Photo | Courtesy of Sarah Thomas
Sarah Thomas is used to making news, used to breaking glass ceilings. So you’ll understand, as she prepared to step onto the field at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on Feb. 8 to become the first woman to ever officiate a Super Bowl, she may have viewed the moment a bit differently than most everyone else.
“It was just another game,” Thomas, a Pascagoula, Miss., native and former standout basketball player at the University of Mobile, said in a recent phone interview. “All year, whenever we had our pregame meetings, we would say, ‘This is our Super Bowl tomorrow,’ and that’s how we approached every game in the NFL, as though it was the Super Bowl. And we were prepared.
“It was a great crew and for a lot of the guys it was their second time [to officiate a Super Bowl], and when you are surrounded by great officials like that you have to elevate your game to be elite with them. It was just another game.”
Perhaps in theory. But in reality, Thomas’s appearance drew almost as much attention as the matchup of quarterbacks in Super Bowl LV of Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes. For good reason. Thomas has built a reputation as one of the league’s best officials and her ascension to being selected as the down judge for the Super Bowl placed an exclamation point on her abilities and the respect she has garnered throughout the league.
“Sarah Thomas has made history again as the first female Super Bowl official,” said NFL Executive Vice president of Football Operations Troy Vincent in announcing Thomas’s selection. “Her elite performance and commitment to excellence earned her the right to officiate the Super Bowl. Congratulations to Sarah on this well-deserved honor.”
As word spread across the country, especially in Brandon, Miss., where she lives with her husband, Brian, and children, Brady, Bailey and Bridley, not to mention Pascagoula and Mobile, Thomas, 47, was spending her time preparing for the game.
“Just quarantine, dodging COVID and really just prep work and film study and scouting plays, watching the Super Bowl from last year and the Tampa Bay and Kansas City game from this past season — I did that game — watch the championship games and the divisional games, just watch as much film as I could see,” Thomas said of what it was like for her following the announcement. “I talked to a lot of my mentors that have called the Super Bowl before and the things that they looked for. It was really good. I’m glad I had the time to prepare like that.”
Preparation is one of the qualities that has propelled Thomas through the ranks of officiating. After graduating from Mobile, where she was an Academic All-America selection, scoring 779 points, pulling down 441 rebounds, dishing out 108 assists and claiming 192 steals during her career, she spent time as a pharmaceutical rep.
Her brother, Lea Bailey, invited her to attend a local football officials’ meeting with him in 1996. She had not played football and didn’t know the rules of the game, but she was intrigued, so she tagged along. Once she listened to what the job entailed, she was immediately interested. It would mark the start of her long line of firsts.
She became the first woman to officiate high school football in Mississippi and would go on to become the first woman official on the college level, the Division I level and the Big Ten. She became the first woman to officiate a college bowl game and soon after became the first to call an NFL game and then an NFL playoff game. She topped it all off with Super Bowl LV.
“I didn’t know it would [lead me] here and I didn’t know there weren’t any women involved,” Thomas said of that officials meeting in 1996. “I was raised that when you start something you don’t quit so I showed my face, and I really was intrigued from that first meeting. They took such pride in what they were doing.
“The challenge was with the competitive side of me — I didn’t know anything about the game of football. And I’m sure there are a lot of people who think I still don’t know anything about the game of football, but it was that competitive side of me, that I didn’t play the sport and I really wanted to dig deep and I just loved the guys that accepted me in and it just grew from there.
“I don’t know. I think playing the sport would help, but it doesn’t keep you from being good at what you’re doing. There are a lot of coaches who coach that didn’t play but they are just savvy, you know?”
Savvy is one description of Thomas. Many who have watched her officiate through the years, as well as those who have coached her, have noted her tenacity and hard work. She wasn’t a woman official to those who offered her jobs at the various levels, from junior high football to the NFL, but instead, she was viewed as an official who happens to be a woman.
“I would probably say I have always enjoyed it, but whenever Joe Haynes, the NFL scout, called me after my [Conference USA] championship game [to propose her entering the NFL officiating program], which I was thinking was my last game because my boys were getting older, and they were playing organized sports, probably then,” Thomas said when asked if there was a particular moment in her officiating career that stands out.
“Or when [former head of officials] Gerald Austin called me with Conference USA. It’s not that you think you’re going to the NFL by any means, it just challenged me more, because here I am a collegiate [official] and I’m falling more in love with this and it was more of a challenge, and the comradery of being around the guys and part of a crew. I fell in love with it. The lesson I’ve learned is that when you do something because you love it, the rest just comes, you don’t have to go looking for it. It will fall in your lap with your work ethic.”
As for a particular game, there is one that is special.
