By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
---- — INDIANAPOLIS — Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Sarah Thomas' three-day stay in Indianapolis this week was how unremarkable it was in the end.
Thomas, entering her eighth-year as a line judge in Conference USA, is a part of the NFL's developmental program for game officials. She worked the Colts' mini-camp from Tuesday through Thursday, and she could become the league's first regular female official as early as next season.
But Thomas doesn't view herself as a pioneer.
"I've never been one to want to set out and shatter a glass ceiling or anything like that," she said in a classic southern drawl during a recent conference call at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center. "It's just at the end of the day I'm there to officiate, and (for) the longevity of it all and (to) have a career of it. I've always said, NFL, if they're knocking on the door, I'm not gonna turn them down, believe me.
"I'm honored to be a part of this developmental program, and I'm glad that they've implemented this program for us officials. And I take it one day at a time and one snap a time."
That philosophy served her well in Indy, where her presence went largely undetected — even during the Colts' open practice in front of some 10,000 fans Wednesday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The biggest complaint might have come from outside linebacker Robert Mathis, who took issue with an offsides penalty Thomas assessed against him. But even that can be viewed as a victory.
Player disagreements are a sure sign Thomas is being treated the same as any of her male peers.
"We had one here for the last three days, and she was outstanding from my vantage point," Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said of the possibility of a female official joining the NFL. "As far as I'm concerned, I got no issues with it."
Thomas got into officiating as a way to remain competitive after completing her basketball playing days at the University of Mobile. One of her older brothers was an official, and she asked if she could tag along to one of his meetings in 1996.
What she saw there opened her eyes.
"When I got inside that first meeting, I was really just shocked that guys actually got together and studied rules and took a lot of pride in it," she said. "It was quite a challenge for me, not playing the sport and really after that first meeting realizing I had no clue about football."
Rather than scare her away from the game, the realization sparked Thomas' competitive drive. She threw herself into learning the rules and catching up with the guys.
Within three years, she was working high school games. And, after calling a state championship game in her native Mississippi, she surpassed many of her peers.
An NFL scout was in attendance, and he got Thomas in touch with Gerald Austin — a former NFL official who worked three Super Bowls and is now the coordinator of officials for Conference USA.
In 2007, Thomas became the first woman ever to officiate a major college football game, and two years later she reached another milestone by working the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit.
She's also found success at the professional level, calling games in the now defunct United Football League — including the 2010 championship.
Despite an impressive resume, Thomas is reluctant to single out individual highlights.
"I was one of those athletes, and if I thought for one second that an official thought this was a mediocre game as opposed to a big game, it would have really angered me," she said. "I take in on from a player's standpoint that these guys are giving it their all for the four quarters they're out there, and who am I to say that it's big game or not a big game? So every time I'm given the privilege to be out there on the field, it's a big game."
Thomas now is one of three female officials in Conference USA, and she hasn't had much trouble with acceptance. She's tried to surround herself with the people who helped her break into the business, and that has helped combat any negativity.
"When you get into this business, it's truly a fraternity, and they just so happened to let me in, I guess," she said.
Now she's on the verge of joining an even more exclusive club in the NFL.
Experiences like this week's mini-camp are good because they allow Thomas to get a close-up view at the game's highest level. She said most of the feedback she got from the Colts was positive, and she's just trying to keep moving forward.
Like many rookies, she's noticed a difference in the speed of the NFL game. But like nearly every other challenge she's faced along the way, Thomas is taking this one head on.
"The game has a tendency to slow down the more snaps you get and repetition," she said. "So, hopefully, after more snaps I get, things will start slowing down a bit."