Sunday’s Patriots-Chargers playoff contest made history, and not just because New England advanced to an unprecedented eighth straight conference title game. The victory over Los Angeles by Tom Brady and Co. also saw Sarah Thomas become the first female on-field official in the league’s postseason history.
Thomas, already the first woman to officiate a college football bowl game and the NFL’s first full-time female official, worked as the down judge for the game. The Mississippi native was hailed by her state’s senior U.S. senator, Republican Roger Wicker, who noted that she was spending Sunday in chilly conditions at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
On Saturday, when the Chiefs topped the visiting Colts, Terri Valenti became the first woman to serve as a replay official for an NFL playoff game. Thomas was first hired by the league in 2015, and former head of officiating Dean Blandino, now a Fox Sports analyst, recalled that moment fondly Sunday while saying he “couldn’t be happier” to see her in a postseason assignment.
The title of Thomas’s position Sunday, down judge, was changed to that from “head linesman” in 2017 by the NFL’s current officiating chief, Al Riveron, who thought that a more gender-neutral term was appropriate. “I just don’t think it’s right that we call anybody out by gender,” Riveron told SB Nation in 2017, “especially in this day and age when we welcome everyone into football.”
“She has been outstanding,” former Panthers and Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith Sr., now an NFL Network analyst, said of Thomas before Sunday’s game. “She knew exactly what she was doing — if guys tried to challenge her, she didn’t back down. She was like, ‘This is my job. This is what you did wrong,’ or, ‘Good catch’ or, ‘You didn’t drag your feet,’ and she moved on and did her job.”
Smith added that he thought Thomas would submit an “exceptional” performance Sunday, “probably better than some of the guys there already.”
“As women, the way we carry ourselves speaks a lot. Field presence is what they talk about,” Thomas said in 2017. “But you can still be a woman, you can be attractive, and whatever way you carry yourself speaks volumes to the reception.
“A man may feel as if may he can have his way or whatever, but I just think that when we carry ourselves with confidence, and walk into a room with confidence, the atmosphere kind of changes.”
A high school standout in softball, Thomas went to Alabama’s University of Mobile on a basketball scholarship and was subsequently looking for another outlet for her passion for sports when, in 1996, her brother suggested football officiating. She soon was the first woman to work high school games for the Gulf Coast Football Officials Association, and in 2007 she became the first woman to officiate a major college football game, when Memphis hosted Jacksonville State.
In March 2016, as Thomas was speaking at an event in which her hometown of Pascagoula, Miss., renamed its recreational gymnasium in her honor, she said of her NFL officiating assignment the year before, “There was a lot of pressure being the first, but I didn’t feel it.”
“It’s a job that was a lot of fun,” Thomas added at the time (via the Sun Herald). “I never got too high. I never got too low. I learned a lot from the referee crews I worked with. The fans were great.”
On Sunday, Thomas’s achievement was cheered by, among others, Billie Jean King. “You have to see it to be it, and little girls everywhere are watching,” the women’s rights activist and former tennis star tweeted. “Way to go, Sarah Thomas!”
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