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Episode 79: Sarah Thomas

She has broken the glass ceiling for women in the NFL and we’re talking about it! The first female NFL Official, Sarah Thomas, joins Bridge the Gap to discuss her journey to the field, motherhood and the juggle of managing being a full time hospice caregiver, mom and Official. It’s more than football for this fashionable, no-nonsense professional. Learn about her upbringing, advice she gives her children and the reality of making to the football field.
Episode recorded at Argentum.

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Lucas: Welcome to Bridge the Gap podcast with Josh and Lucas. We are in San Antonio, Texas, at the Argentum Conference 2019, and we have one of the best keynote speakers at this event. We want to welcome the first NFL referee female Sarah Thomas. Welcome to the show!

Sarah: Thanks for having me.

Josh: It is awesome to have you with us, Sarah.

Lucas: This is really exciting because this conference is about changing the game. This conference is about leadership. It’s about influence and you really embody a lot of those things. Did you grow up, were you like 4 years old and say ‘I want to be the first female NFL referee’?

Sarah: No. Absolutely not. In fact, I joke about it and can reflect back on it now, but I played sports always and said I hated the officials. They hated me because I was so aggressive but here I am kind of eating my words or I’ll just wait for everybody to hate me as well. So, no. No idea. 

Lucas: How did this influence in your life start to really want to go after these big positions? I mean if there’s any more male-dominated industry or sport, it’s the NFL. I mean that embodies that.

Sarah: I can tell you I never set out to reach a milestone in a male-dominated profession. I have the luxury of having two wonderful parents, but a father that had just instilled in me to never depend on a man for anything or anyone for that matter of fact, but I just I have an older brother and a younger brother, and I was just one of the boys, if you will, and they never took up for me. They’re like if you’re going to come out here, you know, you got to be able to hang, and so when I got finished playing, actually I got kicked out of up men’s church league basketball after playing three years because I was a girl. I was 23, and I was just like what am I going to do? I call up my dad. I’m upset, and my older brother was officiating in football. So I joined him at a meeting, and when I call him it was funny ‘cause I was like can girls do that? And he saw like, “I guess so, sis.” Be there at 6. Don’t be late.

So I joined him. I didn’t know that there weren’t women that were officiating because I saw women officiating my basketball games. Then I learned I was the first day there, and things just progressed. I fell in love with doing this. The competitive side of me was I have no clue what I’m doing in the game of football, and I’m sure there are many people out there that still believe I have no clue what I’m doing with officiating football, but I just I had no idea that women weren’t doing this, and because I think you fall in love with what you’re doing, and you put the time in. You surround yourself with fantastic colleagues and the guys in the NFL, the guys in college are amazing, and they took me under and just treated me like one another official.

Josh: So Sarah, you gave us a little bit of your story. It sounded like you were a middle. So you had an older brother, a younger brother. Tell us a little bit about your story. You’re upbringing ‘cause it sounds like you know, you said your dad told you never to depend on anyone, also a man. Tell us about your story growing up and how that shaped you into who you are today. 

Sarah: Well I had a legacy. There’s a lineage, if you will, of sports just heroes, in my eyes. My mother’s oldest sister Jill Upton was the first coach to win the National Women’s Championship in 1971 at the University for Women in Columbus, Mississippi. She went on to coach the 1973 US World team and Russia. Pat Summit was one her players. My dad’s brother was drafted out of high school. He played at Long Beach Poly Tech and drafted to play for the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball. So I have, there’s a lineage of sports around my upbringing. I have two wonderful parents. My mom is a saint. How she puts up with my dad. But of course, I love my dad, but I just was brought up that way and with brothers and you’re right. I was the middle and the only girl so it’s a double whammy for my parents, and when I was in fifth grade, my aunt that coached the basketball team. She just asked me she said, “Hey, are you going to go out for basketball?” I said, “They don’t have a girl’s team.”

Naturally she said, “go out for the boy’s team.” So me being the only girl started back so many years ago. I was the only girl, you know my family and then I played in the girls league, I mean the boys league. Fifth, sixth and seventh grade; when I went on to Junior High, they finally created a girl’s league in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Then I go and play college basketball, and while I am at college basketball, I made mention of me playing in the men’s church league, and after 3 years of being in that league, I got the boot, and then here we are with officiating. I’ve just always been instilled that you’ve got to work, and you know that wonderful quote that I now live by is, “success only comes before work in the dictionary.” You’ve got to be able to put the work in. And I mentioned my son’s senior night is tonight and one of his favorite quotes, I just had to text him and say, “okay, I need this ASAP. What’s one of your favorite quotes?” He uses that quote. So you’ve got to put it in. So there’s no time to worry about what happened, find a solution, move on. People aren’t going to like you and so what if they don’t? Eventually they either will or you just do stuff because you love it. Move forward.

