NFL: Thomas shows the way for female referees

By Teresa M. Walker

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Nov. 27 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

This is Thomas' first full season with the same officiating crew, and The Associated Press got to watch her work on a game day. Coincidentally, she was back in Memphis for a game against East Carolina, the same town where she debuted Sept. 14, 2007.

For the Tuesday night kickoff in Memphis, the officiating crew had to be in town by midnight the night before. They met for breakfast, then gathered in a meeting room for their pre-game strategy and film session. They reviewed video of calls the week before, refreshed responsibilities for different players and portions of the field and their schedule at the stadium.

After an hour, they broke. A few went with referee Steve Barth to see the pandas at the Memphis Zoo. Thomas, sniffling with a sinus problem, returned to her room for three hours of rest.

With a small locker room, Barth's crew dressed at their Memphis hotel and met in the lobby on game day. They joined local officials working the chains and other duties for the police escort to the stadium. Thomas said she never hears comments when she walks through the lobby wearing her striped shirt.

"The guys say they like to walk behind me just to get the stares," Thomas says.

Despite the grind, Barth, whose father officiated in the NFL for 20 years, says his four sisters and wife are all "envious as all get out" of what Thomas is doing. He also sees Thomas being among the 1 percent of people — male or female — up to the pressure and competition of officiating.

"This is a really, really neat opportunity for her and to be a part of it and helping out, it's fun, too. We're having a good time," he says.

Not surprisingly, it's fun for Thomas, who has always loved sports. Growing up 90 minutes from New Orleans in south Mississippi, her family watched the New Orleans Saints, and she became the first girl to letter five times in a sport at Pascagoula High and played basketball at the University of Mobile.

She was 23 when she decided to join her brother at a football officials meeting in 1996.

"That's when I realized I was a rarity. It was like, 'What's this lady doing here?'" she recalls.

Her brother had warned her to expect men set in their ways and plenty of stares.

"They thought I was someone's wife checking up on them, honestly, at first," Thomas says.

Once they saw she was serious, the stares disappeared. But Thomas found what she knew of football didn't compare to what an official had to understand.

"I didn't know you had to have 11 on offense and 11 on defense. Me counting players or making sure I had seven on the line of scrimmage? Those were things I never paid attention to," she says.

The studying began along with starting out at the bottom: Pee wee, then junior high, jayvee games and working the clock for varsity Friday night games. By her fourth year, she worked with a crew.

Thomas is enjoying her Conference USA experience, but no one has to tell her it's not the NFL.

There is no privacy at the tiny locker room for the Memphis game. The officials have to pass by a pair of open urinals. Thomas, recalling her first visit with school officials, remembered them trying to make her comfortable by setting aside a room and bathroom for a separate locker room.

"I let them escort me out there, but as soon as they left, I was banging on the door. 'Let me in!'" she said.

Once pregame warmups start, Thomas is noticed quickly. Memphis has some recruits visiting, and Steve Dunn is with his stepson from Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., and uses his cell phone to take a couple photos of Thomas from a few yards behind her. His wife pointed out Thomas to him.

"It's the first lady I'd seen doing it," Dunn said.

During the game, Thomas stayed busy in front of the Memphis sideline. At halftime, she was quizzing her crewmates on her mechanics just before the game's first touchdown and pointed out to one that she was in control when trying to break up opposing players.

Midway through the third quarter, she threw a flag for holding — on the visitors — and one fan yelled out, "Good call."

East Carolina won 38-19, then it was back to the locker room to grab gear before an escort back to the hotel. Then the crew got cleaned up and had by a grading session.

"My goal is to just be the best I can be every time I'm given the opportunity to work. I know it sounds so cliche, but it's just the mindset of officials," Thomas says.

The mindset of possibly the first female NFL official.

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