Written by Paige Gawley / Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images
Sarah Thomas is at the top of her game. The NFL referee will make history once again when she officiates Super Bowl LV on Feb. 7, becoming the first female to do so.
“Being selected for this year’s Super Bowl in Tampa, and being the first female that has been selected … it means a lot to me,” Thomas, a mom of three, tells the NFL. “I have a precious little girl who is watching her mom — not just on the football field, but daily at home — and I want her to know, seeing it, believing it, and you can do it.”
“It’s just so meaningful. I never set out to be the first, at all, in any of this,” she adds. “But knowing the impact I’m having on, not just my daughter, but young girls everywhere, women everywhere. And I have to add in young men and men too. I have two precious young men that I’m raising to be a partner with their spouse and respect [that] she’s a hardworking woman.”
When she takes the field in Tampa, Florida, next month, Thomas predicts she’ll get “a little teary-eyed.”
“This is remarkable,” she says. “I’m truly honored and humbled to be part of this year’s Super Bowl.”
While getting chosen for the Super Bowl is a massive accomplishment, it’s not the first time Thomas has made history. From the time she was in fifth grade, Thomas was making a splash as the only girl on her basketball team. After college, she began playing basketball in a men’s church league, but was kicked out because she was female.
It was after that, in the early 1990s, that she attended an officiating meeting with her brother, Lea, who was a high school football ref.
“These guys actually get together and discuss rules and what-if scenarios and plays that happen and challenge each other,” she says of attending the meeting. “I felt that I could give back in a sense to just organized sports. I love sports. But this football officiating thing took off.”
The rest is history, as Thomas went on to officiate for high school, college, and the United Football League, before becoming the first full-time female NFL official in 2015.
“Football has played a very impactful role in my life… It has enhanced the foundation that my parents have laid before me, all those coaches have laid before me, and my ability to just try to keep it together, problem solve, work as a team, and also just be a part of a crew of officials,” she says. “It has taught me so much about life… I absolutely love officiating football.”
Throughout her journey, rather than specifically dreaming about officiating the Super Bowl, Thomas simply hoped to be the best at her job.
“It’s the longevity of your career that you really want to establish. Being granted the honor of working a Super Bowl means that you finish top of your position,” she says. “Striving and working as hard as you possibly can to get there, to be number one, and then if you get the call to work a Super Bowl, that’s awesome. But just being selected for it, I can’t say was a goal. My goal was just to be number one at my position.”
While Thomas hopes that her officiating success inspires other females to choose the career, she cautions that doing so should be for love of the game, not for the hope of recognition.
“When I started officiating, there were very few females officiating in football,” she says. “Now to see so many females officiating across the country… across the world, to see the impact of the amount of females that are out there officiating football [is amazing].”
“My message is, do it because you love it, don’t do it because you want the recognition,” Thomas continues. “But I think there’s power in numbers, and when you start having more, and more, and more females, no one’s doing it for the recognition. They are doing it because they love it.”
As for her advice to other women who want to pursue an officiating career, Thomas says simply, “Do it.”
“Find an association and start at the grassroots wherever you live,” she says. “Understand and have a mindset that, when you do walk through that door to that first meeting or go out on to that football field, you’re going to have to put a lot of hard work into what you’re doing… Get a mentor. Surround yourself with other officials.”
“Your family and you, your personal life, there are going to be a lot of sacrifices you’re going to have to endure,” Thomas continues. “But like I say, ‘Nothing in life is easy. There’s no shortcut to a place worth going.'”