Pioneer Official Sarah Thomas Serves as Keynote Speaker at Penn State Behrend

Early in April, Sarah Thomas, the NFL's first female game official, may have made a mistake. When she spoke to around 100 individuals at Penn State Behrend's McGarvey Commons, the Brandon, Mississippi resident may have thought she was the only female football official in the room.


Keynote Speaker Sarah Thomas was at the school as part of their annual series addressing her historic role in America's most popular sport. She was a down judge during the NFL's 2021 season, which means she was in charge of the line of scrimmage along a sideline. Thomas' lecture was full of amusing anecdotes and sound advice, all delivered with a southern drawl.


The 48-year-old official, who is also a wife and mother of three children, expected she would be the only female football referee in the room. When Leah Ann Williams spoke during a casual question-and-answer session, Thomas was happy to find that was not the case.


Williams, 57, left the New Castle Area School District in 2020 after 35 years as a teacher. Around the same time, a West Middlesex resident took the test to see if she could become a high school football official. Not only did Williams pass, but she also worked with officiating crews in and around Mercer County for the PIAA's 2021 season.


Williams traveled all the way from West Middlesex to meet Thomas, whom she referred to as her idol.


“She's why I did this,” said Williams. “I followed Sarah's story and when I saw her on TV during a (Pittsburgh) Steelers game I finally thought, 'You know what? I can do it this too.' "I expected a lot of pushback not only being a girl but an older girl. It is weird because it's a boy’s sport. But the guys have been welcoming, so it's been a great experience.”


Related: See Other Sports Referees and Officials Available to Speak


Thomas approached Williams after learning she was a football official and offered her a hug and some words of support. “Keep doing what you're doing,” Thomas said.


During the Q&A session, Thomas also spoke at length.


“When I got to the league, there were places that didn't have rooms for me (to change). That's changed since then, but I used to have to change in a motorcoach,” she said of changing in and out of her uniform for games.


“There's always going to be those kinds of people. We, as women, have to know that we will dictate the way we're treated. When you walk into a room, have an air of confidence about you. Then, it will become infectious,” Thomas said of certain men in the league having a negative attitude toward female officials and coaches.


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