NEW YORK — Sarah Thomas was a 23-year-old ex- college basketball player when she was thrown off a Mississippi church-league team because she was female. So she joined her older brother at a football officials' organizational meeting as a way to stay in sports.
After 16 years of calling high school and college games, she is poised to become the National Football League's first permanent female game official, possibly as soon as the 2014 season.
"I didn't set out to break a glass ceiling or a gender barrier," said Thomas, a 39-year-old from Brandon, Miss. "If you're doing things because you love them, then things have a tendency to just kind of fall into place."
Thomas and Shannon Eastin, who broke the gender barrier last season as a temporary official while union referees were locked out by owners, are among 35 officials in the NFL's training pool. Eastin is at the lower level and Thomas, a line judge, is one of 21 from whom the NFL will choose the next time there's an opening.
"Sarah's at the top of our scouting program," Dean Blandino, the NFL's vice president of officiating, said in a telephone interview. "Now we're taking an even closer look as part of this developmental program to see who distinguishes themselves and give them a taste of the NFL speed, rules and mechanics."
Thomas' promotion to the NFL would be a "good positive first step that begins to reflect the gender dynamics of the NFL audience," said Aine Duggan, president of the New York-based National Council for Research on Women. "It's important for women to see themselves reflected on and off the field. Having a woman referee is a good step that begins to do that."
About 47 percent of the 108.4 million people who watched the 2013 Super Bowl were female, according to Nielsen data.
Thomas, who officiates college football in Irving, Texas- based Conference USA, worked an Indianapolis Colts minicamp last month. She'll call NFL preseason games in August.
"It's pretty quick," Thomas said in a telephone interview. "In those scrimmage games you sit back and think it's really not, but when you start digging into every responsibility at that position, you really do realize it's a lot faster."
She's already proven herself in the NCAA's top level, the Football Bowl Subdivision, said Gerald Austin, a former NFL referee who worked in three Super Bowls and is now coordinator of officials for Conference USA.
"Her judgment on calls has graded out very high," Austin said in a telephone interview. "Let the coaches coach the game, let the players play the game, but when there's a call that needs to be made then have the wherewithal and courage to step up and make the call. She's shown adeptness at knowing when you should pull the trigger."
The National Basketball Association has used female referees since 1997, when Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner were hired. Major League Baseball has never had a woman umpire.
Thomas, who has two boys, nine and 12, and a six-month-old girl, also works full-time in pharmaceutical sales for Bagsvaerd, Denmark-based Novo Nordisk.
She squeezes in time throughout the week to watch game film and talk to colleagues about situations and rules. Most NFL game officials are part-time, and they will make an average of $173,000 this season under their collective bargaining agreement.
"You just do it," she said, while expressing appreciation for help from her husband, Brian. "I have to tend to the kids, I have to do my job, and I have to get ready for football season. It's just what I have to do."
Thomas said she's only met Eastin once, before Eastin became the first woman to officiate an NFL game, on Sept. 9, 2012. She said the two have not spoken about Eastin's experience. The NFL didn't pursue those it considered finalists for permanent positions so it wouldn't affect their college officiating schedules.
"She did a good job, and we'll continue with Shannon in her development as part of this program," Blandino said. "She's one of several women that we have on our radar screen."
The NFL, with annual revenue of about $9.7 billion, used backup officials for three weeks last season before signing an eight-year labor agreement. Commissioner Roger Goodell apologized to fans after many of the replacement crews' calls were disputed, though he said initiatives agreed to in the new labor deal, such as the creation of the training pool of new officials, would improve the league.
The NFL will have 119 game-day officials next season — 17 crews of seven — and while most are part-time employees, the league is in the process of hiring four or five on a full-time basis, Blandino said. If any openings occur, they would be filled with someone from the training pool.
"Hopefully, through our developmental program this offseason, we'll have one or two officials distinguish themselves from the group and we would pick that official," Blandino said.
Thomas's confidence makes her stand out, he said.
"She looks the part, she acts the part, she's confident," Blandino said. "She doesn't shy away from making decisions. She doesn't let external factors affect her decisions. That's one of the really important things that we look for in an official."
Thomas, 5-foot-11, was a forward/guard at the University of Mobile in Alabama. With two brothers, she often played sports with boys.
In 2009 she became the first woman to officiate a college football bowl game: the Little Caesars Bowl between Ohio University and Marshall University.
Asked if her kids think she's the coolest mom on the planet, Thomas responded: "Well, of course they do."
"Not because I officiate, because I'm their mom," she said.