Sarah Thomas could become the NFL's first female official.
BEREA, Ohio -- When Sarah Thomas joined the NFL Official's Development Program, she was not setting out to be a pioneer in football. She just wanted to do a good job at something she loves.
As part of the NFL Officials' Developmental Program, Thomas was in Berea over the last three days officiating the Cleveland Browns' mini-camp practices, and the Conference USA line judge is hoping to make it to the NFL.
"I have never thought of myself as a pioneer, but being held as the first in a lot of categories, I understand the importance of it, and for what it means for a lot of not only females, but minorities," Thomas said. "I never set out to be a pioneer, but I do embrace that title.
"Being raised with brothers, I'm just one of the guys I guess. I don't try to be one of the guys, but I don't look at myself as just a female. I look at myself as an official. With their respect and the respect I have for them, it just doesn't feel like it's a male-dominated field."
The Brandon, Mississippi resident and Pascagoula native said she has not received resistance from her peers because she does what it takes not to stand out, including tucking her ponytail into her hat when she is on the field.
"They truly see us as another official," Thomas said. "When you get to a certain level, regardless of if it's pee-wee, high school, college, whatever it is, we're out there to do a job, and they see that I'm out there trying to do the same job they're trying to do.
"I do tuck my hair. At first, I really wasn't too sure why, but I get it. We don't want to be noticed, and anything I can do to blend in, I like it when I leave the field and people go, 'I told you that was a girl.' I think it goes back to the guys. They don't have long hair. They very seldom have facial hair, so it's just a clean-cut look. I felt like I kind of blended in."
Thomas got into the officiating business back in 1996 when her older brother was refereeing high school football games. And it was on those high school football fields that she got noticed by an NFL scout.
"Ten years in, I got lucky and there was an NFL scout at my high school playoff game and he got me plugged into Gerald Austin and Conference USA," Thomas said. "Once under Gerald's supervision with Conference USA, things just kind of progressed. That's how I've been plugged in with the developmental program, and I'm fortunate to be here."
From those high school fields, Thomas has gone on to officiate games in Conference USA, as well as the 2014 Senior Bowl in Mobile. This summer, she will spend four days with an NFL crew in Baltimore at the Ravens' training camp.
Having been to training camps and officiated in the preseason before, Thomas, a mother of three and pharmaceuticals rep by trade, cannot wait to get the call to officiate an NFL regular-season game.
"I think the National Football League is doing a great job with diversity, and I think that when they're ready, there are officials that are going to be ready to go," Thomas said. "That's for the National Football League to determine, but if they tell me I'm ready, then, I'm ready to go."