INDIANAPOLIS – Sarah Thomas does not want to be known as a pioneer.
Thomas is on the fringe of calling herself an NFL official and even though she would become the first female to hold such a title, the mother of three is simply doing what she’s loved to do for the better part of the last decade.
“I’ve always said that I’ve never been the one to set out and shatter a glass ceiling or anything like that. At the end of the day, I’m there to officiate,” Thomas said last week as she concluded three days of officiating the Indianapolis Colts minicamp.
As a full-time official for Conference USA for the past seven years, Thomas has spent her 2013 offseason taking part in the NFL’s developmental officials program with the ultimate goal of becoming a referee on Sundays.
For Thomas it all began back in the mid-1990s. After following a basketball career at the University of Mobile, she attended an officials meeting with her older brother.
“When I got inside that first meeting, I really was just shocked that guys actually got to go there and study rules and took a lot of pride in it,” Thomas said. “It was quite a challenge for me, not playing the sport, and really after that first meeting not having a clue about football.”
The competitive spirit that Thomas played with during her days as an NAIA athlete, transferred over to her study of becoming a football referee.
After officiating a Mississippi State High School State Finals game, Thomas came in contact with an NFL scout who then connected her with former NFL official Gerald Austin.
Before Thomas knew it she was taking part in Division I games.
“I just surrounded myself with guys that sort of approached me and they are wanting to see you succeed,” Thomas said. “When you get into this business, it’s truly a fraternity and they just so happen to allow me in. They want to see you succeed.”
Turn the clock to 2013 and Thomas goes virtually unnoticed on the Colts practice field.
The chance to ref an NFL preseason games is next up for Thomas and that follows experiences in college bowl games and the Senior Bowl.
Vice President of NFL Officiating Dean Blandino said the most important part of Thomas (and other developmental officials) progress is the on-the-field experience she is getting this offseason.
Blandino made it clear that Thomas has proven herself at every level and her presence has a potential impact for future female officials.
“I think it’s really important just for young women to see Sarah, who is at the top of her profession and could potentially go even further to the NFL,” Blandino said.
“For young women, whether they are involved in athletics now or other areas they can say, “Hey, I can do that.” Just like in anything else, when you see someone you can relate to doing something at a high level, I think that will encourage young women to get involved into officiating which we are really excited about.”
If everything falls into place then the day will soon arrive where Thomas will become the first full-time female NFL official.
It’s a far cry from how Thomas felt walking out of her first officiating meeting.
After years of refereeing Pop Warner, high school and college games, when the NFL does call, the approach to the game will be the same as it’s always been for Thomas.
“I just have to say to the kids playing the sport, I was one of those athletes and if I thought for one second that an official thought that this was a mediocre game as opposed to a big game, it would have really angered me,” Thomas said.
“I take it on from a player’s standpoint that these guys are giving it their all for the four quarters that they are out there and who am I to say it’s a big game or not a big game so every time I’m giving the privilege to be out there on the field, it’s a big game.”