NFL: Thomas shows the way for female referees

By Teresa M. Walker

Associated Press

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

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Sarah Thomas looks at the mirror in the officials' locker room, tucking hair under a straightened cap and feels happy.

"I look like a boy," the linesman says.

Actually, she looks like a referee.

With her shoulder-length blond hair tied up in a knot behind her head and covered by the black hat, close inspection is needed to notice that Thomas is a woman on the otherwise all-male crew officiating the game.

Thomas made history in 2007 as the first woman to officiate a Division I college football game and is on the NFL's list of officiating prospects. The 36-year-old married mother of two young sons from Brandon, Miss., who also is a pharmaceutical representative, knows few officials ever make it to the NFL.

"I'll cross that bridge when it presents itself," Thomas said.

She is one of five women officiating Division I college football, with two working in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and two in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. Terri Valenti is believed to be the first woman to officiate a pro game — on Oct. 17 she worked as head linesman of a United Football League game between the California Redwoods and New York Sentinels.

"I'm not doing this for recognition or wanting to break a glass ceiling or whatever," Thomas says. "I'm going at it the same way they're going at it. There's a job to be done. It just so happens I'm a female. I can't change that."

She may not be doing it for recognition, but the NFL has noticed.

"Sarah Thomas is most definitely on our list of officiating prospects," league spokesman Greg Aiello said. "We have been scouting her, and we arranged for her to work at the New Orleans Saints training camp the past two summers."

Thomas considered quitting in 2006 to focus on her family.

Her sons, Bridley and Brady, were playing sports themselves, and her husband, Brian, coached. Junior colleges weren't interested in women working as officials. She had worked high school playoffs and all-star games and felt she had gone as far as she could.

Then she got a call from Joe Haynes, who had seen her officiate a game he scouted.

Haynes then called Gerald Austin, an NFL referee for more than 25 years and head of officials for Conference USA, to talk with Thomas. Austin liked her approach and philosophy of officiating, so he got her into an officials camp held annually in Reno, Nev.

"There were 12 people at each position, and I felt like Sarah was as good as anyone else at her position when I saw her," Austin said.

He put her on staff at Conference USA in 2007, working her in two nonconference games against Football Championship Series teams.

Thomas worked more games in 2008 and was put on a crew with a full slate of 11 games this season. Austin likes her knowledge of rules, coachability and field presence.

Austin also sees her having the potential to be considered in the future for the NFL.

"I wouldn't say, yeah, she's going to be in the NFL someday. There's too many good officials out there. The NFL's going to look at her just like anybody else. Who can go out there on Sunday afternoon and do the job?" Austin said.

Qualifying to become an NFL official isn't easy. At least 10 years of total officiating experience is required, including five years at the Division I college level or with another professional league.

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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