Journey to the NFL: Pascagoula native becomes first female NFL o - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

Journey to the NFL: Pascagoula native becomes first female NFL official

Thomas became the first female to referee a regular season NFL game. on Sept. 13. (Photo source: Maggie Emerson) Thomas became the first female to referee a regular season NFL game. on Sept. 13. (Photo source: Maggie Emerson)
PASCAGOULA, MS (WLOX) -

As an official, at least five years of NFL experience are needed in order to work a Super Bowl.

It might be a while until Sarah Thomas earns those stripes, but patience, perseverance and a little luck is sometimes all you need.

Even up until now, a loving family and other selfless individuals helped the Pascagoula native reach the pinnacle of football leagues.

Thomas' parents, Spencer and Donna Bailey, are grandparents of 11 and instilled family values into each of their three children -- Lea, Sarah and Scott.

Spencer's memory bank is more in depth than an NFL rulebook. But one particular recollection takes him back to when Sarah joined her older brother Lea at an officials meeting in 1996.

"[George Nash] watched her for a while and said [he] thought that was somebody's wife or girlfriend looking for someone," Spencer Bailey said. "She walked up to him and said, 'Is this where you become a football official?' And George says, and I kind of want to paraphrase what he said, 'Oh, hell.'"

For some officials, that's what it feels like when hundreds, sometimes thousands of fans voice their criticism of a mistake, but Spencer says Sarah never made any mistake twice. Sarah's perfectionist attitude also helped her focus on her other jobs -- being a mother, and working in pharmaceutical sales. 

In 2006, a high school football game on a 26 degree December afternoon was supposed to be the last time she'd officiate a game. But an officials coordinator for Conference USA, Gerry Austin, was told by a former colleague, Dr. Joe Haynes, that he should consider adding Sarah to the college level.

Initially, Austin asked Dr. Haynes, 'What's his name?'

Her name was Sarah.

"I was kind of reluctant because of her being a mother, I wanted her there with her family," Donna Bailey said. "But I saw that she really enjoyed it, her husband really supported her, and then I gave her my support. She knows that I'm behind her."

From there, she became the first woman to officiate a major college football game, spending the next seven years as a Conference USA line judge. 

Also during that time, Saints head coach Sean Payton not only respected Sarah's presence at a few training camps on her journey to the NFL, but he made sure she knew that her kids were welcome to hang around the pros.

"Sarah called us and asked us to bring them down there," Spencer Bailey said. "They got to meet Drew Brees and a few other guys, shake their hands and take their picture with them."

"I'm amazed, but she has a lot of support," Donna Bailey said. "She has neighbors that help with the children, Brian helps her with the children. We're just three and a half hours away and we're all there for her. She'll tell you that, too."

Sarah has been married to Brian since 2000, and they have three children.

The NFL's first full-time female official's story has gone nationwide, making its way into newspapers, television outlets and magazines. She earned praise from her colleagues and football fans all season long for making the correct calls on the field, and will soon return to her other full-time jobs at home in Brandon.

Copyright 2016 WLOX. All rights reserved.

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