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Sarah Thomas will make NFL history this weekend as insiders reflect on her humble rise to football's greatest stage

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“You don’t have to be a guy to tell if somebody is offsides”

September 10, 2015

As Sarah Thomas prepares to make history by becoming the first woman to officiate a regular season NFL game this Sunday, one of her mentors is recalling the first time he heard about her.

Gerry Austin, the coordinator of football officials for Conference USA, spent 26 years as an NFL official. In an interview with Women in the World, he describes the day in 2006 when a former NFL colleague, Joe Haynes, called him from Mississippi with a tip about a high school official he’d recently scouted. “I’ve got this official down here who’s got 10 years of experience, worked the state championship game and officiated the All-Star game,” Austin said Haynes told him. “I said, ‘What’s his name?’ Joe said, ‘His name is Sarah,’” Austin, 74, recalled. “And then he sort of chuckled.”

From the moment you hear her talk, you know Thomas takes her work seriously, and you also know that she’s prepared for your questions about what it’s like having recently become the first full-time female National Football League official. “I’m not any different than any other official,” Thomas told ESPN Radio in April, shortly after she’d been offered the NFL job.  “Yes, this may be a first as far as ‘female,’” she told her interviewer, a practised patience evident in her voice. “But I’m out there to get a job done.”

Thomas, one of eight new officials making their league debut this year, will work her first NFL regular-season game this weekend. Part of a seven-person game officiating crew, she works as a line judge, observing and calling penalties at the line of scrimmage, where the largest players on the field line up on either side of the football to start each play.

Since the NFL announced her hiring in April, Thomas, who turns 42 this month, has been a reluctant star who often gives the impression she doesn’t see the reason for all the fuss about her being the first full-time referee to break the NFL’s gender barrier. Instead, she often will confine her comments in interviews to platitudes about being just another official who is “not any different” than her male peers.

It could begin to sound slightly disingenuous, until you consider Thomas’s experience growing up in Pascagoula, Mississippi, on the state’s gritty Gulf Coast. A hardworking high-school athlete, she showed enough promise to win a basketball scholarship to the University of Mobile, where she was an academic All-American.

Years later, she unblinkingly talked her way into an all-male association of football officials, without pausing to ask if there was a problem. “I set out to do this and get involved in officiating, not having any idea that there were not any females officiating football,” she told the NFL Network, in an interview in which two peppy reporters tried their best to get Thomas — now a married mother of two boys — to say great things about herself. “Being a former basketball player, you saw females officiating all the time,” she went on. “So no, I don’t feel like a pioneer.”

Sarah Thomas with her then five-year old son, Brady, in 2009. (Theresa Cassagne/The New York Times)
Sarah Thomas with her son Brady in 2009. (Theresa Cassagne/The New York Times)

For all the pressure of officiating NFL games, where television replays allow national audiences to dissect the officials’ every call, or non-call, made on the field, NFL officials are still just part-time employees. Thomas, who on game days keeps her shoulder-length straw-blonde chevelure tucked into a bun under her cap, spends her off season as a sales representative for Novo Nordisk, the Danish pharmaceutical.

As do her male colleagues, Thomas maintains a competitive visage on the field. Lanky limbs churning, she gallops up and down the sidelines in a jersey of vertical black and white stripes and white pants that are, she says, unflattering to female hips. But her love of the game is clear.

Football came into her life in 1996. During a casual phone call with her brother, Lea, a high-school football official, Thomas asked if “girls” could attend an upcoming meeting of the Gulf Coast Football Officials Association. “He said, ‘I guess so, sis. Be there at 6 o’clock and don’t be late,’” Thomas recalled in an interview with ESPN earlier this year.

George Nash, an instructor at the association at the time, recalled meeting Thomas this way: “This very attractive lady came through the door,” Nash told ESPN. “I thought it was somebody’s girlfriend or wife. I said, ‘Ma’am, can I help you?’ and she said, ‘Yes, is there where you learn how to be an official?’ And I said, ‘Oh, hell.’”

But Nash, as old-school a Southern Football man as there is, soon came to appreciate Thomas’s consistency. “Every time she made a mistake,” he said, “it was a one-time thing.”

Thomas became the first female to officiate a high-school football game in Mississippi in 1996. In 2007, she became the first woman to officiate a major college football game, working a contest between Memphis and Jacksonville State. She spent the next seven years working as a line judge for Conference USA games before ascending to the United Football League, a second-tier professional league that folded in 2012.

An essential element of Thomas’s success in football, and her ascension to the NFL, she has said, are her mentors. In addition to Gerry Austin, Thomas’s work on game days caught the eye of another influential former NFL official, Jack Vaughn, according to Rick Cleveland, a former sports writer from Mississippi. “I was in the press box at a Conference USA game in Hattiesburg, and Jack was the replay official,” Cleveland told Women in the World. “He told me to watch Sarah, that he thought she had a really good chance to become the first female NFL official.”

Cleveland, who is now the executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, said Thomas “just does her job and has done it well. She understands it’s about the players, not the officials.” He added, “You don’t have to be a guy to be able to tell if somebody is offsides.”

Tom Coughlin and Gerry Austin
Coach Tom Coughlin argues with referee Gerry Austin in 1999. (Andy Lyons /Allsport)

To no one’s surprise, not everyone playing or coaching NFL football welcomed Thomas’s arrival. Some current players publicly wondered about the timing of her hiring, coming as it did during a messy offseason dominated by “Deflategate” and the debate over concussions and player safety.

By all accounts, Thomas long ago learned to counteract attempts to intimidate her, from players, coaches and fans. Cameras have captured her ability to defuse tense moments with a few well-chosen words, uttered in her colloquial Mississippi lilt. There is a clip, for instance, of Thomas dealing with an UFL player who had gotten in her face about a call he didn’t like by ordering him to get his butt back on the sidelines.

Often, she calls out players by the numbers on their jerseys: polite, impersonal, professional. “They voice their opinion, Thomas has said, of players and coaches. “You don’t ignore it. You address it and you move on to the next play.”

Not ignoring it is, in fact, essential to being a pro official. Austin says the best professional officials, regardless of which sport they’re working, have an emotional intelligence that allows them to communicate authority subtlely and persuasively. “Does the individual have a presence, whether it’s on the field, on the court or in the rink?” Austin asked. “Do they exude confidence but not arrogance?”

The abundance of those qualities in Thomas, say Austin and others who have watched her perform on the field, are what have helped propel her to the NFL this year, after spending two years under league development. “I do honor the fact a lot of people consider me a trailblazer,” Thomas said in an interview with the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Mississippi, in April ­– one of the few instances in which she has publicly admitted having feelings about her role in the NFL.

She also admitted, upon being asked, that her game face usually has some makeup on it. “A little bit of mascara, foundation and powder is about all I wear,” she told ESPN. “And, of course, lip gloss.”


Breaking two barriers at once, NFL’s first woman referee and assistant coach meet on field