By ROBERT WILSON
Sarah Thomas of Brandon made sports history as the first woman to officiate a major college football game in 2007, the first woman to officiate a bowl game in 2009, and could possibly be the first woman to be a permanent official in the NFL in the near future.
But none of these firsts would have ever happened without a solid foundation based on Jesus Christ, set by her parents, Donna and Spencer Bailey, in their home and at Arlington Baptist Church in Pascagoula.
“My parents instilled Christian values and principals to us (she and her brothers Lee and Scott) at an early age, and we attended church regularly and were always involved there,” Thomas said. “Church was very important to us and having Christ in my life has been important in all areas, including being an official. I accepted Christ at age 12 and was baptized by pastor Howard Taylor. I watched how my mother and father handled daily situations over the years, and also my grandfather (J.E. Upton) gave me guidance and told me to give God credit for all He has given me. My Aunt Patsy (Tolleson of Madison) has also been a great inspiration for me and a wonderful listener.”
Thomas was a star athlete at Pascagoula High School, becoming the first student athlete to letter five years in the same sport (softball) and she also played basketball. She earned a basketball scholarship to the University of Mobile and was an All-American Scholar Athlete. Thomas received a Bachelor’s degree in Arts and Communications with an emphasis in broadcasting.
Thomas married Brian in 2000, moved to Brandon, and they became members of Pinelake Church in Brandon shortly afterwards. They have two sons—Bridley, 12, and Brady, 10—and a one-year-old daughter, Bailey. Thomas has been a pharmaceutical sales representative for the past 10 years.
Sarah started officiating in 1996 on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and officiated her first varsity high school game in 1999. She has been moving up the ladder ever since. Despite the pressures of the job—and even more so being a woman in a man’s sport—she has always been calm and confident.
“I wouldn’t have been able to get to this point without a strong faith,” Thomas said. “I have a sense of peace about me. I pray that God will give me a clear mind to do a good job as an official. I also pray God will protect my family while I am gone officiating out of town. God has given me humility, patience and the ability to be diplomatic and to control what I can control and not worry about things I can’t control.”
Thomas’ rise up the officiating ladder almost didn’t happen. She had decided to quit officiating to concentrate on her family and was doing her last game in the Class 4A state championship game between Wayne County and Clarksdale in 2006.
“When I got into officiating, I just did it more out of curiosity with my brother and then I realized that this could be a challenge,” Thomas said. “I guess because of my competitive spirit, it intrigued me to pursue it. But after 10 years of officiating high school, I’d decided to quit so I could spend more time with my boys and my husband.”
But Dr. Joe Haynes, a former Southeastern Conference and NFL official, was scouting officials and noticed Thomas. He called his former NFL crewmember, Gerald Austin, the coordinator of Conference USA officials, and told him about Thomas.
“I don’t know where I would have been if Joe hadn’t seen me and showed enough interest to contact me,” Thomas said. “But because of Joe, I got plugged into doing college games through Gerald. Joe told Gerald that there was an official that he needed to look at. Gerald said, ‘What is his name?’ Joe said, ‘Her name is Sarah Thomas.’ Joe noticed my field presence, the way I looked in a uniform, my confidence on the field, things like that. And my strong foundation is a huge reason why I have all those qualities.”
Thomas finished her seventh season in Conference USA and officiated her second bowl game this fall. She is now one of 21 officials who are in the NFL’s higher-level training pool with a possibility of being the first permanent woman official in the NFL in 2014. She will probably find out in the next several months of the league’s decision.
“I have a peace about all of it,” Thomas said. “I’m just going to do my best and control what I can control. I will let God take care of the rest.”