Meet Sarah Thomas, NFL's first female official

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It was 33 years ago, and Gerry Austin still remembers the call. He was a high school principal in North Carolina, getting ready for the dismissal bell to ring at the end of the day -- March 4 at 3:02 p.m. -- when Austin learned he would become an official in the National Football League.

"I can still tell you what day, what time and what I was doing when I got that phone call," said Austin, who officiated in the NFL from 1982-2007. "I think that's true for everybody taken in the NFL."

It is true for Sarah Thomas. She remembers exactly when she learned she would become the first female official in NFL history.

"That call came Thursday, April 2 at 10:47 a.m.," said the 41-year-old Thomas. "And when I looked at my phone, and it was area code 212, I was just praying that it was [NFL vice president of officiating] Dean Blandino on the other end of the line, and it was, and he just said it was an honor for me to have received it.

"So I tell my girlfriends and family that I was speechless, and it's hard for them to believe that now, but it was just an honor and a humbling experience, and I'm glad I got the call."

Just like Burl Toler was in 1965, when he became the first African-American official in the NFL, Thomas is a trailblazer. What started nearly two decades ago when she accompanied her older brother to an officials meeting has brought her to football's biggest stage.

But Thomas contends that she never set out to become a pioneer. She grew up in Pascagoula, Mississippi, with two brothers who played football. Thomas played softball and basketball. She earned a basketball scholarship to the University of Mobile, where in three seasons she amassed 779 points, 411 rebounds, 108 assists and 192 steals, which ranks fifth in school history.

Thomas graduated in 1995 with a degree in communications. Not wanting to lose the camaraderie and competition sports had provided, she looked into becoming a football official. It was, as she said, life changing.

She began officiating grade school games and moved up to high schools. In 2007, after officiating a high school state championship game in Mississippi and an all-star game between teams from Mississippi and Alabama, Thomas received a call from Austin, the supervisor of Conference USA's officials. Austin had heard of Thomas from another retired official, Joe Haynes, who had called Austin one day to tell him about an official in Mississippi who was ready for college football.

"What's his name?" Austin asked.

"His name is Sarah," Haynes said.

"I thought, 'OK, this is another door that's going to open,'" Austin said.

Austin interviewed Thomas on the phone for 45 minutes. He asked about her philosophy on officiating and quizzed her on circumstances that arise during games.

"She understood that the rules of the game of football should be applied within the spirit of the game and not within the technical writing of the rules," Austin said. "I've always [stressed] understanding the spirit of rules and don't be technical. If there's a call to be made, have the courage to make the call, and she fit within that framework.

"And she has great communication skills. She has the ability to calm the coach down and to explain whatever the coach is questioning. More times than not, a coach just wants to vent. We try to give him his 15-20 seconds to vent and then ask, 'What's your question?' That's a good skill, and Sarah has that skill. Coaches have confidence in Sarah's ability to officiate in our conference, and I think that's what's helped her and carried her over to where she's in the NFL."

Austin hired Thomas, who then became the first woman to officiate a major college football game and a bowl game. She claims there have "not been any challenges" being a female on the football field.

"Everybody has been very professional, and they look at me just like another official," Thomas said.

Shortly after Thomas joined Conference USA, she started attending weekly officiating sessions in June and July with a handful of officials in New Orleans, 2 ½ hours from her home in Brandon, Mississippi. There, the officials would go over the rules, situations that could arise during games and the mechanics of officiating. "That was quite a commitment," said another official who attended those sessions.

"She's doing this because she loves college football and she loves refereeing college football, and she took the same approach we did," said the official, who requested anonymity because he had not been cleared to speak by the conference for which he now works. "Her offseason study habits were equally if not better than ours were. She was committed to it. She worked very hard on getting the mechanics right. One thing she and I discussed is she didn't want (her gender) to be an issue. She just wanted to go out and work football games."

In 2013 and 2014, Thomas was part of the NFL's development program. She officiated preseason games, including Chip Kelly's first exhibition as Eagles head coach.

Thomas and husband Brian have three children -- sons Bridley, 14, and Brady, 11, and daughter Bailey, 2. Both her brothers are college football officials. She juggles family responsibilities with a full-time job as a pharmaceutical sales rep.

"My life these last few years has been a lot of travel, but my family is accustomed to it," said Thomas. "I have to tell you that I could not do it without the support of my husband or my family and my friends. ... I try to balance it all, and I think that's just it. You learn to prioritize and delegate and say no when you can and then just focus on the things you can control and just stay positive in that regard."

Like Thomas has since Austin suggested it back in 2007, she will tuck her blonde ponytail into her cap when she officiates in the NFL. But Austin also suggested Thomas not wear makeup while officiating. She balked.

"I told him he was crossing the line there," Thomas said.

Although she didn't take Austin's advice about the makeup, she understood why he asked.

"You want to be known as an official -- not as a female official -- because that's going to put you in a separate category," Thomas said. "We don't want to do anything that will enhance that. So when a coach looks at you, he just sees an official."

Added Austin: "I think her approach from the very beginning was that all she wants to be is known as an official. But, she'll always be a trailblazer."

Indeed, that's what Thomas became on April 2, 2015, at 10:47 a.m.