Written by Rich Levine
For all the stars and stories headlining Super Bowl LIV in Miami, Katie Sowers deserves a spot on the marquee. Win or lose, the 33-year-old 49ers offensive assistant is poised to become the first female coach in Super Bowl history. It’s another landmark achievement for Sowers (who became the league’s first openly LGBT coach when she was hired in 2017), but in celebrating this latest positive step for female coaches in the NFL, it’s worth a second to remember the very first.
As the story goes, it was the summer of 2015, and 37-year-old Jen Welter was in her first season coaching an indoor men's football team in Texas. Already the first female football coach in a professional men’s league, Welter happened upon an interview with Bruce Arians, then coach of the Arizona Cardinals. That spring, the NFL announced the hiring of Sarah Thomas, the league’s first female referee, and Arians was asked about the prospect of a female NFL coach.
“The second a woman proves she can make these guys better,” he said, “she’ll be hired.”
With that, Welter sprung to action, calling the Cardinals on her own behalf, earning a meeting, and eventually a ground-breaking job as assistant coaching intern for training camp and the preseason. “The football was magical,” Welter told me about her summer in the NFL. “The coaches were great. The players were excited to be a part of history. The hardest part was just the narrative, looking at the big picture, and setting the standard that would allow other teams to feel confident that it was a good thing to bring a woman in.”
Welter’s impact was felt the following season, when the Buffalo Bills named Jaclyn Smith the NFL’s first full-time female coach. Two years later, Kelsey Martinez earned a full-time gig with the Oakland Raiders. That said, neither Smith nor Martinez are still in the league. Sowers is still one of only three active full-time female NFL coaches. Much work remains in building that pipeline for women football coaches, and Jen Welter remains dedicated and focused.
In recent years, she’s conducted more than 30 girls football camps across the country. This past summer, she became the first woman to appear as a coach in the Madden football video game franchise. “Creating opportunities begins with permission to participate in all facets of the game, to know you belong and have early entrance,” Welter says. “If you can see yourself in the game and develop the skills and acumen early, you can get yourself on the same path as the guys.”
And eventually, as Katie Sowers will prove again on Super Bowl Sunday, on the same stage. The biggest in all of football.
“It’s larger than life to know your friend is going to the Super Bowl to represent women so well,” says Welter, who knows Sowers from their playing days in the Women’s Football Alliance. “Someone has to open the door, but Katie has done all the right things since that door was open. She deserves all her success.”