“Oh, wow, you play football?” the young woman asked Katie Sowers, who was waiting to have her photo taken for this story in the locker room also being used by the girl’s high school basketball team that was warming up for upcoming tipoff. “I would love to play football!”
“You can!” Sowers encouraged. “How old are you?”
“Three more years,” was Sowers’ reply. “Come try out for the Titans in three years. Maybe I’ll be throwing passes to you!”
More often than not, Sowers said, people look at her skeptically when she tells them she plays professional football. A lot of the time they think she means football as most of the world knows it – soccer – but she does, in fact, mean American tackle football – full pads, helmet, the whole nine yards – or ten, rather.
Sowers, a 2006 Hesston College graduate, is the quarterback for the Kansas City Titans, one of 45 teams in the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA). In 2013 she played defensive back for the United States IFAF Women’s World Championship (WWC) team that brought home gold from Finland. She was also selected for the WWC all-tournament team and was named game MVP in the semi-final win over Germany after snagging five interceptions and returning three for touchdowns.
It’s no secret that the National Football League (NFL) is male dominated, but women are beginning to make their way into the “boys club.” Sowers is now among the few who have achieved just that.
From July 24 through the second preseason game on Aug. 20, Sowers will work with the Atlanta Falcon’s wide receivers through the Bill Walsh Minority Coaching Fellowship, an internship program with notable alumni including Marvin Lewis and Mike Tomlin. In 2015, this same program made Dr. Jen Welter famous for being the first female participant. Sowers is excited for the opportunity and for working with Julio Jones, who many consider the best receiver in the game.
Sowers is also hopeful that the opportunity will boost her career goals.
“My long term goal is to be a head coach and then move on to executive management,” Sowers said. “It’s not a typical path, but then again, nothing about what I’m doing is typical.”
Back in Kansas City, when she’s not suited up, Sowers spends time on the sideline as a coach, including positions with Kansas City-area junior high and youth teams, as offensive coordinator and general manager for her own Titans team. In January, she was a member of Charlie Weis’ coaching staff at the East-West Shrine Game, the nation’s top college senior bowl for NFL hopefuls.
One demographic that doesn’t bat an eye when they find out what she does, however, is young girls. Many of them get excited that they, like Sowers, could help break down gender stereotypes surrounding the sport and be involved with football someday, too.
Her dedication and commitment to the sport isn’t to prove a point though; it’s just because she loves football.
“Football has been my favorite sport since I was a kid,” Sowers said. “After Grandma’s Sunday dinner, my sister and I would call all the boys we knew to come play football with us.”
Growing up in Hesston, however, she and her twin sister Liz Sowers, also a Hesston High and Hesston College graduate, like most girls, thought football was a boys’ sport so they stuck to playing basketball in high school and at Hesston College. A gifted natural athlete, Sowers continued playing basketball at Goshen (Ind.) College, as well as participating in track for two years and soccer for one. During the last couple of years of college, the sisters discovered professional women’s football and began playing for the West Michigan Mayhem in Kalamazoo – Liz as wide receiver to Katie’s quarterback, a pairing they continue for the Titans.
For now, all of her football commitments are held in balance to her job as athletic director for the Kansas City Missouri Parks and Recreation Department. WFA players are volunteers, so most of them also work other jobs.
Sowers notes that too many injuries are taking their toll, so her playing career likely won’t last long enough to throw passes to the young lady she met in the locker room. So begins an ascent in the coaching world.
Her East Team coaching appointment in St. Petersburg, Fla., in January came about through a connection with Scott Pioli, former general manager for the Kansas City Chiefs and current assistant general manager for the Atlanta Falcons. The two became acquainted when Sowers coached Pioli’s daughter’s fifth-grade basketball team. Pioli is on the Bill Walsh NFL Minority Coaching Fellowship Advisory Council, which gives talented minority coaches opportunities to gain experience and, ultimately, a full-time NFL coaching position.
“Scott asked Charlie Weis if he would be open to having a female assistant coach for the East-West game and he [Weis] was very receptive to it,” said Sowers. “Coaching with so many seasoned coaches and former players was great. I gained valuable insight from my colleagues, and I hope the players and coaches learned something from me, too. I think they did.”
Games like the East-West Shrine Game often foster a negative atmosphere, Sowers noted. Players with professional aspirations compete against one another to stand out for NFL scouts, making tensions run high. Sowers was not interested in the negativity.
“While I was down there, I was on the phone with my mom and I told her I was going to give these people the Hesston College Experience!” said Sowers with a laugh. “Hesston College is one place where you encounter smiles and friendliness everywhere. The college’s kind, supportive atmosphere has really stuck with me, and it’s something I can bring to wherever I am.”
One unexpected and affirming moment came during the game, too. The young Shriner’s Hospital patient who performed the national anthem was asked if she would like to meet any of the coaches or players. She only wanted Sowers’ autograph.
Sowers considers it an honor and great responsibility to be that kind of role model for girls, but she hopes women in professional football also stop becoming newsworthy.
“I hope that someday when a woman is hired to a professional football role that it’s not a headline,” said Sowers. “I want to be a full-time coach or executive in the game, but I want it to be because of my knowledge and qualifications.”