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John DeShazier: Sarah Thomas inching closer to making NFL history

She is part of officiating crew working New Orleans Saints practices this week

On the edge of creating history, Sarah Thomas doesn't appear to be any more impressed by that than she would be after signaling a touchdown in the first quarter, or penalizing an offensive player for illegal procedure in the third.

Thomas, a participant in the NFL's Officiating Development Program, is poised to become the first permanent female official in NFL history. The most advanced officials in the program are considered finalists for NFL openings when they arise, and Thomas is among the advanced.

This season she again will officiate in Conference USA, as a line judge; she has been in Conference USA since 2007. Thursday marked the third time she has been selected to work in training camp with the Saints. And the more she works, the less her gender becomes anything more than a conversation piece.

"I'm an official," Thomas said. "And that's what I like about it. I've been (in New Orleans' camp) before so I'm not so much of a novelty. Really and truly, you're an official out there and that's how I'm perceived."

There obviously is depth to the perception because in June, Thomas was serving as a line judge for the Colts in Indianapolis, during the team's offseason program.

"I think it's been neat to see," said Saints right tackle Zach Strief, who has seen Thomas in Saints camp all three of her years. "She's been here several years in a row and you kind of see, I think, her confidence grow. And it's gotten to a point where, yes, it's another one of the officials.

"We had a conversation today about her being an umpire – that's the ref that I want to talk to, the one standing back there throwing flags at us," Strief said, laughing. "Clearly, she's extremely knowledgeable on the game and that shows and more than anything, it's great for the league to show that kind of diversity and open up that field for anybody."

The vow from the NFL is that Thomas' promotion will be merit-based, rather than gender-oriented. She will have to work her way onto a crew like others have.

Much of that work and preparation has been done in C-USA, which will begin its 18th season of Football Bowl Subdivision play this year.

"I definitely recognize her," said Saints rookie quarterback Ryan Griffin, who played at Tulane, a C-USA member, and started all 33 games he played from 2010-12. "I thought she did a great job in Conference USA, so I'm excited to see how she does in the NFL.

"She's wearing the uniform. I don't see a big difference. You're not out there trying to spot her out. Unless you're standing right next to her and you're trying to find the female ref – besides that, you're just out there playing and practicing and all of these are whistles. You're not trying to see a face."

Obviously, that's Thomas' preference, to be considered no one more than part of the crew working that game. Still, it's impossible to ignore the precedence of her ascension.

Already, she has been the first female to officiate a Division 1-A high school football game in the state of Mississippi, and the first selected to officiate a bowl game (the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit in 2009). Twice, she's been picked by the NFL to officiate the Under Armor Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.


But most of that notice comes from people who aren't standing on the sideline or in the huddle. To the latter two groups, one ref is the same as another.

"We're not focusing on who's officiating, who's wearing the stripes," Saints guard Jahri Evans said. "We just want them to call the game fair. I'm really focusing on that 300-pounder across from me.

"I normally don't really talk to the officials. The only people I talk to are the ones that throw a flag on me."

One day soon, that person could be Thomas.

"The professional level, they're just amazing, gifted athletes," she said Thursday. "You've got a tremendous amount of speed and athleticism. But the college level when you're out there, they're great athletes as well. The speed is probably the greatest difference.

"Ultimately, as officials, we just have a job to do and manage our positions. There's a lot of focus and preparation. I used to say I was off during the offseason, but there's no such thing. There's a lot of pre-work, if you will – film study, rules sessions, quizzes. The best thing is getting out here and taking some snaps. I think if somebody wanted to get out here and officiate, they ought to try their hand at it."

Thomas, and the others in the program, will be evaluated at the end of the season. From there, she could be another inch closer to the NFL, another inch closer to making history, regardless of how unimpressed she might sound about the accomplishment.

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