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Katie Sowers' impact on 49ers driven by belief in herself, players

MIAMI -- Belief. It's at the center of what has made Katie Sowers a trailblazer as a woman in a man's sport. It's how she became the second female to earn a full-time coaching job in the NFL. It's how she became the first woman and openly gay coach to coach in the Super Bowl.

And while belief in herself has put her on the map as a role model for little girls and grown women across the sports world, it has also influenced her coaching style. It's belief in her athletes that has helped this year's San Francisco 49ers reach the pinnacle of the sport, as they'll face the Kansas City Chiefsin Super Bowl LIV on Sunday.

Sowers, who is in her fourth season as an NFL coach and second as a full-time offensive assistant, works regularly with the team's young nucleus of wide receivers. The 49ers boast one of the youngest receiving corps in the NFL, with four of the six wideouts on the Super Bowl roster -- Kendrick Bourne, Dante Pettis, Richie James and Deebo Samuel -- checking in at the ripe old age of 24. Despite their youth, they have impressed and caught the attention of the rest of the league in 2019.

How did they find that success? It's simple.

"I believed in them," Sowers said Monday in an interview with NFL Network's Steve Wyche at Super Bowl Opening Night. "Bill Walsh always said the most important thing you can tell someone is 'I believe in you.' That's what I continue to reiterate to my players, because it's amazing, the growth that happens when you just tell them, 'I believe in you.' "

Sowers entered the NFL coaching circuit after playing in the Women's Football Alliance for nearly a decade. She joined the Atlanta Falcons as a part-time assistant in 2016, then followed former Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to San Francisco in 2017, with Sowers joining Shanahan's staff as a seasonal coach via the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship program, which aims to help get more minorities into NFL coaching positions. She became a full-time assistant for the Niners in 2018.

But in her first season in the Bay Area, she didn't need a full-time job for her impact to be felt. For one 2017 undrafted rookie, Sowers was the difference between making the team and his exit from the NFL.

"I remember my rookie year, she calmed me down after I had like two drops in my first preseason game," recalled Bourne in an interview Monday night. "She tried to calm me down and told me to just live in the moment and not get too overexcited about anything, and to just stay the same. ... I told her she ended up calming me down, and I had a good game, a real good game. I ended up making the team that year."

Two seasons later, Bourne is playing a key role in Shanahan's offense; he led all 49ers receivers with five touchdown catches in the regular season and added another in their Divisional Round win over the Minnesota Vikings.

Pettis felt a similar impact from Sowers during his up-and-down second year in the league. A second-round draft pick in 2018, Pettis hit the ground running and tallied 27 receptions for 467 yards and five TDs in a season where the Niners won four games. This season, however, Pettis missed opportunities -- he had 11 catches for 109 yards and two TDs in the regular season. And Sowers proceed to make her mark on his personal journey.

"There's a lot of times where, like, if we have questions about a play, we can ask her, and she always helps," he said. "And there's times where she'll check in on me if I have a tough game or whatever. She's always saying, 'You good?' and 'Just know you're important to this team,' and stuff like that. It's pretty cool to have someone like that around every day.

"And for me personally, I have a unique relationship with her. I love women's sports, and she's played them her whole life, so we started talking about that and different stuff, and it grew from there. She's a coach and a friend to me. I really appreciate that."

Providing her athletes -- along with herself -- with belief isn't all Sowers brings to the 49ers, not even in the slightest. Veteran Emmanuel Sanders has worked with many coaches throughout his 10-year NFL career, having made the Pro Bowl twice and won a Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos, and he said Sowers brings a business-like but relaxed energy to practice and game day.

"She's one of the coolest coaches that I've been around. I like being around her, truthfully," he said. "She's kinda laid-back, chill, and you need that sometimes. We're in a business where there is a lot of chaos and a lot of stress. You kind of need someone with a calm voice to tell you, 'Hey, everything's gonna be all right.' "

Said second-year wideout Richie James: "She has more knowledge than what people expect from a game standpoint, for sure. She works hard at her craft, just as much as [the players] do. She loves it, she loves the game as much as we do. You gotta respect it. .. and she's really funny, to be honest with you, and she can relate to us more than you'd think."

For some, it takes years to make their mark in this sport. For Sowers, it's taken just four seasons. Like everyone who crosses paths with the encouraging, knowledgeable coach, Bourne knows she is just getting started.

"Her role's not as big as it's gonna be."

Follow Brooke Cersosimo on Twitter @BCersosimo.

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