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Sarah Thomas blazes trail as NFL's first full-time female official

Sarah Thomas didn't like officials when she was a college basketball player at the University of Mobile -- and she suspects they didn't like her much, either. That certainly didn't make her unique among athletes. What has happened since then does.

A while after her playing days were over, Thomas, who is a pharmaceutical representative, was having a casual conversation with her older brother, asking him what he was doing that night.

"He said he was going to a football officials meeting," Thomas recalled. "And I said, 'Can girls do that?' He said, 'I guess so, sis -- the meeting starts at 6.'

"So we start into this meeting and my older brother actually stopped me and he said, 'Uh, you may get a few strange stares, sis. These are a bunch of old men set in their ways.' "

They had better not be anymore.

On Wednesday, about two decades after that first meeting, Thomas, 41, became the first full-time female official in National Football League history, one of nine new game day officials hired for the 2015 season. The NFL used a female official -- Shannon Eastin from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference -- as a line judge during the lockout of game officials at the start of the 2012 season. But Thomas, who also will be a line judge, is the first woman to go through the league's officiating development program who will be part of a regular crew.

At that first meeting, the instructor, who would later become a mentor to Thomas, stopped talking when he saw her in the room. Thomas broke the ice by asking, Is this where you become a football official? She was told it was. And, as Thomas said in an interview Wednesday morning, she has met surprisingly little resistance in becoming an unintentional barrier-breaker.

Thomas had no idea at that first meeting that there were no female football officials -- as a basketball player, she was used to seeing female refs for games -- and she never paid any attention to the officials when she attended football games.

But in 1996, Thomas became the first female to officiate in a Division I-A high school football game in Mississippi. She began officiating college games when she was hired in 2007 by Conference USA, and she officiated the conference's championship game in 2010 and 2014. She was the first woman chosen to officiate a bowl game at the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in 2009. Thomas was twice chosen to officiate the Senior Bowl and also worked in the United Football League. She officiated training camp practices and preseason games while in the NFL's development pipeline.

Thomas first came to the league's attention in 2006, when an officiating scout -- just like a player scout, except he is looking for future officials -- spotted Thomas working a high school state championship game in Mississippi. At that time, Thomas was thinking that her officiating career might be coming to an end because her life -- with a husband and two young children (there is now a third) -- was too busy. But when the scout called her after the game and asked if she was interested in taking the next officiating step, she said yes without hesitation. That scout put her in touch with Gerry Austin, a former NFL official who is Conference USA's officiating coordinator. When Austin hired her, he used Thomas' initials at first -- because Austin hadn't yet told the conference commissioner that he had just hired a female official. Once the announcement was made public, Thomas later learned, four women applied for officiating jobs that afternoon, something no woman had done before.

Still, Thomas said she never meant to be a trailblazer.

"I've never set out to do that, but I'm telling you it's an honor," Thomas said. "And I'll just say, for anybody, male or female, go and do something because you love it, not because you're wanting to prove somebody wrong or you want recognition for it."

Throughout her rise through the officiating ranks, Thomas said her challenges were the ones shared by all new officials: learning the rules, being in the right spot, understanding the mechanics of officiating. But she said she has seldom encountered blowback from players, coaches and other officials, although it seems inevitable that at least a portion of her audience -- fans, players and coaches alike -- will question whether a woman belongs on a football field.

"I know whenever the game is intense ... I do revert it back to my playing days," she said. "I would hate for someone to blow a call. As far as discouraging or any type of putdown, no, I just haven't."

Thomas wears her long hair tucked under her cap -- Austin suggested that, so she would not stand out -- and players and coaches sometimes did not realize a woman was making the calls until they heard her voice. Players, she said, often look surprised, and that drew laughs from the rest of the officials on her crew.

For the last two years, Thomas has been part of the league's development program and has long been considered the woman most likely to become the first hired by the NFL.

"She's a former athlete, she's comfortable on the football field, she doesn't back down," said Dean Blandino, the NFL's vice president of officiating. Blandino, though, said he and Thomas have talked several times over the years about the additional scrutiny and attention she will receive.

"Obviously, there's unique challenges," Blandino said. "I can't sit here and say this isn't different. There are some unique challenges to her being a woman in this position. But we look for the same things -- poise, that presence, that decisiveness."

Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Thomas officiated one of Baltimore's preseason games last year. And Harbaugh, who has been known to get heated with officials, said he would treat Thomas no differently.

"Oh, no," Harbaugh said during a press conference Wednesday. "We had her in the preseason last year and she did a good job. She's got to be one of the better ones we have. So, it's about time. Get these guys straightened out a little bit, get these gals in there. She's a good ref, so it was a good choice."

Still, like all new officials, Thomas almost certainly will be challenged by players and coaches when they question calls. The NFL regularly places its new officials with more veteran crews to ease their transition, Blandino said. Because Thomas will be a line judge, the field judge, who lines up further downfield on the same side of the field, will be especially important for Thomas' transition. When Blandino decides the final crew assignments later this month, he is likely to place new line judges -- like Thomas -- with field judges who have experience working with newer officials.

Thomas and Blandino have discussed the extra media attention that will come Thomas' way as the first female official. But the only significant accommodation Blandino plans to make for Thomas is providing a separate dressing area for her at stadiums, apart from the officials' locker room where the rest of the crew dresses.

Blandino hopes that Thomas won't be the lone woman for long, though. He aims to have a sustained pipeline of female officials preparing to enter the NFL. He said right now, there are 10 to 15 women at different officiating levels on the NFL's radar, and he expects that another woman could be hired in the next few years.

"I don't want Sarah to come in and us to be waiting 10 years for another female official," Blandino said.

In the meantime, Thomas hopes, like all officials do, to go unnoticed. She understands the implications of her hire, but she said she is most looking forward to kickoff of her first game.

"I want to be just another official," Thomas said.

For now, at least, that seems unlikely.

"I've had a lot of women tell me they're going to watch football now," Thomas said. "Just yesterday, an office I was in, the manager came around, and she said, 'I've never watched football in my life. I'm going to start now.' "

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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