“It was my first Monday Night [Football] game, and let me just say this, every game is monumental, but the one that stands out to me is my first Monday Night game,” she said. “It was Pittsburgh and San Diego and there were just two seconds left on the clock and the goal line play was my call and I got it right, and it was just one of those moments that was all over social media — the female got the call right — and I’m glad it was that as opposed to I missed it. It’s earning my keep and the respect of my peers. It was just a big moment.”
All the attention she has received of late is good, she said, and hopefully will open more doors for women in a variety of positions in male-dominated careers.
“It’s positive, so it’s a blessing,” she said, though in recent days, with several meetings and interviews scheduled, it can also be tiring. “But the league does such a good job of just protecting us from the interviews and the media during the season, and now with the attention, there’s a positive story, if you will. The NFL is an amazing organization and is great to work for, so it’s a win-win.”
Thomas said her opportunity to be the first woman to officiate a Super Bowl game, or any of the other firsts she has accomplished, was made possible because there was someone else making strides and being a first before her.
“There was somebody before me that did this,” she said. “Not necessarily in the NFL, of course, but being a woman who broke barriers that allowed me the opportunity to break barriers. So my hat is off to whoever comes in [next] and I will be a mentor for her. I just always say this job is not to do it for any other reason other than you just absolutely love it. The females that are in the developmental program, they are of that mindset. I am close to all of them. I don’t know who will be the next one to come up, but it will be soon.”
Thomas has heard from many members of her family and a host of friends congratulating her on her success. The same is true of those associated with the University of Mobile and friends she made at the school.
Perhaps most rewarding has been the reaction of her children and other family members.
“It’s been amazing to watch,” Thomas said. “That’s probably when I’ve gotten emotional, just hearing what my family has said and what others have said. Pascagoula and coaches from the University of Mobile, I’m glad they think that of me and thought it back then, even when they were getting on me and I was challenging everything that they threw at me. It’s just been humbling and a blessing.”
Has she felt pressure being the first woman to officiate at all her previous stops and in some of the bigger games she has worked?
“None, no pressure,” Thomas said. “I’ve always been the only girl usually and again, the NFL does it right. Before you work the Super Bowl you have to put in your work; you’re not eligible to work one until your fifth season. They know what they’re doing to get you the snaps and everything. I wasn’t nervous, not even my first game in Houston. It is a football game and yes, these are the best athletes in the world. I just don’t feel the pressure. With the training and the guys that are around you, you’re prepared.”
After taking off a couple of weeks to relax — aside from all the interviews that are lined up for her — Thomas said her schedule includes the usual assortment of duties, which is step after step in preparation for next season.
On May 8, she will return to the University of Mobile campus where she will serve as the keynote speaker for the school’s spring commencement ceremony.
“It means a lot to me,” Thomas said of the duty. “The staff there at the University of Mobile, I always said that I would never tell Coach [Curt] Burger that he was teaching us a lot about life, but I did talk to him a few months ago and I said, ‘I hate to tell you this, but you did.’ His discipline and the mental toughness that he instilled in us definitely helped mold me to where I am today. And then being able to give back to the university, I’ll have a good time with it, and I’ll have fun with the students. It means a lot. It’s an honor.”
Thomas admitted it was “a long time ago” when she last visited the campus.
“I played in an alumni game years and years ago,” she recalled as her last time at the school, but she noted she is looking forward to her return. “I chose Mobile because it was close to home and I had some friends that were there playing other sports and my parents could be there, plus playing time and being able to play [right away].”
In the meantime, she’ll continue to serve as a pioneer in her profession and as a mentor and, she hopes, as an inspiration, especially to those close to her — and not just the girls.
“I’ve said it, and I think I heard it from Billie Jean King, but if you see it, then you can believe it and then you can go and do it,” Thomas said. “I have a little girl that I’m raising and she’s confident and brilliant with common sense and social skills, and so I can’t wait to see where she’s headed in life. She’s very proud of her mom and she really does think there’s nothing she can’t do.
“I’m raising two boys, two young men, and I want them to respect their girlfriends or their spouses as equals and there’s an equal respect that comes in a relationship. It’s not just for the young girls, it’s for the young men too.”
So it’s natural that when Sarah Thomas stepped onto the Raymond James Stadium field in Tampa on Feb. 7, one of the first groups to greet her and cheer her on was her family.
“They absolutely had a blast,” Thomas said. “My 17-year-old said, ‘Mom, you’re the GOAT,’ and I said, ‘I’m not the GOAT, but as long as you’re proud of your mom that’s all that matters to me,’ and he said, ‘Of course.’ My oldest has done a couple of interviews, one I know in Meridian [Miss.], and just reading what he said and what he has posted on Instagram, it’s just so heartfelt and they’re proud.
“They’ve been through a lot; I’ve missed a lot of stuff and sacrificed a lot of stuff, and I’m just glad to see that they are proud of Mom. I think it has helped elevate their self-discipline to work hard and to know that nothing comes easy. You have to put in the work … And never settle, always strive.”
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