MIAMI – One of the first congratulatory text messages 49ers assistant coach Katie Sowers got upon reaching Super Bowl LIV was from a female friend who also has been breaking down NFL barriers from her unique position in Minnesota.
“I met Katie at the scouting combine when she was interning in the scouting department with the Falcons [in 2016],” said Kelly Kleine, Vikings manager of player personnel/college scout. “At that time, there weren’t many girls going to the combine. As soon as a new female comes into the combine, we all just connect right away. That’s kind of how we do it.”
Kleine is believed to be the NFL’s only female manager of player personnel who also travels as an area scout. On Sunday, Sowers, an offensive assistant under coach Kyle Shanahan, will become the first female coach and openly gay person to participate in a Super Bowl.
“She’s a national name now,” Kleine said. “When I saw her on TV with that [Microsoft Surface] commercial, I also texted her right away and I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s awesome.’ Having her name out there is reaching millions and millions of people, which shows younger girls that they can do the same thing she’s doing.”
Sowers said her initial dream was to play in the NFL. Now 33 and retired from women’s professional football after a hip injury ended an eight-year career at quarterback and defensive back, Sowers’ new goal is to become an NFL head coach.
“Hey, look at me now, look at us now,” Sowers said. “If an opportunity to be a head coach comes up, and it’s the right fit and I can be a game-changer, that’s the step I’ll take.”
Originally from Kansas City, Sowers got an unexpected foot in the NFL door when she just so happened to coach the daughter of then-Chiefs General Manager Scott Pioli in basketball.
When Pioli moved on to Atlanta as assistant GM, he reached out to Sowers with the scouting internship. When Shanahan moved on from Falcons offensive coordinator to 49ers head coach in 2017, Sowers followed as part of the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship program. She joined the staff full-time as a quality control assistant this season.
“You don’t even notice her because she just goes to work and does what’s asked,” Shanahan said. “Because of that, she’s someone we’d like to keep around.”
Kleine started out as a Vikings public relations intern while finishing up school at the University of Minnesota. A year later, as that internship was winding down, a male scouting intern quit after a month.
General Manager Rick Spielman and his staff needed intern-level help preparing for the draft. Everyone liked Kleine, so the Wisconsin-born Gopher became a personnel gofer. She passed the test and earned a one-year scouting internship.
From there, she was a scouting assistant for two years and a scouting coordinator for three years before landing her current position, which includes scouting all the schools in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.
A strong work ethic and a welcoming organization has helped. So did spending a year traveling with Scott Studwell, who spent four decades as the toughest-looking linebacker and personnel man the football gods could have created.
“When you walk into a room with Scott Studwell,” said Kleine, “that’s instant credibility.”
Kleine said she’s only had one bad experience scouting on the road.
“There was one time when I had an interaction with a player who shook every male’s hand at a pro day and then he didn’t shake mine and he walked away,” Kleine said. “I was like, ‘OK.’ But that’s about it.”
The ranks of women in scouting continues to grow. Kleine said there were five or six new females at the Senior Bowl this year.
Females also are climbing the scouting ranks in Philadelphia, Atlanta and San Francisco, where Salli Clavelle is a pro personnel analyst.
“Seeing Katie coaching on the Super Bowl stage gives me chills,” Kleine said. “It says anybody can do this if you put your heart into it and work your butt off.
“Some people might say, ‘Oh, we never had a female come through here.’ I’m like, ‘Hey, well, it’s 2020. Let’s change things.”
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org