Sarah Thomas is no stranger on NFL fields, where she has worked as a game official since 2015. Lori Locust, a defensive line assistant, and Maral Javadifar, an assistant strength and conditioning coach, have been working on Bruce Arians’s staff the past two seasons.
Thomas, 47, may have long ago established that she belongs in stripes, but being assigned as a down judge on Carl Cheffers’s crew Sunday night in Tampa took her accomplishments and visibility to another level.
“She was emotional when she was telling me,” Gerald Austin, a former NFL official who hired her to officiate college games when he was head of officiating for Conference USA, told the New York Post. “And the first thing I told her was: ‘Look, you’ve worked hard. You’ve had obstacles to overcome, and you’ve earned it. Don’t let anybody tell you differently.’ ”
Not that she would have listened.
“I say that all the time people think that Sarah Thomas just arrived on April 8 of 2015, but there’s so much more to my story, and that’s like with anyone,” she told the “Bridge the Gap” podcast in 2019. “Every one of us have a story, and yes, I’m sitting here talking about all the good stuff. I mean, there’s been many valleys that I’ve gone through.”
Thomas, a Mississippi native, grew up in sports, with an uncle who was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates and an aunt, Jill Upton, who coached the 1973 World University Games U.S. basketball team that included future Tennessee coach Pat Summitt. Thomas played basketball at the University of Mobile.
Her older brother, who officiated high school games, convinced Thomas to join the ranks in 1996 when he brought her to a Gulf Coast Football Officials Association meeting. Warned she would draw attention because of her gender, Thomas recalled, “I was like, ‘It’s all right; I can handle it.’ ”
She worked her way up from youth leagues to middle school, high school junior varsity and varsity games. She worked while pregnant. She worked while holding another job. “The spouses of my crew made me a maternity referee shirt,” she told the New York Times in 2009. “Standing out there, big and in stripes, has been the only time I’ve ever felt out of place.”
Still, she considered giving it up in 2006, when her pharmaceutical sales job was thriving. That’s when Austin, the college official, called her after hearing about her from former official Joe Haynes. “He said, ‘I have an official I think you should take a look at,’ ” Austin told the New York Post. “I said, ‘What’s his name?’
“ ‘His name,’ ” Austin recalled, “ ‘is Sarah.’ ”
After an impressive showing at an officials’ camp, she was working college games. Her husband, Brian, told her to keep doing what she loved. “I wasn’t going to stand in her way,” he told the Times of juggling their responsibilities with three children. “We’ve figured out a way to make our schedule work for the kids. I’m hustling in the fall, and she is in the spring and summer.”
Since joining the NFL, Thomas has cut a figure of quiet, reliable competence, often going unnoticed — the goal of any official. But a tweak in NFL rules about game officials’ uniforms this season increased her visibility along with her comfort: Ball caps were changed to snapback versions, and Thomas no longer had to tuck in her blond ponytail.
While Thomas stood out on the Super Bowl field, Locust and Javadifar became the first women to earn an NFL title as coaches. Buccaneers Coach Bruce Arians had already made a groundbreaking hire in 2015 when he brought on Jen Welter as an intern during his tenure as coach of the Arizona Cardinals. This season, with the Washington Football Team adding Jennifer King as the NFL’s first full-time Black female assistant coach, there was a small but growing coterie of women working the sidelines on game day.
“We support each other unconditionally,” Locust told the Times last week. “We may talk a little bit of trash — just a little bit while we’re playing one another — but it never gets malicious.”
Katie Sowers last year became the first woman to coach in the Super Bowl, working as an offensive assistant for the San Francisco 49ers. Now, Locust and Javadifar have taken another step, getting Super Bowl rings.
“What is really going to excite me is when this is no longer aberrational or when this is no longer something that’s noteworthy,” Amy Trask, who became the Oakland Raiders’ chief executive and the first woman of that rank in the NFL in 1997, told the Times.
Locust, 56, and Javadifar, 30, just want to keep doing their jobs. “I do look forward to the day that it’s no longer newsworthy to be a woman working in the pros or making the Super Bowl for that matter,” Javadifar said last week. “And, you know, I hope we get to a point where all people are afforded equal opportunities to work in professional sports because there are a lot of great qualified coaches out there.”
Locust added, “It wouldn’t matter if we were second in or 273rd and, I mean, we acknowledge the fact there hasn’t been many before us, but it’s not anything that we kind of keep in the forefront of what we do on a daily basis.”
For Arians, the decision to hire women was simple.
“If you can teach, you can coach,” he told reporters. “As far as the women, it was time. It was time for that door to be knocked down and allow them because they’ve been putting in time, and they’re very, very qualified. The ones we have are overly qualified.”