the future."
Katie Sowers: And he asked me to come into his office and speak to him. And he said, because my lifestyle did not match with what it was that they were looking for, that he did not want me around the team. And so, a lot of people could say that was failure, that was rejection, but for me it was just a detour. And I hold no hard feelings toward my coach. I love my college, Goshen College that I went to. And the president just recently issued an apology, which I thought was amazing. It was nothing I never felt that I needed to still love that college, but they did it anyway. And for me it created the path to where I was meant to be. And that's the way I've always envisioned it.
Taylor Trudon: If you weren't coaching, what would you be doing?
Katie Sowers: I'd still be coaching. So I always said I wanted to either be a coach, a teacher, or a counselor. And I think I found a job that does all three. So I feel pretty blessed about that.
Taylor Trudon: Kind of got the dream job.
Katie Sowers: Yeah, it really is. But not because of the headlines, not because of the shiny lights, just because I have a chance to go back to that little girl who dreamed of playing football. And just dreamed of being on a real football team. And I had a chance to go and actually experience coaching in the Super Bowl. So I know it's only the beginning for me.
Taylor Trudon: And I'm sure young girls probably approach you all the time, or maybe their parents and just tell you how much it means to them to see you in this position as a female coach, who'd openly gay, who is doing these incredible things that otherwise weren't visible before. Has there been a moment, or a particular interaction that has really stuck in your mind that was special, or particularly memorable?
Katie Sowers: It's not one specific moment. I used to get a lot of letters from young kids, especially young girls, but recently obviously after the Super Bowl, I'll get classrooms of letters. Especially the kids, I make a point, I try to write everybody back. But those are the people, specifically, that motivate me when the hours are draining and I miss my family and times seem hard. Those are the moments that keep me going, because those little girls, those little boys, those are just little me's waiting for something to change their life. Not necessarily waiting, just watching, because we make an impact on children every single day. And you never know what you're teaching them by the words that you're using, by the career that you're displaying to them. And hopefully for me, I'm changing lives.
Taylor Trudon: During the season. You're up at 4:30 in the morning. That's an ungodly hour to me. And then you're working till you go to sleep. When do you find time to decompress and what are you doing when you are trying to decompress and you find that time?
Katie Sowers: During season, there's not a lot of time to decompress. I'll take time or I will Skype my parents, or my family. But other than that, it's a lifestyle. And as long as you're ready for that lifestyle, we all think that we have these boundaries that we can't handle. But when you love what you do, you're not truly clocking those hours. You're not working, you're literally just improving yourself and you're improving the people around you. And so that's the way that I try to envision it. Obviously it's way easier to say than it is to do, because I definitely have those days where I'm struggling and I'm tired. But if you never felt like that, you'd never know how good it felt to get to the highest point.
Taylor Trudon: No. One of my biggest mantras that I say to myself is "You need to have the downs in order to appreciate the ups."
Katie Sowers: Absolutely.
Taylor Trudon: And it just makes it that much sweeter.
Katie Sowers: Yep.
Taylor Trudon: This has been so wonderful. Thank you so much for just being vulnerable and sharing more of your story. And I know this is going to resonate with so many young people, boys and girls who are listening. So thank you.
Katie Sowers: I appreciate it. Thank you guys.
Taylor Trudon: To learn more about Katie Sowers, visit microsoft.com/inculture, or follow us on Instagram @microsoftinculture. This episode of In Culture was hosted by me, Taylor Trudon. The podcast is produced by Jordan Rothlein, edited and mixed by Nat Wiener and features original music by Angular Wave research. In Culture is a production of Microsoft and collaboration with Listen, a sensory experience company in New York City.