Other than being a freshly-minted addition to what was until April strictly a fraternity, Sarah Thomas stands out by default.
She appears from the hotel stairway to a pool of reporters at the annual NFL Officiating Clinic, well over 6 feet tall in chunky heels. She looks Hawaii-tanned with bright blonde hair and makeup.
NFL game official? No way. That’s the thing about Sarah Thomas. You have to suspend disbelief, and soon you believe she knows her stuff — as well as or better than any of the boys.
Thomas, one of nine rookie “zebras” set to maintain law and order at an NFL stadium in 2015, became the league’s first female game official on April 2. She spent two years in the NFL’s developmental system, doing preseason games, mini-camps and college all-star games.
The veteran of Conference USA college games will be an NFL line judge, keeping eyeballs on the line of scrimmage for pre-snap penalties, among other no-no’s.
“People have asked me if I’m treated differently,” Thomas said at Friday’s clinic in Irving, Texas. “I’m going to be working hard to earn the respect of my crew mates. I’m hired to do a job, and I want to do it accurately.”
After 19 years, chances are Thomas will. She rose up through the Mississippi prep ranks, first running the clock at a game near the Gulf Coast. She was a girls and boys basketball ref at the time.
“The guy I rode [to the game] with was a mentor of mine,” Thomas said. “I told him I had never even seen [the controls of] a clock. Playing basketball, I was always on the floor.
“He said, ‘Well, we can train monkeys to do the clock. We’re just short of ’em tonight, so it’s your job.’ That’s how I got introduced.”
One of Thomas’ two brothers encouraged her to pursue football officiating further after she was booted out off a Pascagoula, Miss., men’s church basketball league. A pastor said she violated the league’s gender rule.
“I’d played in it prior to that for two years, too,” she said. “They had a vote. Funny how one door closes and another opens.”
Harold Cooper, assigning secretary of the Middle Mississippi Football Association that governs high school officiating in the Jackson area, met Thomas after she moved to nearby Brandon.
Thomas pestered Cooper to give her a shot as a football official.
“She had the initial training and kept that thing about wanting to do football,” Cooper said. “She had great potential as a basketball ref but didn’t have that love for it.”
She kept telling Cooper, “C’mon now. I want to do football.” He kept asking her, “Are you sure?”
Eventually, Cooper trusted that Thomas was the one to break the football officials’ gender barrier in Mississippi.
“OK, We’ll do it,” Cooper said of giving in. “If she wants to be a trailblazer and she’s got all the tools, then we’ll blaze this trail.”
Thomas said he had her back when the doubters, some more ignorant than others, made calls to question Thomas’ ability to officiate football.
“He was great,” she said.
Cooper had to sideline Thomas once in her time with the MMFA. To him, she was a bit too pregnant with the first of her three children to be in harm’s way. Executive decision, the way he remembers.
“I had to make her get off the field,” he said. “Go do the clock.”
Thomas first came to the NFL’s attention in 2006 while officiating Mississippi’s Class A state title game. Conference USA officiating boss Gerald Austin, a retired NFL official, contacted Thomas after hearing of her from a colleague who attended the game.
“I had no idea what in the world was going to be thrown at me,” Thomas said of being approached to move into the college ranks. “But I knew I did not want to pass up the opportunity.”
She moved to C-USA’s ref pool in 2007. She notched firsts at the college level in 2009 (first female on a bowl officials’ crew at the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl) and 2011 (first female crew member at a Big Ten game when Rice played at Northwestern).
Now, even with a full-time pharmaceutical sales job, she has reached “the show.”
“I still rock and roll at it,” she said of vending those drugs.
Despite making officiating history, Thomas isn’t even the first MMFA alum to reach the NFL’s official ranks. Jimmy Buchanan, another of Cooper’s proteges, enters his seventh NFL season.
Gender aside, the odds of two making it from the same local chapter must be fairly low.
“I first started hearing about Sarah after that state championship game,” Buchanan said. “I was glad to hear she’d been brought up after we both came up through the same chapter back home. The NFL has a great system to get us prepared, and she’s ready.”
Almost two decades after filling in as a clock operator, Thomas cut through the odds against any of the thousands of local and college refs nation making it to the highest level – male or female. How does that happen?
“I can’t really answer that,” she said. “I think luck is best when it’s prepared for. I hope I’ve prepared. I’m glad that the guys at the NFL level saw that I was qualified to be hired.”
The spotlight on Thomas will dim after a few NFL weeks, and it’ll be just about her calls being good or bad. Her two jobs, one suddenly very high-profile, and life at home will go on.
“This has been a part of me,” she said. “This is what I’ve done. Official, wife, mom. We make it work. I’m ready.”