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Earning her stripes

Sarah Thomas, only female official in FBS, fits in well on field

Line judge Sarah Thomas (center) meets with two officials during Saturday's Idaho-Northern Illinois game at Huskie Stadium.
Line judge Sarah Thomas (center) meets with two officials during Saturday's Idaho-Northern Illinois game at Huskie Stadium.

DeKALB – It’s not about breaking barriers for Sarah Thomas. Nor is it about making a statement about women in sports.

Quite simply, it’s about football and upholding the rules of the game.

Thomas is the lone female official in college football’s Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) and worked as the line judge at Saturday’s 34-31 Idaho win against Northern Illinois at Huskie Stadium, part of a full slate of games for her this season.

“It’s old hat to me,” Thomas said before Saturday’s game. “This is something that I’ve done for 13 years. I know that it’s novelty, the first for Division-I football. The guys don’t treat me that way. They treat me as an official.”

By now, Thomas is used to the uniqueness and the cultural significance of a female playing what can turn into a significant role on certain plays in such a male-dominated sport.

“I get strange stares or looks, but nothing out of disrespect. Nothing,” Thomas said. “Everybody is like ‘Hey, she’s a female. She’s an official.’ ”

Thomas even drew a rave review from Idaho defensive end Aaron Lavarias in a postscript of Idaho’s postgame news conference.

“For the record, I think that female ref was fantastic,” Lavarias said. “I’d love to see more of that.”

Words like those of Lavaraias make Thomas realize what it means for her fellow referees to have her profile elevated.

She has become a celebrity among her peers in a profession that much prefers anonymity, profiled by the New York Times and NBC Nightly News has a segment scheduled to run on her during tonight’s broadcast featuring clips from her performance in DeKalb.

“Not too often are officials viewed in a positive manner,” Thomas said. “So it just kind of gives an inside story that says ‘Hey, we are normal people. We have families. We have other lives outside of football.’ (It shows) how seriously we take this profession.”

Thomas, a Mississippi native who said she grew up a New Orleans Saints fan, got her start in officiating 13 years ago, when she called her brother, Lea Bailey, just to ask what he was up to that particular weekend.

Bailey was headed to a Gulf Coast Football Officials Association meeting and, for a reason she still doesn’t know 13 years later, that sounded like fun to Thomas.

“It wasn’t uncommon for me to say ‘Hey can I go along?’ because I have two brothers,” said Thomas, who has worked her way up to college football from doing high school games. “It was just natural for me to hang out. So he said ‘Yeah I guess so.’ I showed up and here I am.”

But Thomas, who also works an 8-5 job during the week in pharmaceutical sales, tries to stay humble.

Part of that comes in her weekly routine where she starts her job as an official most nights around 8:30 or 9 p.m. Thomas spends hours watching film, taking weekly quizzes and a review of her grade from the previous week. The other part comes from her husband, Brian – “He has a coaches’ mentality,” Thomas said – and her children, including two young boys who enjoy playing football.

“Listening to their answers with NBC, my oldest one just said ‘She’s the coolest Mom.’ And that means a lot to me,” Thomas said. “They know that I’m gone but to some extent they can take advantage of being my boys.”

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