On August 9, 2013, Sarah Thomas had the opportunity to shadow line judge Tom Stephan at Lincoln Financial Field during Chip Kelly's preseason debut as the Eagles' head coach against the New England Patriots.
Thomas, then a line judge for Conference USA, was afforded the opportunity through the NFL Officiating Development Program. On Wednesday, the NFL made a historic announcement naming Thomas as the first full-time female official in league history.
After two years in the NFL Officiating Development Program, Thomas is one of nine new officials for the upcoming season. On a conference call Wednesday, Thomas vividly remembered getting the call last Thursday at 10:27 AM from NFL Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino. She saw the 212 area code appear on her phone and hoped that it was the call welcoming her to the NFL.
"I was speechless. It's an honor and a humbling experience to get the call," Thomas said. "You work every game and you hope to be back at the next one or keep your schedule. My goal has always been to be the best line judge that I can be anytime I'm given the opportunity to work."
Thomas didn't dream of becoming a football official growing up, but has brothers who are also in the same line of work at the collegiate level. She earned a basketball scholarship to play at the University of Mobile. She kept her competitive juices flowing as a football official first in the early 1990s and in 1996 became the first female to work at the Mississippi 1A level. Since 2007, Thomas has been a line judge and head linesman for Conference USA with experience in multiple bowl games. She has also officiated games for the United Football League.
Thomas said on the conference call that being able to work Kelly's debut two years ago was "a great experience," but one aspect of the transition from college to the pro game that will be seamless is the pace of play. The Eagles had 1,127 offensive plays last season, the most in the NFL at an average of 70.4 per game. Six teams in Conference USA had a higher average of offensive plays per game last season.
"In college they run a lot of up-tempo offenses and I know in the National Football League that's the case as well. The preparation that we have and the adjustments that we'll do, the reaction time, it's just crucial in the development of where I'm coming from at the collegiate to the pro level," Thomas said.
Blandino explained how the preseason isn't just important for the players and coaches, but the officials - especially the new ones like Thomas - to get adjusted to the speed of the NFL game.
"A line judge is responsible for everything on the line of scrimmage. The reaction time has to be there and the ability to process things quickly and because the pro game is that much faster than the college game," Blandino said. "The officials that we bring in, we expect them to be able to transition and be able to adjust to that speed as quickly as possible."
Thomas will not be the first female official to work an NFL regular season game. Shannon Eastin earned that distinction in 2012 as one of the replacement officials for the first three games of the season. But Thomas will do everything in her power to blend in, be just another official and, most importantly, remain on the schedule for another week.