A Day in the Life of the first female NFL referee

From Issue 5 (Note: This story has been chosen as one of School Newspapers Online’s “Best of SNO” stories and can also be viewed at https://bestofsno.com/38739)

Watching an NFL game is an exciting experience when you’re in the sea of fans cheering on your favorite team. There’s not a dull moment with every kickoff, fumble, and touchdown sending the crowd into an uproar. Heads turn when the whistle is blown, as the referees set the tone of the game. Referees carry the responsibility of keeping players in line on the field and ensuring a fair game is played. One of those officiants is Sarah Thomas, who made history by being the first female to referee a major college football game and becoming the NFL’s first full-time female referee.

Photo courtesy of Sarah Thomas
Sarah Thomas officiates the Los Angeles Chargers at the New England Patriots game.

Mississippian Sarah Thomas grew up in Pascagoula with two brothers and enjoyed her school years playing sports. Sarah eventually pursued her love of sports in college, where she received a basketball scholarship to play for the University of Mobile. She still lives in Mississippi, is married, and has three kids, around whom she says her world revolves.

In addition to balancing being a mom and a full-time NFL official, Thomas has a part-time job as the Area Sales Director for Kare-In-Home Hospice. She become a referee to be able to give back to organized sports.  “Being a referee was a hobby until a real job. I became involved by officiating at minor games like high school games and worked my way up. ” With almost 19 years of experience as referee, Thomas caught an NFL scout’s attention. “Scouts see potential not just on the field but off as well.”

Every job has its perks and, for Sarah Thomas, it’s about the experience. “I enjoy being around the NFL crew, that my kids get to experience this with me, the competitive spirit, and a perfect game.” Thomas travels a ton, as she officiates four pre-season games and sixteen during the regular season.

On gameday, Thomas starts out with having morning devotion and breakfast with the crew before heading off to the stadium. Referees arrive three hours before kickoff, as they scramble to complete various pregame tasks, such as to conduct with coaches and check the air pressure of footballs. During the game, Sarah’s official job is a down judge. On the field, a down judge can be spotted as they’re on one side of the line of scrimmage. Some of their responsibilities are blowing the whistle for possible encroachments, fouls that might happen before the snap, and offsides. After the game, the crew gets on a bus and heads straight to the airport. Sarah passes the time on the flight home by watching the game and critiquing herself.

When Sarah isn’t travelling to officiate games, she’s giving seminars to schools and colleges. A few years ago, she came to speak at Jackson Prep to tell her life story and give some encouraging advice. In her seminars, Thomas expresses how life’s not fair and to never give up on pursuing to do what you love.

Sarah Thomas made headlines this year, as she was a part of the crew for the divisional playoff game between the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Chargers. This is a huge deal, as she became the first woman to officiate a playoff game. Thomas didn’t mind the multiple interviews she had. “I was grateful to be interviewed, it didn’t bother me at all. I’m glad it was about something good rather than bad.” When asked how she felt about becoming the first woman to referee an NFL playoff game, Sarah responds, “It was no different from any other game that I’ve officiated.”

With Thomas making history as an NFL official, she leaves an impact on others. She makes her point clear by stating, “Not just girls, but guys too, do something you want to pursue. Don’t let gender or race get in the way of that. Believe in yourself and keep moving.” For anyone who wants to pursue becoming an NFL official, Sarah gives some great advice, “You have to start at the bottom and work your way up. Don’t expect a fast track, you have to put the work in. Listen to your mentors and don’t be a know it all; take their advice.”