Josh: So fascinating. Collegiate basketball and then after college, what was life like after college? Where did you go from there? Take us on the journey of how you ended up with football and referee. 

Sarah: So again, played college basketball. Loved it. Had the chance to play softball, too, but basketball just took up so much of my time. I’m like every other young adult that comes out of college, they find a job because they want some money and I’m finally living on my own without a roommate or I have to be up at 6 o’clock to go and work out but you know, just getting into the groove of working and young adulthood and just being on my own, and I never truly liked loved to just work out. I always love to play basketball or racquetball or something. And so I was involved in the men’s league, and then how it all developed with football, whenever I got started in football, a lot of the guys were taken back, and this is a funny story. I’m going to walk in to this first meeting. My brother’s never took up for me, but my older brother stopped me, and he was like, “sis, these are a bunch of old men set in their ways. You’re going to get a few strange stares.” I was like, “it’s alright. I can handle it.” I go in.

The guy at the front of the room George Nash. He literally stops talking to whoever he was talking to and he just watches. So for me to like break up with any just watch it. So for me to like break up just like the monotony of a stare down and I just said, “Is this where you become a football official?” Referee I’m sure I said, and he said a few choice words and I can’t repeat them. And so he said, “I guess so.” Well funny thing was George was like, “Sarah, I have to tell you, I truly thought that you were someone’s, he used the term old lady, but you know, wife making sure that her husband was where he was supposed to be,” and I was like, “Really? Is this a rough crowd?” Because he had never seen a woman come in. So he that he truly like molded me, but be a sign of secretary for the state of Mississippi in that area, he truly strongly tried to convince me to go and officiate basketball. “Why don’t you do basketball?” “Why don’t you do basketball?” But I found myself wanting to coach the players I was supposed to be officiating, so it wasn’t really a challenge to me. I’d get very frustrated with the coaches on the sidelines, seeing the talent that they had and what it what are you doing? You’re not coaching them. You’re not coaching how I would have coached them. I just I just didn’t want to do basketball and I just found my love gravitating towards football and then you’ll go out and you’ll work a good game. You never worked a perfect game, but there’s always something to go back and look at. I just loved it, and then after 10 years of being in high school, two kids, of course, during that tenure. The crew I was on, their wives made me a maternity top; I wouldn’t lose my accreditation. So I never set out of here. I did it while I was pregnant, but I did the clock. I ran the clock.

But after my tenth season, I thought I’m going to give it up. The boys are getting older. That’s my priority and they assign a secretary for the junior college was never going to hire me. He said he would never hire a woman. So I just said I’m not doing this to bust up the good ol boys’ club. I’m just doing this because I love it, and then Gerald Alston hired me in Conference USA in 2007. 

Josh: Wow, that is so fascinating. So a very successful just life history. It’s fascinating to hear that because I think a lot of folks probably like me and Lucas didn’t really know a whole lot about you until there you are, first NFL female referee, first Super Bowl, and it just like you’re everywhere. So what was the really defining moment that you kind of went from success and being on that trajectory to oh my gosh now it’s like national-international platform?

Sarah: I tell you, I don’t look at myself that way as national or international. I don’t and I think if I ever started looking at myself that way, I think things would just kind of unravel. I don’t know that there was ever a defining moment. It’s just something that I know that I have enjoyed doing. I know that I have a fantastic group of officials that are around me. I’ll never forget, I was sitting at a dinner and this gentleman was just talking to me and one of the guys came out said you do know she has 121 brothers around her, so be careful. So you have to love the comradery of the guys. It’s like a fraternity that they allowed me to come in but it’s not, you know, she’s going to come in and we’re going to protect her if you know, I’ve got a job, but I don’t you made mention of here I am I finally make it to the NFL or I’m at the NFL level. I say that all the time people think that Sarah Thomas just arrived on April 8th of 2015, but there’s so much more to my story and that’s like with anyone. Every one of us have a story and yes, I’m sitting here talking about all the good stuff. I mean there’s been many valleys that I’ve gone through, and I tell my children you’re going to fail at something and I want you to fail at, I just don’t want you to like the taste of it but it doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It’s just how you pick yourself back up. I mean, look at Tiger Woods come on. I get chill bumps right now talking about it.

