NFL’s first female official, Auburn equestrian coach inspire at Women’s Philanthropy Board event

Published: November 22, 2019
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Sarah Thomas and Greg Williams share similar stories of women’s empowerment and history-making feats.

Thomas overcame the gender gap several times since the fifth grade, when Pascagoula, Mississippi, didn’t have a girls’ basketball team, leaving Thomas to try out for the boys’ team. She made the team, albeit the b-squad.

Thomas defied the gap in 2015 when she made history becoming the first full-time female official for the NFL. Her hat, whistle and flag from the Sept. 13 game that year are on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Williams, head coach of Auburn University’s equestrian team, has seen his fair share of wins. The 2018-19 squad, for instance, capped its 18-0 season—the first Auburn equestrian team in the history of the sport to do so—with Auburn’s sixth NCEA national title and second SEC championship.

But winning isn’t everything for Williams.

“It isn’t all about the winning,” Williams said as part of the Women’s Philanthropy Board Fall Colloquium and Luncheon on Nov. 15, National Philanthropy Day. “My goal is about empowering women.”

Williams was the speaker for the colloquium, while Thomas was featured at the luncheon.

It’s almost as if winning and earning championships is ancillary to Williams. He referenced a proverb—the one about planting a seed for a tree you are never going to seek shade under—several times because that’s what he has done for Auburn equestrian.

He started the club team 25 years ago and encouraged those athletes to compete as if they were a varsity sport. Until new facilities were built recently, Williams said every building and jump were assembled and painted by him and his teams.

Besides all the wins and titles, Williams has produced 78 All-Americans, 82 All-SEC and Freshman All-SEC honors, as well as 69 NCEA Scholastic All-Americans.

Although Williams couldn’t stay to hear Thomas speak—he had to meet with some new recruits and prepare for a meet against No. 2 Georgia (which Auburn subsequently dominated, 16-4)—he called her “an example of succeeding in a male-dominated world.”

A man’s world
After playing basketball at the University of Mobile, Thomas dominated as the only female on a men’s church league until she was voted off because of her gender.

She learned to be a football official and spent a decade working everything from pee-wee to high school football in Mississippi. She was hired by Conference USA in 2007, becoming the first woman to officiate for the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision.

NFL scouts took notice and not for her gender. Thomas was welcomed into the NFL in 2015 and continues to make history. When her officiating crew was picked to work the AFC Divisional Playoff game in January, Thomas became the first woman to officiate a postseason game.

Thomas joked about it, but her transition to the NFL was likely delayed by former Auburn defensive end Dee Ford. She was part of the NFL development team in 2014, officiating the Senior Bowl, the postseason college football game showcasing the best NFL prospects. Thomas said she missed an offsides call against Ford and officials questioned if she could transition successfully from a non-Power 5 conference—Conference USA—to the pros at the NFL.

When both eventually made it to the NFL—Ford was a first-round draft pick to the Kansas City Chiefs—Thomas said she confronted Ford and told him that play cost her a shot at the NFL. Ford replied that that play is what got him in to the NFL.

Now in her fifth season, Thomas recalled what was perhaps the most painful game of her career. It was 2016, her second season and a balmy 29 degrees at Lambeau Field in Green Bay when she was “run over” by Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph. The hit forced her out of the game temporarily to undergo the NFL’s concussion protocol, but she finished the game, even with a broken wrist.

Although her gender has created lots of attention and recognition, Thomas said that’s not why she works in a male-dominated field. She does it because she loves it and strives “to finish at the top of my game.”

And “I’m proud to throw the flag like a girl. I am a girl.”

The Women’s Philanthropy Board Spring Symposium and Luncheon will feature Emmy award-winning actor and philanthropist Henry Winkler on Monday, March 23.

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn's commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact. Auburn's mission to educate, discover and collaborate drives its expanding impact on the world.