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Life Lessons from NFL Official #53 (the Only One Who Wears Mascara)

Sarah ThomasMany female firsts are lifetime dreams come true. But some are more a matter of chance, the happenstance of finding something you’re good at when barriers are coming down.

The latter was the case for Sarah Thomas, the first woman to be an NFL official. “I was working as a paralegal when my older brother said one day that he was going to a football officials’ meeting,” she recalls. “I thought it could be a way to give back to organized sports—I’d played basketball in college—while earning some extra cash.”

Immediately, she was enthralled. “It’s actually funny, because as an athlete, I hated the officials and they hated me,” Thomas says. “But I fell in love with studying the rulebook. It’s fascinating.”

Turns out she was an excellent student, and after 10 years of reffing football at the high school level and eight years at the college level, she is now in her third year making line calls for the NFL. Here’s what Thomas has learned from playing sports, being a trailblazer and staring down linemen three times her weight:

Climbing the Ladder

“Don’t set yourself up for failure. Make your goals small and attainable. I didn’t start out aiming for the NFL. I started in high school football, wanting to do the best job I could, and I gradually rose up to a level where the NFL recognizes me on my merit.”

Projecting That You Are a Force to Be Reckoned With

“Having field or executive presence isn’t about cockiness. It’s about competence. It comes from the confidence of knowing what you’re doing and then acting like it.”

Dealing with Opposing Views

“Everyone needs some of that old humble pie. Let people voice their opinion and you say yours, and then agree to disagree. You simply can’t make everyone happy…. I’ve learned from making split-second decisions, that you just have to do what you think is right at the time.”

Being the Only Woman on the Field or in the Room

“Don’t do something to prove anybody wrong, because the list of people will never end. You’re there because you belong there. So do your job, and do the best job you can.”

Blowing the Whistle

“I’m better at officiating football than basketball. I tried my hand at basketball, but found myself wanting to assist the players rather than referee them.”

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