Sarah Thomas understands the historical significance of becoming the first full-time female official in NFL history, but that has never been her biggest motivating factor for reaching the top level of her profession. It's simply the byproduct of being successful at something she has loved since becoming an official.
"It's the mindset of an official that you don't want to be seen or noticed," Thomas said Wednesday on a conference call shortly after the NFL announced she would join the league as a full-time official for the 2015 season. "If you do something because you love it, opportunities will present themselves. I did not set out to become an NFL official, but the further I went in the progression, part of me thought it might become a reality."
But Thomas certainly appreciates her role as a trail blazer, and hopes her appointment can spur other professional sports to hire female officials.
"Hopefully it will open doors to anyone," she said.
Shannon Eastin became the first woman to officiate an NFL game when she served as a replacement official during a lockout of the regular officials for the first three games in 2012. She has not officiated an NFL game since then.
Thomas, 42, joins the NFL after working as a line judge in Conference USA since 2007. She will be a line judge on a regular NFL officiating crew this season. A line judge's responsibilities include assisting the umpire with holding calls, assisting the referee with false start calls, and making calls on illegal motion, illegals shifts, offside and encroachment.
Nine first-year officials were announced by the NFL on Wednesday.
"[Thomas] has been officiating for 20 years, and she's been a part of our developmental program for two years," said Dean Blandino, the NFL's director of officiating. "This is not something that just happened. We feel that she's ready to come into the league. It's a testament to her and what she's accomplished. She's earned the right. She'll be evaluated based on her performance."
Thomas got a call last Thursday from Blandino, who offered her the job.
"That call came Thursday, April 2, at 10:47 a.m.," she said. "When I looked at my phone, I was praying it was Dean Blandino on the other end of the line. He said it was 'an honor' to offer the job. And I said it's an honor to receive it. I was speechless. It's a humbling experience."
Thomas, who grew up in Pascagoula, Mississippi, played softball and basketball in high school and attended the University of Mobile on a basketball scholarship. She first became interested in officiating in 1996.
"When I was playing sports it never entered my mind, but once I got into the high school associations and then into college, the competitive side of me didn't want to stop there," she said.
In 2007, Thomas was hired by Conference USA director of officiating Gerry Austin, a longtime NFL official, and became the first woman to officiate a bowl game in 2009.
Austin offered her one piece of advice when she joined Conference USA.
"He told me I needed to tuck my hair [under my hat]," said Thomas, who added that Austin believed that officials shouldn't draw any unnecessary attention to themselves. "I've just become accustomed to it," she said. "I think my hair is the least of my concerns."