The call came from one retired NFL game official to another. Joe Haynes, who had moved on to scouting officiating prospects, phoned Gerry Austin, then coordinator of officials for Conference USA.
“Gerry,” Haynes said, “I’ve got a high school official down here in Mississippi that you need to take a look at, somebody who’s ready for college football.”
“What’s his name?” Austin recalled asking.
“His name is Sarah.”
In a career overwhelmingly dominated by men, line judge Sarah Thomas stood out back in 2006 — and she is on the brink of history as the first woman chosen by the NFL to be a regular game official.
NFL spokesman Michael Signora would not confirm the hiring of Thomas and said the league has yet to finalize its roster of 2015 officials.
However, an individual with knowledge of the situation said people within the league have been informed that Thomas is among eight new officials offered jobs for the 2015 season, pending physical examinations.
“I’ll be very proud to see Sarah in the NFL,” said Austin, who worked as an NFL official from 1982 through 2007. “To me, the biggest thing is, do you understand the spirit of the rules, and not just the rules? She has that understanding, and that’s impressed me as much as anything.”
The selection of Thomas comes against the backdrop of the NFL’s most tumultuous year, when the league’s handling of violence against women put the NFL under unprecedented scrutiny. In September, Commissioner Roger Goodell hired four domestic violence experts, all women, to help shape the league’s policies going forward.
The NFL had been tracking Thomas’ progress as a college official for several years, and in last year’s preseason, she officiated at practices for the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts.
“There’s not a single official in the NFL that’s surprised by this,” said Mike Pereira, the NFL’s former director of officials who is now an analyst for Fox. “They knew it was coming. I was almost surprised it didn’t happen last year.”
Thomas will not be the first female official to work a regular-season NFL game. Shannon Eastin made history in September 2012 when she was a line judge in Detroit’s game at St. Louis. Pereira and others do not see that as a milestone moment because Eastin was a replacement who filled in after regular officials were locked out over a contract dispute.
“Sarah Thomas is the true pioneer,” Pereira said. “If a hat and lanyard and a shirt are going into the Hall of Fame in Canton, it ought to be hers. It shouldn’t be Shannon Eastin, who just crossed a picket line to work a game, along with everyone else in that group of people that will never make it into the NFL, period.”
Thomas worked a game between Memphis and Jacksonville State in 2007, becoming the first woman to officiate a major college football game. Two years later, she was selected to work the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl between Marshall and Ohio, becoming the first woman to officiate a bowl game. In 2013, she was among 21 finalists for an NFL position.
Pereira, who left the NFL five years ago, called the expected hiring of Thomas “a defining moment for the league.”
“If it’s done because she’s the best official out there at a position they need to fill, that’s great,” he said. “If it’s for a cause, then I think it’s a little dangerous because I don’t think you can afford to elevate someone for a cause when you’ve got something this important and this difficult to do.”
NFL players are so much faster than college players, Pereira said, that new NFL officials frequently struggle to make the adjustment.
He said he was surprised by the speed of NFL players after he came over from the collegiate Western Athletic Conference.
“In the WAC, we might have had one or two really quick people,” Pereira said. “Then you get in the NFL and the 300-pound offensive linemen were just as quick as some of the defensive backs you were officiating.”
Thomas, a pharmaceutical sales representative, lives in Brandon, Miss. She is married with three children. She has attributed her love of football to her two brothers, who both played and officiated the game. A former basketball player, Thomas worked her first high school football game in 1999.
She does not work a position that is in the middle of play. She is a line judge who stands at the line of scrimmage on the sideline and is responsible for spotting such infractions as false starts by the offense or defensive players lined up too close to the ball, and whether a pass thrown behind the line traveled forward or backward. It is a high-pressure position and one that calls for an experienced official who can identify nuance on the field.
Haynes, who discovered Thomas in Jackson, Miss., working that high school playoff game, noticed from a distance her composure and the calming effect she had on the officiating crew. Initially, he had no idea he was watching a female official.
“Things seemed to be going very well in the game, and all of a sudden a few issues came up that this official untangled,” he recalled. “It was a take-charge situation that needed some leadership. Even the referee seemed like he was confused.
“I didn’t know who the official was. I wasn’t looking for a lady or a man. I was looking for a good official that had the mechanics and demeanor of a good NFL official,” he said
Haynes said he was startled when he looked through his binoculars and saw a woman with a ponytail.
“I saw that ponytail,” he said, “and, quite frankly, I had to look again.”