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Trailblazer in stripes: Female official Sarah Thomas hopes to break NFL barrier

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Sarah Thomas, right, walks off the field after a Cleveland Browns mandatory minicamp practice at the NFL football team's facility in Berea, Ohio Thursday, June 12, 2014. Thomas, who hopes to be the first female to work in a league game, has spent the past few days at Browns minicamp working on her craft. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

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Sarah Thomas, right, walks off the field after a Cleveland Browns mandatory minicamp practice at the NFL football team's facility in Berea, Ohio Thursday, June 12, 2014. Thomas, who hopes to be the first female to work in a league game, has spent the past few days at Browns minicamp working on her craft. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

BEREA, Ohio - Sarah Thomas starts the day at her second job by tucking her long blond hair inside her cap, so she doesn't get noticed.

On a football field, that's impossible.

Thomas doesn't consider herself a pioneer, just "one of the guys." But as one of two female officials in the NFL's officiating development program, Thomas has a chance to break barriers in a male-dominated profession.

This week, Thomas, a former college basketball player, current college official and mother of three whose full-time job is as pharmaceutical sales representative, worked with a crew of officials during Browns mini-camp. Like the players, she worked on improving her skills and honing her craft.

One day, she hopes to be on the field with the pros. But not because of her gender.

"I am a female, but I don't look at myself as just a female," she said. "I look at myself as an official."

Thomas began her officiating career in 1996, when an NFL scout spotted her working a high school game. From there, she joined Conference USA and was invited to join the NFL's developmental program, now in its second year. Thomas worked some training camps and preseason games last season.

The next step is a regular-season game, and the earliest that can happen is 2015.

It's not her call, so to speak, but Thomas believes she's ready.

If this week was any indication, Thomas could be on her way.

"She's done a good job," Browns coach Mike Pettine said after practice Thursday. Pettine believes it's time for the league to welcome female officials.

"If she's efficient and good at what she does, I have no issues with it," Pettine said. "I think the best compliment somebody paid to her was when someone said, 'What did you think of the female official?' And they said, 'There's a female official out here?' I thought she was on point."

Browns cornerback Joe Haden joked that Thomas was a little whistle happy.

"She was calling everything," Haden said, smiling. "I couldn't snap on her. I was chilling."

Thomas said her goal is to blend in. She doesn't want to stand out because of her sex — or worse, because she's not competent. She's dedicated to being a solid, fair and mostly unseen, which is why she pulls her hair up under her cap. Still, sometimes players do a double take when they see her on the field.

"I think sometimes they go 'What is that?'" she said. "Yes, I do tuck my hair and at first I really wasn't too sure why. But I get it. We don't want to be noticed and anything I can do to blend in — I like it when I leave the field and people go 'I told you that was a girl.'"

Thomas has two boys and an 18-month-old girl. She said her sons are most interested in her nabbing some NFL attire or autographs, "I can't do that," she said.

Her children have never thought about their mom being anything other than an official, so they don't really grasp that she could make history as the NFL's first female official.

"They just know mom officiates and it's nothing foreign to them or pioneering or anything," she said. "I do this."

___

AP NFL website www.pro32.ap.org

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