You know, everything that he went through, his family has been through, and he never gave up and there was so many times. I mean, I’m not comparing myself to Tiger Woods, I’m just saying that where withall within an individual to never give up no matter what has happened and never to see yourself too high or too low. 

Josh: I love that. So let’s transition a little bit because your story, I’m fascinated by it because I’m learning a lot about it, but I learned a few things in just talking with you before the show. I mean, so we’re here at Argentum which is like the mecca of senior housing and here we have a referee from the NFL. You told us a little bit about we were sharing some of our passion projects, Lucas and I, and then you said I worked with the older folks and I did not know that, so tell us about how you got involved with older adults.

Sarah: Yeah, so I was in the world of pharmaceutical sales for 15 years, and you know one of those valleys that you get in. I’m about to go work a game. When I get the phone call that my territory has dissolved so I get laid off and you just go okay now what and ya know it all works out and everything happens for a reason. I pick up the pieces and I just like I’m going to just sit back and wait and if something falls in my lap, then I’ll entertain it. I’m on the way to LA to a playoff game and I get a text from a colleague of mine from years ago, and she said that there was a hospice agency that was looking for a marketer in the Jackson, Mississippi area. I thought you know what? I may entertain this so I sat down and talked with them and it’s care in-home hospice based out of Gulfport, Mississippi and they’re all over the state of Mississippi and after sitting and visiting with the two leaders who were women I said that the owner did it right. He has all women running the show. But after sitting there and talking with them, I just thought this is something I want to do. I have had the privilege for the last year-and-a-half to work around long-term care facilities and learning all the differences between an assisted living and a nursing home and things like that. I mean, I’m still learning all of that but I say, there’s two people that the good Lord says you never mess with and that is babies and the elderly. So I just absolutely love being around them. I love it. 

Josh: That’s so awesome.

Lucas: We couldn’t agree more and for our listeners who are listening that do not have the opportunity to come today, you are going to be speaking to a group of people here at Argentum. Fill us in. Pull back the veil a little bit and tell us what you’re going to be speaking about. 

Sarah: Well of course it’s a lot of what we’ve touched on here this morning just about my journey and there’s so many things that people do not realize what makes Sarah Bailey, Sarah Thomas. It started so many years ago. Then the things that I’ve learned that we just talked about like my upbringing where I’ve gone and hopefully where I’m going to continue to go. 

I’ve often said you do not go through life and I’ve learned this to prove people wrong because that list of people will never end and then the list within that person will never end. So you check one box if you’re trying to prove that person wrong and then guess what? They’re going to bring something else on the table. So you just can’t do that and you don’t go through life doing things for the recognition. Yes. I know there’s an interview of me. I know it’s me, but I can tell you, I don’t know where I am. I’m in Reno, Nevada and I hear myself say I want to be the first female in the NFL. I was ignorant of it. I had no idea. I hadn’t learned 7-man mechanics yet. I had never been critiqued by a supervisor or been videoed. And so after that first college game, I went you know what let me just be the best line of scrimmage official I can be, but if you’re going to live to do something for the recognition just get a title behind your name just because you want to make six figures or you want whatever, I just say you’re doing it for the wrong reason because the toes you will step on to get up the ladder will be the backside you will kiss on the way down, because you wouldn’t have done it the right way. But if you truly are doing something because you love it…I tell my children and people that I speak with if you are doing something because you love it, the recognition will come because people will recognize your work ethic and how you loved it and all of that passion that you have it’ll just be recognized. So I tell my son’s playing sports and my little girl when she comes on the scene, it’s not all about what you’re doing with inside the lines when you hit the court you hit the field, but it’s how you get on and off and how you interact with authority and your teammates. 

Josh: That is fascinating. 

Lucas: Yeah, there’s so much cross over into the business world and especially for caregivers and the people that are doing this hard work for our older population. 

Josh: Yeah, so tell us. You’ve talked a little bit about your kids. So you’re also a mom. Your balance and all the stuff and trying to juggle all the things. What can you tell to the women out there trying to balance career and all that?

Sarah: I don’t know that I do any of it correctly. I just do it how I do it and I run a tight ship and know I have two boys. They are 18 and 15, and they know Mama doesn’t play and then the little girl is 6, but I love my kids being there, and we were talking about me mentioning me missing my son’s senior night tonight and that’s just what working moms do. We’re going to miss some things. I miss Bailey’s first steps because I was grocery shopping at Walmart. So it’s just, it’s our life and you can’t sulk or just feel bad that you did is just life, but the two boys have a lot of friends and I would rather them be at my house than anywhere else. So I think it was last weekend and I think I had 14 teenage boys at my house and cooking for them and then Bailey trying to keep up with him, but my rule of thumb is when anybody walks in my home they better speak to me and if they don’t speak to me and let me know who they are then they get the boot, and they know that, and so the guys that are with him, they go, “Hey, you better go find Ms. Sarah. You’re new here or whatever.” 

