Q: A few months ago, I thought I had heard that the National Football League hired a woman official for the first time. In fact, I thought she was going to be a head linesman. But I’ve heard nothing about her since. Did they change their minds?
J. Mena, of East St. Louis
A: You know what they say about umpires and referees in sports: Those who do the best job attract the least attention (from fans, anyway).
Perhaps that best explains how Sarah Thomas, a 42-year-old mother of three, has been able to fly under your radar ever since the NFL hired her as its first full-time female official last April.
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If you watched closely during last Monday night’s game between Pittsburgh and San Diego, you may have spotted her in her familiar role as line judge (not head linesman), carefully scrutinizing the line of scrimmage for pre-snap penalties or watching for players stepping out of bounds. As a member of referee Pete Morelli’s officiating crew this season, she sports a 53 on her zebra-striped shirt. But with a blond ponytail tucked neatly underneath her cap, she might just look like one of the guys from a distance — which, despite balking at a suggestion to eschew makeup, is exactly how she wants it .
“You want to be known as an official — not as a female official — because that’s going to put you in a separate category,” Thomas told ESPN last spring. “We don’t want to do anything that will enhance that. So when a coach looks at you, he just sees an official.”
It’s the philosophy Thomas says she has followed ever since accompanying her older brother to a football officials meeting nearly 20 years ago. At that time, her intention was not to be a trailblazer, but merely continue to experience the joy that sports had provided her in college. Growing up in Pascagoula, Miss., Sarah Bailey had won a basketball scholarship to the University of Mobile in Prichard, Ala. In three seasons, she scored 779 points, grabbed 411 rebounds and notched 192 steals, which still ranks fifth in the school’s record books. She was an academic all-American as well.
After graduating in 1995 with a degree in communications, Thomas figured football officiating would be as good a way as any to keep hanging around locker rooms. She began working grade-school games before moving up to the high-school level in 1999. She quickly started turning the heads of fellow officials. In 2006, Gerry Austin, a former NFL official and Conference USA’s coordinator of officials, was told by an NFL scout about a Mississippi official who was ready to make the jump to college football.
“What’s his name?” Austin remembers automatically asking.
“His name is Sarah,” the scout told him.
Although surprised, Austin immediately called Thomas for a lengthy interview and liked what he heard.
“She understood that the rules of the game of football should be applied within the spirit of the game and not within the technical writing of the rules,” Austin told ESPN last spring. “I’ve always (stressed) understanding the spirit of rules and don’t be technical. If there’s a call to be made, have the courage to make the call, and she fit within that framework.”
Soon, Thomas started to rack up a series of firsts. In 2007, she became the first woman to officiate a major college football game (Memphis vs. Jacksonville State). After the 2009 regular season, she was the first woman to officiate a bowl game — the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl between Marshall and Ohio. On Nov. 12, 2011, she became the first woman to officiate in a Big Ten stadium, working as a line judge when Northwestern hosted Rice. And, in 2010, she was selected to work the championship game in the short-lived professional United Football League.
“She has great communication skills,” Austin said of her. “She has the ability to calm the coach down and to explain whatever the coach is questioning. More times than not, a coach just wants to vent. We try to give him his 15 to 20 seconds to vent and then ask, ‘What’s your question?’ That’s a good skill, and Sarah has that skill.”
By 2013, those skills had earned her a spot as one of 21 finalists in contention for a permanent NFL officiating position. She was asked to spend three days at the Indianapolis Colts minicamp as part of the NFL officiating development program. She officiated preseason games, including Chip Kelly’s first exhibition as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. Finally, at 10:47 a.m. last April 2 came the phone call Thomas had not even dreamed of 20 years before, but was now praying for.
“When I looked at my phone and it was area code 212, I was just praying that it was Dean Blandino on the other end of the line,” Thomas said, referring to the NFL’s vice president of officiating. “And it was, and he just said it was an honor for me to have received it. So I tell my girlfriends and family that I was speechless. It’s hard for them to believe that now, but it was just an honor and a humbling experience, and I’m glad I got the call.”
It means a continuation of hectic times in the Thomas household in Brandon, Miss. In addition to helping her husband, Brian, raise their 11- and 14-year-old sons and 2-year-old daughter, she also works full time as a drug company sales rep. But it seems it’s something they’ve all grown used to.
“My life these last few years has been a lot of travel, but my family is accustomed to it,” she said. “I try to balance it all, and I think that’s just it. You learn to prioritize and delegate and say no when you can’t and then just focus on the things you can control and stay positive.”
And if you don’t see her on TV, you can search for recent pictures of her in action at www.zimbio.com.
Sarah Thomas was not the first woman to officiate a regular-season NFL game. Do you remember who was — and why?
Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: It took more than a quarter-century, but Betty Rubble finally earned some respect in the world of vitamins. In 1968, Miles Laboratories replaced its Chocks vitamins with Flintstones to try to entice more children to ask their parents for the product modeled on the popular TV Stone-Age family. But for the next 27 years while kids eagerly chewed up Fred, Wilma, Barney, Pebbles, Dino — even the Great Gazoo, for Pete’s sake — there was no Betty. Finally after playing Mrs. Rubble in the 1994 Flintstones movie, actress Rosie O’Donnell urged fans to tell Bayer (which had purchased Miles in 1978) to correct this atrocious oversight. In December 1995, Betty replaced the Flintmobile car in the vitamin bottle.