Former C-USA referee Sarah Thomas makes history with NFL

Sarah Thomas crop

Video courtesy ABC US News | World News

In 2007, Sarah Thomas made history in Conference USA as the first female to officiate a major college football game. This year, the 41-year-old Thomas will make history as the NFL’s first full-time female referee, for which she was named the Person of the Week recently by ABC News (above).

The league made it official, announcing that Thomas will be one of nine first-year NFL referees for the 2015 season.

Sarah Thomas (C-USA photos)

“It’s an honor for me,” she said on a teleconference, noting the call from Dean Blandino, the NFL’s vice president of officiating, came on a Thursday at 10:47 a.m. “I tell my girlfriends and family I was speechless and they have a hard time believing that. … I’m ecstatic.”

Blandino said Thomas, one of 122 officials this season, will work as a line judge with veteran referee Pete Morelli.


Two other C-USA officials made the NFL cut with Thomas — head linesman Hugo Cruz and umpire Clay Martin. Thomas, who will be a line judge, said she was also excited for Cruz and Martin.

“I think it is a testament to the quality of officiating and quality of training in Conference USA,” Blandino said. “Our incoming officials have all demonstrated that they are among the best in college football. We are excited about having them join us.”

Thomas, who attended the University of Mobile on a basketball scholarship, said her brothers are also football officials in small-college football. Thomas also said she does not consider herself a trailblazer: “I’ve just been doing it because I truly love it. … You don’t want to be seen or noticed.”

“She has worked very hard and is very coachable,” said Gerald Austin, C-USA’s coordinator of football officials. “The coaches trust her when she makes a call.  They know that she knows the rules and knows them within the spirit of the game of football.”

Blandino said Thomas has been on the NFL’s radar for nearly a decade. “This didn’t happen overnight,” he said. “It’s a testament to her and what she’s accomplished. She will be evaluated. We will look on see how she does. I know I’m putting pressure on her.”

Austin knows she can handle it.

“She came highly recommended by two NFL scouts,” he told the Associated Press before Thomas worked her first C-USA game in 2007, between Memphis and Jacksonville State. “She has a good presence and demeanor. I feel like she has the ability and courage to make a call, and the guts to not make one, too.”

Thomas credited Austin, saying he was the one who suggested she tuck in her hair instead of putting it in a ponytail because officials want to go unnoticed. “He also asked me not to wear makeup,” she said, “but he crossed a line there.”

In 2009, Thomas officiated at the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl and followed that up two years later by working a Rice-Northwestern game. She’s also been a part of the NFL’s official developmental program, which has included working in preseason games and training camps.

While Thomas will be the first female to work as a full-time NFL official, she’s not the first woman to work an NFL game. Shannon Eastin, an official in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, served as a line judge for the first three games of the 2012 season, as part of the replacement officiating crew during  the officials’ labor dispute.

Read more: NFL conference call with Sarah Thomas


No. Name Position College 2014 College Conference
16 Kevin Codey LJ Western New England AAC
87 Walt Coleman IV SJ Southern Methodist Big 12
94 Hugo Cruz HL Texas-Pan American C-USA
2 Bart Longson HL Brigham Young PAC-12
19 Clay Martin U Tulsa C-USA
50 Aaron Santi SJ Southern Oregon PAC-12
14 Shawn Smith FJ Ferris State BIG 10
53 Sarah Thomas LJ University of Mobile C-USA
26 Jabir Walker SJ Murray State SEC

LJ—Line judge
SJ—Side judge
HL—Head linesman
FJ—Field judge