For Sarah Thomas of Brandon, Miss., life at 46 has become a trailblazing adventure no woman in sports history has experienced.
Little could she have known when she chose to pursue her career on a football field, her unlikely road less traveled would lead steadily uphill to be named the National Football League's first female official.
The vivacious mother of three who brims with confidence and personality was the 31st distinguished speaker for the John Paul Hammerschmidt lecture series in Harrison the other night. She quickly managed to win over the audience by eliciting a good-natured pledge "not to boo" athletic officials for the next year.
Using a PowerPoint presentation on two screens, she spent 90 minutes explaining her unlikely journey, along with stories of her two sons and daughter, while candidly answering questions about what life is like as a female with 100 yards of authority on turf soaked in testosterone.
Her story began in 1996 when Sarah, a native of Pascagoula, Miss., asked her brother if she could tag along with him to an introductory meeting for wannabe Gulf Coast football officials. The idea intrigued her and she wondered if women were ever considered for such a role. At the time, Sarah knew nothing about the quintessential male-dominated sport in America. But so what?
She'd always believed schools and leagues "just grabbed five guys" to officiate at their games. That introductory session went well and, perhaps surprisingly, she was accepted for training. In 1999, Sarah donned her stripes, tucked her flowing blond ponytail tightly 'neath her cap "to look as much like her male counterparts as possible" and officiated at her first high school varsity game in Mississippi.
Through those early years, Sarah did well enough to rise into officiating college football games beginning in 2007 with Conference USA. The program listed her only as "S.B. Thomas." Again, no need to call undue attention to her gender.
Life and work continued until December 2012 with the birth of her third child and only daughter. By now she'd developed a love for the game and was pleased during her pregnancy to be able to keep working with her officiating team as their replay booth official.
In rising to the college level, some wondered whether she could keep up with the speed and athleticism required to make quick, accurate calls in the Power Five conference ranks. Having been a standout athlete in high school and star basketball player at University of Mobile (and highly self-motivated) the short answer was yes. And in 2013, she officiated at the annual college Senior Bowl.
Sarah rapidly began achieving several firsts. She'd become the first female official to work a major college football game, the first to officiate a college bowl game, and first to officiate in a Big Ten stadium, all the while juggling an all-important family life with supportive husband Brian and a promising career.
At the encouragement of a league official, Sarah in 2013 launched a Hail Mary into her future with an application to become an NFL official and found herself among 21 finalists for a permanent position. She told of early fits and starts along with a "huge learning curve" in seeing her dream become a possibility in a highly competitive and demanding career. The league's developmental program and rulebook were daunting.
After more than a year, her efforts were rewarded with the phone call of a lifetime that left her "speechless" to learn the NFL had selected her as one of nine permanent officials chosen that year.
The subsequent whirlwind trip to New York exploded in a media frenzy upon landing. She donned NFL stripes for the first time and walked onto the field on Sept. 13, 2015, with her crew to officiate a game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans.
"When working, I'm a different person completely than I am with you tonight," she said, maintaining her engaging smile. "I walk through the tunnel and become transformed, focused solely on my responsibilities and doing my job well.
"There have been a lot of peaks and valleys along this road," she continued, pointing out that she is now in her fifth year with the NFL and was to officiate at a game later in the week.
Sarah emphasized that it's never been her mindset or goal to go through life trying to prove others wrong by what she can accomplish. She never compares herself to others, calling that approach the "thief of joy. I just want to do the best I can."
She told of the Dec. 24, 2016, game between the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers when the weather was 29 degrees and she wound up flat on her back with a broken wrist after colliding with a player.
Taken inside for an X-ray and a concussion examination, she asked if there had been anyone to take her place and was informed there wasn't. So with four minutes remaining in the game, she insisted the medic put her wrist in a support cast and get her back on the field to finish the night, which she did.
Another time during a Dallas Cowboys game with Atlanta, things suddenly became loud between angry players. Sarah found herself huddled smack in the middle of that melee. A photograph on the screen before us showed her standing with one hand on a Cowboys player's chest and the other on another player opposite him.
She said officials are told to avoid these situations, but she happened to get caught in this one. Amid all the shouting between players, she said she decided to use her "loudest mommy voice" and tell them to cut it out now! Amazingly enough, everything became quiet.
Today, she works at least 16 games each season, depending on whether she earns playoff game assignments (based on NFL grading scores issued weekly to each official). Those graded highest throughout the season are selected to work playoff games. The best of the best are then assigned the Super Bowl, she explained. "We take a serious NFL exam every May that we must pass. I spend a long time in the spring preparing for that."
Moreover, NFL officials regularly perform physical conditioning tests (thankfully including eye exams) as well as timed 40-yard sprints and pushups. She's maintained pace with her male counterparts without a problem and is graded well as an official.
In January of this year, she was named the down judge for the NFL playoff game between the New England Patriots and San Diego Chargers.
For her efforts, which include a lot of travel with her officiating crew, Sarah said she earns about $180,000 annually. Although she remains the NFL's only female official, that's about to change. She said three are currently in the league's development program and two are close to completion.
Asked if she's ever cursed or disrespected in the heat of football games, she said not so far. Through her remarkable level of confidence and a sincere love for the game, she has not only more than proven her ability on the field, but earned the respect of those whose performance she objectively monitors with a whistle and a flag.
Since that decisive day more than two decades ago when she was curious enough to go to the orientation for prospective high school football officials, Sarah has worked her way steadily upward into our nation's sports history.
In the process, she's already been named among Sports Illustrated's most influential figures of all time. Today, you'll already find her first game's original cap, flag and whistle on display at the NFL Hall of Fame.
Amiable Sarah's parting inspirational message, among the many she shared in the conference room at North Arkansas College, was a simple one drilled into her and her siblings raised in a family of athletes: "Once you start something, never quit."
Oh, and be sure to "be kind to everyone."
Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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