There’s an old adage in sports that records are made to be broken. For Katie Sowers, the sentiment is personal. Sowers has a lot of firsts under her belt already. For example, the 34-year-old Kansas native was the first female coach in the hyper-masculine National Football League, and the first out coach in the league as well. But as far as Sowers is concerned, all those firsts are in vain if others are unable to follow in her footsteps.
“The most important aspect of being the first is this idea that others will follow, and you will not be the last,” she says. “To be the first means nothing if we do not do our part to make sure the path continues to develop for others to achieve. The path of opportunity cannot start and stop with [being] first.”
Sowers was recently honored as part of the Jane Walker First Women campaign by Johnnie Walker, which celebrates women’s historic achievements and uses their stories to help ensure a more equitable future for all women. Sowers is in rarefied company, joining Billie Jean King, Katie Couric, Lucy Liu, and Halle Berry among others recognized by Johnnie Walker. She describes her fellow honorees as “extraordinary” and says she would “pick them for my team every single time.”
The path to football started early for Sowers. She came from a sporting family with a basketball coach for a father. Though she likes basketball, she loves football and as a child tried to play as much as she could. So while the idea of women playing or coaching American football may seem like an alien concept to some, for Sowers it’s simply a part of her life.
“I used to play football in the backyard every day after school,” she remembers, adding she was a big fan of the Dallas Cowboys and her “favorite thing to wear to school was my [Deion] Sanders jersey.”
She switched to basketball before college, thinking it would be her best hope for a professional career, but inevitably returned to the game she loved. She played professionally in the Women’s Football Alliance, going both ways on the field, piloting the offense as quarterback as well as anchoring the defensive secondary on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
“I played football for the West Michigan Mayhem and loved it just as much as I did when I was a little girl.”
Sowers also helped lead the U.S. National Team to a gold medal at the 2013 Women’s World Championships. Her standout performance at the strong safety position with five interceptions (including three “pick-sixes” where she also scored a touchdown on the interception return) in the semifinal win against Sweden has become part of the WWC lore. A comparison to the NFL record books allows for a greater appreciation of her accomplishments in that game. No NFL player has intercepted that many passes in a single game (much less a playoff game), and her closest competitors in the pick-six category clock in with only two apiece. She alone outscored her opponents 18-0 (the final score was a lopsided 84-0).
She joined the 49ers in 2017, after taking part in the team’s Bill Walsh Minority Fellowship, where she worked with the team’s wide receivers. Prior to the start of the season, she came out publicly, making her officially the first out coach in the NFL.
While some might expect an out lesbian in the NFL would face a hotbed of homophobic hurdles and roadblocks, Sowers has instead found coming out earned her a degree of “respect and authenticity,” saying it helped solidify her identity as a coach, which was key to becoming an effective leader.
“In this league it is critical to gain the trust of your players, and without authenticity, you lose all credibility.”
Part of maintaining one’s authenticity and credibility is by being true to one’s self, but that’s often exponentially difficult for young, closeted queer athletes. Sowers is reaching out now because she wants those young people who believe “coming out will never be an option for them” to know that there is hope.
“I am here to tell them that when they feel ready, the world will show them more love than they ever expected. There will be extremely difficult times, there will be people who disagree, but believe me when I say there will be far more people who go out of their way to show you that being you, just the way you are, is perfect.”
She’s hoping her efforts will level the playing field and open the door for other girls playing football in the backyard with their friends and siblings, dreaming of one day playing or coaching the game as a career.
“To me, equality is a way of living where all people have the opportunity to pursue their passion and live their life to the fullest extent possible, with no limit to potential based on gender, race, ethnicity, etc., while also pursing that dream on an even playing field.”
A version of this story first appeared in Out's 2021 Hollywood Issue. Jake Borelli is featured on the cover alongside Ryan O'Connell and Alexandra Grey. It is the first print issue under the editorial direction of editor-in-chief David Artavia. The issue is out on newsstands on March 3, 2021. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe — or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News +.