Sarah Thomas made sports history back in 2015 when the NFL hired her as the first ever female referee. On Sunday, January 13, Thomas will make history once more as she is set to become the first-ever female to referee an NFL playoff game.
Thomas, 46, will be on the field when the New England Patriots take on the Los Angeles Chargers in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Kick off is at 1:05 p.m.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. She Will Work as a Down Judge in Sunday’s AFC Divisional Playoff Game
Thomas has been in the news all week following the NFL’s decision to have her in uniform during Sunday’s AFC Divisional Playoff game. Thomas will be on the field working as a down judge, wearing number 53 on her uniform.
Though many eyes will be on Thomas this afternoon, she will be focused on doing her job. In fact, Thomas won’t be doing anything extra to draw attention to herself. While the cameras may zoom in on her from time to time (this is NFL history, after all), you will see Thomas wearing her uniform with her hair tucked under her hat. In 2015, she explained why she chooses to do this.
“To truly blend in. If I have a ponytail, you know, then I separate myself immediately. So tucking my hair, I blend in and I’m just another official,” she said.
2. She Has Been a Referee Since 1996 & Officially Joined the NFL in 2015
Thomas was an athlete at Pascagoula High School. She earned a basketball scholarship to the University of Mobile, according to Mississippi Christian Living. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Arts and Communications. While she had a focus in broadcasting, Thomas went took her career in a different direction after graduation.
She began officiating in 1996, after accompanying her brother, Lea Bailey, to a meeting of the Gulf Coast Football Officials Association. Thomas became the first female to officiate a Division 1-A high school football game in Mississippi that same season.
But after 10 years and three children, Thomas decided to hang up the towel on football.
“When I got into officiating, I just did it more out of curiosity with my brother and then I realized that this could be a challenge,. I guess because of my competitive spirit, it intrigued me to pursue it. But after 10 years of officiating high school, I’d decided to quit so I could spend more time with my boys and my husband,” she told Mississippi Christian Living back in 2014.
Just before she did so, however, she caught the attention of Gerald Austin, an NFL official for more than 25 years.
“[Scout Dr. Joe Haynes] called me one day and said, ‘I have an official that I think you need to look at.’ I said, ‘OK, Joe, what’s his name?’ And he says, ‘His name is Sarah.’ I said, ‘Sarah?’ He said, ‘Yeah, he’s a she,'” Austin recalled of the phone call that ultimately changed Thomas’ career.
She went on to become the first woman to ever officiate a college football bowl game, landing the gig in 2007. Her first game in the Conference USA was on September 15 of that year, when Memphis played Jacksonville State in Tennessee.
Thomas then went on to referee in the United Football League in 2010, even being selected to referee the championship game on November 27, 2010.
Thomas has been a part of the NFL Officiating Development Program since 2006. The program identifies top-level officials with NFL potential and seeks to perfect their abilities through a series of on and off-the-field training programs.
When the NFL hired her on a full-time basis, she was delighted.
“I’ve just been doing this truly because I love it. The guys don’t think of me as a female, they see me as just another official,” she said at the time.
3. She Is no Stranger to Breaking Gender Barriers
Thomas has been breaking gender barriers for decades — but it’s not something that she constantly thinks about.
In 2009, for example, she was one of five female referees in the Football Bowl Subdivision and worked a bowl game as well. She refereed the Little Caesar’s Bowl on December 26th, 2009 between Marshall and Ohio University. Additionally, she became the first female official to work in a Big Ten stadium in 2011.
“When I got started in this 17 years ago, I had no idea that there weren’t any females officiating. I never set out to become the first female official in the NFL. I’m just glad to be an official, wherever that may be, and just want to do the best job I can do,” she previously told ABC News. “I don’t feel that it’s been harder for me because I’m a female. I think that we are just out here working as officials. … I think just on our credentials, just as officials, I think that’s what moves us along, not because of our gender or our race,” she added.
4. She Is Married & Has 3 Kids
Thomas lives in Mississippi with her husband Brian, their two boys, Bridley, 17, and Brady, 14, and their 5-year-old daughter Bailey. Thomas has been very grateful to her family, without whom, she says, she wouldn’t be able to have this career.
“I could not do this without the support of my husband and my kids. It [refereeing] has been a part of my children’s lives ever since they’ve been here, so this is just what mom does,” she told ABC News back in 2013.
Speaking to her focus on her career and family, she even once refereed a high school football game while she was pregnant. According to the New York Times, Thomas was put on game clock duty during her first two pregnancies.
5. She Used to Work as a Sales Representative
Thomas previously worked full-time in pharmaceutical sales for Novo Nordisk.
On November 5, 2013, Thomas was one of four presenters for the Palazzo Youth Leadership Summit. In her biography for the event, she was listed as an active member of Pinelake Baptist Church in Brandon, Mississippi.
At the time, she was heavily involved in the Upward Basketball ministry at Pinelake where she had served as a commissioner, coach for each of her boy’s teams, and she officiated the Friday night games.