Trailblazer from NAIA Courts to the Super Bowl

Trailblazer from NAIA Courts to the Super Bowl

Sarah Thomas has a large number of “firsts” associated with her name and her career. But it first began when she was born into an athletic family in Pascagoula, Mississippi. With brothers who played on the gridiron, she focused on softball and basketball in her youth. 

Earning an NAIA scholarship to the University of Mobile, she played three seasons and was named an Academic All-American. Thomas is listed as having scored 779 points, 411 rebounds, 108 assists, and 192 steals for the Rams.

Graduating in 1995 with a degree in communications, she was not ready to end her time in athletics. But, she was ready to pivot into another arena which would foster her competitive spirit. While working as a pharmaceutical representative by day, she moonlighted as a referee.

Harking back to her days of watching her brothers play football, she elected to give officiating a try. In 1996, she began with elementary aged games before moving up into the high school ranks. Trained in the Gulf Coast Football Officials Association, she was on the sideline calling her first high school game by 1999. In 2007, she had progressed to the point of officiating a state championship game as well as an all-star contest in the Magnolia State.

What followed was the first of many life changing phone calls she would receive. The Conference USA supervisor of officials had heard of Thomas by this point and invited her to an official’s camp. Quickly, her dedication, knowledge of the rules, and skills led to her being hired by CUSA. In 2007, she broke another barrier when she was the first woman to officiate a major college football game, Memphis’ 35-14 victory over Jacksonville State.

In 2009, she took another step forward receiving a full slate of 11 games and being assigned to a specific crew. This resulted in Thomas working the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl – the first female to officiate an FBS Bowl Game. Two years later, she was the first woman to officiate a contest held in a Big Ten stadium when she was the line judge during the Northwestern vs. Rice game.

In 2013 and 2014, Thomas took part in the NFL's development program. She officiated preseason games, including Chip Kelly's first exhibition as Eagles head coach as well as scrimmages for the New Orleans Saints and spent a trio of days at the Indianapolis Colts camp. 

On April 8, 2015, she got the call of a lifetime. NFL head of officiating Dean Blandino selected her to be the first permanent female official in NFL history, and made her regular season between in Houston in a clash of the hometown Texans and the Kansas City Chiefs. Not to be outdone, she topped that accomplishment when she was is the first woman to earn an on-field assignment for an NFL playoff game which was the New England Patriots battle the Los Angeles Chargers. Thomas reached the pinnacle of her profession when she was selected to be the down judge for Super Bowl LV - the first woman to officiate a Super Bowl in the event’s history.

After being honored professionally, she was given the opportunity to give the commencement address at her alma mater on May 8, 2021. 

Seen by many as a trailblazer opening doors for girls to walk through in the future, Thomas maintains that her goal has always been to be the best official she can be.