By Rachel Cohen
NEW YORK – Sarah Thomas saw the New York City area code pop up on her phone and started praying it was the NFL calling to say she’d been hired as a full-time game official.
Not because that would make her the first woman to hold the job. The Mississippi native's hopes were those of any longtime official on the cusp of working at the sport’s pinnacle.
Thomas will be a line judge for the 2015 season, the league announced Wednesday. She’s proud to serve as an example that anyone can succeed in any endeavor. But breaking down barriers was just a byproduct of her goals, not the goal itself.
“It’s just a mindset of an official that you don’t want to be seen or noticed,” Thomas said on a conference call with reporters.
Then again, the NFL doesn’t typically host a conference call for a newly hired official. The 41-year-old Thomas was both self-assured and self-deprecating in fielding questions, unfazed by the attention but also trying to deflect it. She’s already become the first female official at the major college football level and the first to work a bowl game.
Thomas expects to still wear her hair tucked inside her cap. She started doing it on a suggestion that it would keep her from sticking out, though these days it’s more about habit than an attempt to blend in.
“I think my hair’s the least of my concerns,” Thomas said, laughing.
“I know that I will probably stand out being the first,” she added, “but as far as players and coaches, I’ve been around a good little while, and I think they know who I am and just want to make sure I can do my job.”
Thomas was in the league’s officiating development program in 2013 and ’14 and has worked at minicamps, training camps and exhibition games. She has officiated for Conference USA since 2007, with assignments including the Senior Bowl, the Pizza Bowl, the Fight Hunger Bowl, the Medal of Honor Bowl, and the league championship game in 2010 and ’14.
Thomas officiated two seasons in the United Football League, which is now out of business.
“If you look at Sarah’s background and her journey to get here, this is not something that happened overnight,” said Dean Blandino, the NFL’s vice president of officiating. “She’s been officiating 20 years and been on our radar screen for 8-9 years.”
Thomas worked a Ravens preseason game last year, and coach John Harbaugh said that “she might be one of the better ones we’ve had.”
“She’s a good ref,” he added, “so it was a good choice.”
Shannon Eastin worked regular-season NFL games in 2012 as a replacement official, making her the first woman to do so in any capacity. She also was a line judge.
In 1996, Thomas became the first woman to officiate in a Division 1-A high school game in Mississippi. Less than a decade later, she was hired by Conference USA, working as a line judge and head linesman.
She said she hadn’t experienced any problems with coaches or players.
“Everyone has been very professional and looked at me as another official,” Thomas said.