Trailblazing 49ers assistant coach Katie Sowers grew up in Chiefs country
HESSTON, Kansas — The old downtown strip, like so many in small towns across America, is quiet on a brisk January morning, just a few cars parked at one end in front of The Citizens State Bank and a few more in front of the pharmacy at the other.
Around the corner is an old Texaco station, the pumps long removed and the windows covered up. Nearby, the sign for Weaver’s Grocers — “Your local hometown grocers!” — is all that remains from the once-bustling store. Most businesses have moved east toward the main highway, which takes traffic between the cities of Salina and Wichita.
The predominantly Mennonite town of about 3,700 in south-central Kansas is hardly the kind of place one would expect to produce a trailblazing NFL coach, one who has helped the San Francisco 49ers return to the Super Bowl.
Then again, Katie Sowers had been defying expectations all her life.
When the Niners face the Kansas City Chiefs next weekend, she will become the first female assistant and first openly gay coach to take the sideline in the sport’s biggest game. Her story has spread like a prairie fire thanks in large part to a Microsoft commercial featuring Sowers that ran repeatedly during last weekend’s conference championship games, and she will no doubt be a popular interview subject when reporters descend on Miami early next week.
It’s all a little hard to believe for her family and friends, those who grew up playing tackle football with her in the backyard, or coached her in high school basketball, or took classes with her at tiny Hesston College.
“People ask me what we did for fun,” recalled her twin sister, Liz, “and I don’t honestly have an answer. We drove to Wichita? But we always had each other. We were never really looking for things to do. We always had a best friend. But being in a small conservative town was different, especially being gay. But we were lucky to be in the most open-minded family in town. I love everybody knowing everybody, even with all the small-town gossip.”
The sisters’ dad, Floyd, was a basketball coach at nearby Bethel College, but the kids always preferred the rough-and-tumble of football, gender norms be damned. Even though they were in the heart of Chiefs country, Katie grew up a Dallas Cowboys fan and Liz a Denver Broncos fan, because those were the uniforms and plastic helmets they got as Christmas gifts one year. One of the neighbor boys who played with them had gotten the Chiefs outfit.
The Sowers kids eventually shelved their football ambitions, though, never thinking at the time that they could continue playing with the boys in high school. Instead, they turned their attention to just about every other sport, whether it was basketball or track and field, helping the Swathers — the nickname coming from a piece of farming machinery common on the Great Plains — win enough championships to fill a trophy case.
“Katie was a competitor, hard worker, and didn’t like to lose,” said their basketball coach, Brennan Torgerson. “She didn’t break into the starting lineup as soon as Liz did. Katie’s role off the bench was our super sub. When she came in, the pace changed, along with the energy level of the team. Her energy and toughness were contagious.”