Official makes history as first woman to officiate NFL playoff game

NFL Down Judge Sarah Thomas signals a call in the AFC Divisional Playoff Game between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Chargers at Gillette Stadium on January 13, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Sarah Thomas keeps making history.

She was the first woman to ever officiate a college football bowl game, then she became the NFL’s first full-time female official. Now she’s reached another milestone, serving as the first woman to officiate an NFL playoff game Sunday.

Thomas, now in her fourth season as an official, worked the AFC divisional playoff game between the Los Angeles Chargers and the New England Patriots on Sunday as part of referee Ron Torbert’s crew as a down judge.

A trailblazer

At the time of her appointment to the NFL in 2015, Thomas, a native of Mississippi, said she “was speechless” when an NFL official called her and offered her the job.

She said she was honored to be considered a “trail blazer” for female officials. But she stressed that her focus was on “being the best official I can be.”

“I’ve just been doing this truly because I love it,” she said. “The guys don’t think of me as a female, they see me as just another official.”

Thomas had previously officiated at NFL camps and practices.

Female officials are rare

Among all the eyes sure to be on her – a special group of supporters – her fellow female football officials.

“I personally know of 12 female officials nationwide at the college level currently,” said college football official Julie Howell from Abington.

Howell began officiating girls’ lacrosse when she was in college. It was her dad who suggested she join him on the football field.

“The funny thing is my first reaction was, I can do that? Here I am eight years later officiating division three colleges all across New England,” she said.

Howell loves the passion and the pace of the game, but admits it can feel like she’s under a microscope.

“Everybody has that pressure to make sure they get the right call, but you definitely stand out. You’re noticed,” she explained.

A tremendous amount of effort goes in to getting it right. After every game, Howell is already preparing for the next, and the offseason is dedicated to studying ever-changing rules.

“Each of us is looking at different things. We all function together. If we all do our job well, ideally we won’t miss anything,” Howell said.

And Sarah Thomas has earned her way to the top.

“I wish her the best of luck,” Howell said. “There is very clearly a lot of eyes on her to do a good job now that she’s been given this opportunity. I’m sure she’s going to crush it. Paving the way for the rest of us.”