Sports Spectrum Magazine Summer 2021

Super Bowl referee Sarah Thomas: Greatest triumph of 2020 was growing 'much stronger in my faith'

Like everyone else, NFL referee Sarah Thomas has had to battle the stress and uncertainty brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. By June, the weight of the pandemic and not knowing whether there was going to be an NFL season for her to officiate were really weighing on Thomas.

“I remember telling my parents I was not in a good place,” she said last week on After Hours with Amy Lawrence. “The worry, the concern, you can’t control anything.”

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A conversation with the president of her bank kicked off a series of events that renewed Thomas’ spirits. Only a handful of months later, she became the first woman to officiate the Super Bowl. The 47-year-old sees nothing coincidental about the ways things played out.

“My biggest triumph is my faith,” Thomas told Lawrence when asked what her greatest triumph of the last year was. “I grew much stronger in my faith. I will tell you, the Good Lord knew I was gonna be in the Super Bowl, and that’s when He was just saying, ‘Be still. Let Me take the wheel.'”

During the Super Bowl, Thomas wore an angel pin her mom gave her when she was a freshman in college.

“She told me she couldn’t be there with me all the time, but she would be there with me in spirit and that God would be watching over me,” Thomas said in an appearance on “The Today Show” after the Super Bowl.

Becoming a referee was never part of Thomas’ plan. A gifted athlete, she lettered five times in softball as a high schooler and attended the University of Mobile on a basketball scholarship. She scored 779 points in three seasons and was named an Academic All-American.

Her officiating career started when she attended a Gulf Coast Football Officials Association meeting, after her brother informed her that he was going and piqued her interest. Thomas began working high school games and got the attention of former NFL referee and Conference USA coordinator of officials Gerry Austin. In 2007, she became the first woman to officiate a major college football game.

Her list of “firsts” did not end there, though. First female referee to work a bowl game. First woman to officiate in a Big Ten stadium. First woman to be a full-time NFL referee, which happened back in 2015. And she was the first woman to receive an on-field officiating assignment for an NFL playoff game.

Thomas attributes the perseverance and determination she’s demonstrated as a trailblazer in part to her parents and being raised in a Christian household.

“I just have to commend my mother and father for laying such a wonderful Christian foundation for all of us at home,” she said on “Today.”

Though Thomas reached the pinnacle of her profession by working the Super Bowl, she does not view it as her biggest success of the past year. That honor is reserved for the growth she’s seen in her faith during the pandemic.

“That was my triumph,” she said in the interview with Lawrence, “that I needed to dig deeper into my faith and not doubt so much.”

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