You might expect the first female referee in NFL history to boast about the fact she's gone where no woman has before, but less than five minutes into my conversation with Sarah Thomas, it becomes clear that isn't who she is.
I recently chatted with Thomas, who just finished her second year as an NFL official, in the week leading up to Super Bowl 51 in Houston, and while I continually tried to push the mother of three to tell me how hard it is for a woman to make it in the NFL, she stuck by her position: She's simply in this to be a great referee.
Sarah Thomas did open up about her road to becoming an NFL official, how Michael Jordan is her role model and what she hopes her daughter takes away from watching her on the field every Sunday.
Elite Daily: You're the first female official in NFL history. What does that mean to you?
Sarah Thomas: Well, it means I've made it to the NFL. As far as being the first female, I never set out to do that. But, it's a title I know means a lot to a lot of people. I am very fortunate to be the one who gets to carry that title.
ED: When did you decide you wanted to be an NFL official?
ST: I don't necessarily know it's a decision I just made. When I got involved in officiating football, I had no idea women were not involved at the high school level. But, when you get to the collegiate level, then people just kind of start talking to you -- 'You may be on the fast track.'
When you work as an official, you truly just want to be the best you can be whenever you're given the opportunity to work. That's what I was trying to do.
I just wanted to do everything I could so that they (the NFL) wanted to hire me.
ED: Can you describe what the road is like to becoming an NFL official?
ST: Typically, it's like anything. You start at the bottom, pee wee, Pop Warner, junior high, high school. If you're fortunate enough, [you] get to the junior college level, DIII, DII and DI. Then, if they want to take you, they'll start putting you in positions to work All-Star games and stuff like that with the NFL.
Then, eventually, hopefully you get hired by the NFL.
ED: Do you think there are people who don't want you to succeed and be on the field every Sunday?
ST: I think that's with any area of life, for anyone. If I really paid any attention to that, then maybe they would get to me or whatever.
The media and the interviews are great, but that does not help me make a call on the field. To me, I've got to work the game, and I've got to be great at it.
ED: What was it like finally getting the call you were going to be an NFL official?
It was early morning, and when I saw the area code 212, I knew those calls went out around that time of year.
When Dean [Blandino, NFL vice president of officiating] was on the other end of the line and told me I had been hired, I was somewhat speechless and completely humbled and honored to have actually received that call.
But then I knew there was a job that had to be done.
ED: What's life like for an NFL official, both during the season and in the off-season?
ST: I always say there's not an off-season anymore. We're constantly working tests, watching film, interacting over the phone and going to clinics and camps.
The season is the grind.
From leaving the house at 6 o'clock in the morning to getting to the game city, hotel, dinner with the crew, getting ready for the game the next day, breakfast, leave for the game and then working the game for three hours.
Then, hopping on the plane and getting back. After the game and getting home, we have a conference call that lasts anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours. We work tests, we watch film, and that's all getting ready for the next week's game.
ED: There's this great ad you have with Activia, where you kind of highlight some of the reasons you became an NFL referee. You mention your daughter in the ad, so what do you hope your daughter takes away from watching you on the field every Sunday?
ST: I hope she knows as long as you're doing something you love, you will find all of the positives and be very successful at it.
I also want her to be completely independent and confident in herself. Women don't have to listen to their inner-critic and hold themselves back; they can unleash themselves and reach their best potential if they put their effort into it. That's what I want my daughter to do.
ED: Was there ever a moment along this journey to becoming an NFL referee where you thought you might not make it?
ST: My kids were getting older, and the mom guilt we always face, I thought, maybe I shouldn't be doing this because they're getting older. But, I just kept plugging along and things just kind of fell into place.
The reality of it, yes, there have been those moments where I probably needed to be at home or something along those lines.
That's what this “It Starts Inside” campaign is all about, not letting that voice keep you, as a mom or a woman, from pursuing your dream and being good at it.
ED: People consider you a trailblazer and a role model. What does that mean to you?
ST: I wouldn't use it to describe myself, but I understand it's not been done before. The trailblazing is a word that a lot of people use, but that's not what my whole mission was.
[The term] role model is thrown around a lot, and I always tell people, your role models are hopefully parents and great influencers in your life. If I fall into that category, then I will embrace it for sure.
ED: Who were your role models growing up and on this journey?
ST: My mom and dad. I was fortunate enough to have my parents there and support me.
And Michael Jordan. He was just a phenomenal athlete, and he always carried himself with a lot of grace and poise.
ED: At the moment, I think a lot of women in this country feel discouraged and discriminated against. Does this make the spotlight shine brighter on you?
ST: I don't know that it shines a brighter spotlight on me. As far as the National Football League, they have done this right. In hiring me, the first female, I'm on an equal playing field.
I get asked if I make the same pay, if I'm given the same opportunities, and I am. But, I do know there are still industries that are not on an equal playing field with women.
My thing is, don't let that keep you from continuing to do what you know that you have to do. Don't look at it as an excuse, look at it as an opportunity.
ED: Did you ever have that 'what now?' moment when you became the first female official in NFL history?
ST: The media and the interviews are great, but that does not help me make a call on the field. To me, I've got to work the game, and I've got to be great at it.
ED: What was the initial response like from players and coaches during your first season in the league?
ST: They were very congratulatory. I had players and coaches come up to me and tell me it was an honor to be on the field with me. It was great.
It's always been professional.
ED: What advice would you give young women looking to follow in your footsteps?
ST: My biggest advice to an official who wants to pursue college or come into the NFL is to make sure you're doing it for the right reasons. If you're coming in just because you want to be the female in the NFL, then I think you're doing it for the wrong reasons.
If you're doing it because you want to be the best official, then pursue it.