As Joanne Burgess started to run downfield, a player on the sideline snatched her yellow flag out of her back pocket and dropped it on the ground.

Laughter from everyone.

Minutes later, the same thing happened again. And again, laughter.

"I know the flag just didn't fall out by itself," said Burgess, a head linesman. "But I was cool. I didn't say anything. I went over to the referee and told him. He said since it was just a scrimmage game, don't worry about it.

"I don't think anyone would be that stupid to do that in a real game," Burgess said. "If they do, they got a 15-yard penalty coming."

Burgess and Anne Butler, the only woman football officials in the metropolitan area and two of the few certified in the country, didn't expect to be welcomed with open arms to an occupation that was and still is male-dominated.

"My father said I was crazy," said Burgess, a senior physical education major at the University of the District of Columbia. "It doesn't bother me being the only woman on the field. It's fun. I enjoy football and any comments directed at me won't be because I'm a woman but because I'm a high school official.

"I'm sure the players and coaches would respect any good official," said Burgess. "They can't call me any worse names than they call the men officials. And I've heard some good ones."

Burgess is in her second year in the Eastern Board of Officials, a predominantly black group that works mainly in the Interhigh League games and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

Butler is in her first year of probation in the Northern Virginia Football Officials Association.

Like Burgess, Butler also is a linesman and at times has worked as a field judge. And, like Butler, her presence has not exactly brought rounds of ovations.

"I've also done some baseball games and the fans and the coaches are beastly," said the 24-year old Butler. "They hate you because you're an official and second they don't think you belong out there because you're a woman."

"Football has been no major problem," said Butler. "I've never played football so it's hard to read the game at times. Anticipation is the hardest thing. The men can tell whether it is going to be a pass play because of the downs and formations. I can't do that yet.

"I've had a few bad nights (working scrimmages and junior varsity games) but I'm not nervous anymore."

Neither woman may get a chance to work varsity games this season. Butler cannot work varsity until her third year while Burgess, who is eligible, has not been assigned as yet. Both have been assigned chain duty this year, however.

"Working the chains gives me a chance to watch the other officials work," said Burgess, "I know I can do the job. Each week I pick up something. Learning the rules is one thing, applying them is something else." s

Burgess became interested in officiating while taking a course at UDC.

"My officiating and coaching instructor, Dr. (Samuel) Barnes, mentioned that more officials were needed and some of us should consider applying. I decided, 'why not?' I wrote down football, basketball and track.

"I've always understood the game so I didn't think fotball would be a problem. I passed the National Federation Test and I was in."

EBO Commissioner Reggie Holton said Burgess is the first black woman to ever pass the Federation Test.

"So far she has graded out fine," said Holton. "She was a little nervous her first couple of times but she did fine . . . I have no hang-ups about putting her on the field."

Butler's commissioner, Joe Ryan, said he wished "I had a few more like Anne. She's doing fine out there."

Butler got into officiation because she felt that would be the quickest route to her goal -- sportscasting.

"I didn't know how to go about starting in the business," said Butler, who works at a restaurant in Georgetown. "The women on TV in sports now have a gimmick, either a Miss America or an actress or something -- so I figured my gimmick would be a woman referee. And what better way can I learn all about the games than from officials?"

Frazier O'Leary, a Cardozo assistant coach, said Burgess worked on his team's scrimmages and did "as well as the other members of her crew.

"After the players and I got over the initial shock of seeing her, we forgot about it. I sure didn't see any differences in the calls."

Burgess didn't have to wait long to throw her first flag. On the first series of her first scrimmage, she called encroachment.

"No doubt about it," she said. "Flags came from both sides."

Neither Burgess nor Butler is anxious to work in the middle of the field.

"You can get run over out there," said Burgess. "I think that's why I was assigned as a linesman. If you can't read the plays too well, you could get knocked down."

Butler did not move fast enough once and was barrelled over by a ballcarrier several weeks ago.

"I tried to tackle the runner," said a laughing Butler. "I suffered torn ligaments in my knee. I'm just getting back."

Should Burgess ever get knocked down, she hopes it will be in professional game.

"That would be nice to work in the NFL," said Burgess, "but you know they wouldn't be cool to a woman ref for another 20 years. Getting knocked down by Franco Harris wouldn't be bad, not bad at all."