Among the nine new referees that the NFL has announced for its 2015 season is a historic candidate: 41-year-old Mississippi native Sarah Thomas, who will be the league’s first full-time female official since its formation in 1920.
Having played college basketball at the University of Mobile, Thomas became introduced to refereeing after tagging along with her older brother to a football officiating meeting almost 20 years ago.
“I said, 'Can girls do that?'” she recalled in a recent interview with the NFL. “He said, 'I guess so, sis — the meeting starts at 6.'”
Related: NFL Veteran-Turned-Entrepreneur Says Adaptability Is Key to a Winning Game Plan
Thomas has been calling games ever since — from high school to college — and also works as a pharmaceutical representative, according to the NFL. She is married with three children.
She says she’s encountered surprisingly little resistance in her career, and never intended to be a trailblazer. “I'll just say, for anybody, male or female, go and do something because you love it,” she says, “not because you're wanting to prove somebody wrong or you want recognition for it."
Which isn’t to say that the historic hire won’t present unique challenges. When she was first tapped to officiate college games, for instance, conference executives used Thomas’ initials and suggested she tuck her blonde hair in a cap so as not to stand out.
Related: NFL Launches First Official YouTube Channel Days Before Super Bowl Kickoff
While at least some fans, players and coaches may be wont to question a woman’s place on the field, Thomas says — especially as tensions roil amid controversial calls — the NFL insists she’s the perfect pick.
"She's a former athlete, she's comfortable on the football field, she doesn't back down," said Dean Blandino, the NFL's vice president of officiating, who added that there are 10 to 15 other female referees on the league’s radar, who could be hired in coming years.
And at the end of the day, the league’s move might even serve to broaden football audiences. "I've had a lot of women tell me they're going to watch football now," Thomas says.
Related: 10 Inspirational Quotes on Leadership From the NFL's Greatest Coaches