Sarah Thomas didn’t set out to be the first female on-field official in the NFL, but that’s where she is right now, living out a dream that started with a deep commitment and passion for sports that extends throughout her entire family.
Massage Therapy Journal sat down with Thomas to ask her about her journey to the NFL, the importance of teamwork and community in the work she does, as well as the advice she’d offer to anyone who might be thinking about giving up on their dreams.
1. When did you become interested in football or sports in general, and how did that passion play into your job as an NFL on-field official today? I come from a family that loves all sports, both immediate and extended. My aunt (Jill Upton) was a huge women’s basketball fan, former player and coach. She coached the U.S. World Team in 1973.
She encouraged me to play on the boys team when I was in 5th grade because there wasn’t a girls team. I was already playing softball (started at age of 5) and my height was in my favor for basketball. I love the discipline sports teaches.
I played college basketball at the University of Mobile and, after graduating, I started playing in a men’s league. I got voted out of the league after playing for three years. Thats when I called my brother, Lea, up to ask him what he was doing and he said he was going to a football official’s meeting. So I asked him: “Can girls do that?” That was in 1996. I fell in love with being able to give back to organized sports, and fell in love with the game of football.
2. Can you remember a time you felt defeated or were struggling about the professional path you were on? What helped you persevere and continue even with challenges? Yes, many times. Learning the game (rules and play) was a huge learning curve for me. So many times I felt as if I was struggling and a few times questioned if I was doing the right thing.
My love for the game helped me persevere, and my competitive spirit drove me to overcome challenges. I've learned a lot about challenges, and look at them as opportunities to grow.
3. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience as the first female on-field official in the NFL? What are some of the highlights? What are some of the challenges? Being the first isn't what I set out to do. But, my experience has been like any other—highs, lows and opportunities to grow.
I've met some amazing people along this journey, many of whom I work with in the NFL. Without the guidance of so many on-field guys—and without the guidance of my female mentors—I wouldn't be where I am!
4. How important is teamwork and community in your job? Teamwork is so important in what we do on the field and off. Respect, trust and growing together is equally important.
5. In regards to teamwork, how do you ensure you all can work effectively together even when you may have different perspectives/opinions/experiences? Respect! We are human and we are going to make mistakes. With respect on a professional level, you know when your colleague doesn't agree with you, and you are able to trust they are trying to make you better.
Also, you grow and realize that you may agree to disagree and can stand by your opinion/decision, and they respect you for it. It’s all about respect, and your work ethic is important in building respect.
6. What would you say to someone who is experiencing some challenges and thinking about giving up on their dream? Do not do it! If you love it, go for it! You are going to have failures, but it doesn't mean you are a failure.
Don't look at challenges as road blocks, but instead speed bumps. Figure out a way to get over that speed bump as quickly as you can and put it behind you. Think of it this way: Once that speed bump is behind you it’s in your rear view mirror, and it’s tiny compared to the windshield. If you focus on the things outside your windshield, you’re looking forward and there is so much more opportunity in front of you. Keep working, find mentors, be a sponge and learn from their experience!
7. You can share one piece of advice that changed your life, what would that advice be? Believe in yourself! Don't go through life trying to prove people wrong who have doubted you. You will exhaust yourself in trying to please them and that list of people will never end. There will always be doubters. Instead prove you belong by believing in you!