And so I just try to keep that circle but I miss a lot. My children know that I love them and I juggle a lot, but if I can teach them accountability, time management, and the biggest thing is you treat others the way you want to be treated. You better be kind because it will come back full circle and if you’re not kind and you’re the other way, I guess what it comes back tenfold too. So I just there’s a lot of messages that I try to send to them, but and I may do a lot of things wrong, but I hope I’m getting the important things right? 

Josh: Well, that’s so cool. One last question. I know Lucas may have some others but you know, you’ve got the two boys, you’ve got the little girl. Is there anything special that you’re trying to prepare her for going out into the world that you maybe have faced and obstacles to try to physically, mentally prepare her for what challenges or is it just kind of just the same.

Sarah: Nope, nobody has ever asked me that question that way and I love how you just asked that. No  treat her no different. She is my child. I love her. I know she’s a little girl, they’re little boys, but there was one thing where she stumped me. Car rider. She’s kindergarten. I take her and she says “Mama I want to ride the bus,” and I said “Baby, I really love this time with you,” and she goes but “I want to ride the bus.” She sai, “my brother’s got to ride the bus” and I said, “Well, they’re boys,” and she said, “So?” and I went, “Yep, you can ride the bus this afternoon.”

Josh: So awesome. 

Sarah: It’s like if I tried to treat her differently, she taught me that. It’s new to me having a little girl. She’s just independent as I could have ever imagine. She’s got the kindest of spirit and heart which I love and she’s beautiful inside and out and she’s spunky as all get-out. No I can’t treat her any differently. 

Josh: That’s so awesome. 

Lucas: And there’s a lot of female NFL fans out there and that’s actually a growing sector. Can you talk to us about some of the feedback either from existing fans or just women that you meet out that maybe aren’t even watching the NFL. What’s a feedback been?

Sarah: It’s been amazing. I will tell you the NFL there’s a lot of things that people just want to embed themselves with the negative side of it but the NFL is doing amazing things. The players are amazing. The  coaches, they do so much good and I think the attraction with females is that we’re not having to be treated differently like to your question about my own daughter. Is that where we can enjoy sports. Hey you can enjoy sports. You can play sports and you can be drop dead gorgeous. Ya know or however and still be a lady or I think that women are appreciating that that you know, you have the beautiful girls that are on the sideline cheerleading. You got the great looking for beautiful ladies that are doing sideline reporting. But hey, I’m not saying that I’m a beautiful lady. But hey, there’s a girl out there that officiating with the guys and I think that’s the attraction is that women can truly wrap their hands around being an athletic and enjoying it and not have to shy away from it.

Josh: I love that.

Lucas: And so do you think that there are going to be more females watching the NFL this coming season because of you? 

Sarah: I don’t know if it’s because of me necessarily, because again let’s not forget I am in the stripes, so we are hated by a lot, so I don’t know if it would be because of me, but I think that it’s just what the NFL is doing to attract the female viewers. 

Lucas: That’s awesome. That’s awesome. I mean Josh, there’s so many takeaways here. 

Josh: Well and so what we’re going to be also doing for a listeners that you’ll have to also tune in because there’s going to be an added episode where we’re sitting down one-on-one, asking some questions. Our producer Sara’s going to sit down with Sara and so that’s going to be fascinating. We so appreciate you just taking time out of your busy schedule. Our listeners I think will really appreciate getting to know more about you and just your story it’s fascinating. I’m so grateful for the time that we’ve been able to spend with you today. 

Lucas: Yeah, Sarah thank you so much, and to our listeners we’ll make sure that we connect to Sarah in our show notes in a way that you can check out her website and her videos and then watch her in this upcoming season and follow her here. There’s a lot of synergy with long-term care, senior housing Senior Living. She’s got a heart for that. That’s why she’s here and she’s a great leader, a game-changer and a ceiling breaker. Thank you so much Sarah, really appreciate it.

Sarah: Thank you for having me. I’ve enjoyed it. 

Lucas: Thanks for listening to another great episode of Bridge the Gap.

Thank you to our supporting partners NHI, RCare, NRC Health, TSOLife, ERDMAN, TIS, and Sherpa.

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Episode 79: Sarah Thomas