Carlson: Super Bowl official Sarah Thomas will make history, but keep an eye on this Oklahoma female referee
Shannon Ford was never scared of anything on the football field.
She’d run into opponents. She’d run over opponents.
Whatever it took.
But when the Oklahoma City woman who played football for years started officiating the sport she loves, she avoided moving up the ranks. She didn’t join Oklahoma City’s association of high school officials. Didn’t attend the rules meetings. Didn’t try to find a full-time spot on a crew.
“I was afraid,” she admitted.
Hits as a player were one thing — but she wasn’t sure she wanted the punishment she expected as a female official.
Ford eventually took a chance, and now, she’s part of a small but growing wave of female officials sweeping across the country.
Earlier this winter, the Big 12 welcomed its first female official for men’s basketball games, Amy Bonner, and a couple weeks ago, there was a first in the NBA when two of the three officials in a game were women. The NBA now has five women who are full-time officials.
- Related to this story
- Article: Tramel: Tom Brady's Antique Roadshow shows that some Super Bowl hopefuls are only a QB away
- Article: Super Bowl LV: Meet the 55 people who make Buccaneers vs. Chiefs intriguing
- Article: Brady is not the better quarterback in the game, but Tampa Bay's defense is stout
- Article: Tramel: Oklahoma State football can't even take pride in Tyreek Hill, its Super Bowl star
And this weekend, history will be made again when Sarah Thomas becomes the first female official to call the Super Bowl.
Ford understands the risk all of those women had to take. Being an official is hard enough — learn all the rules, hear all the gripes — but being a woman official in a sport played by men and largely officiated by men compounds the level of difficulty.
“When you get out in front of football teams or coaches and they see a female,” Ford said, “they automatically think, ‘You don’t know football.’”
Thing is, Ford knows football from just about every angle.
She has been involved with the sport for almost two decades, first starting in 2002 when she played for the Oklahoma City Lightning women’s football team. She played linebacker, fullback, tight end, offensive line and quarterback over the years. She later played for the Kansas City Titans and the Oklahoma City Lady Force, and now, she is the head coach of the Force.
A few years into her playing career, Ford decided to give officiating a try. She mostly did little league games, but she knew her stuff. Coaches and other officials could see it, and they encouraged her to join the OKC Metro Officials Association. Go to a higher level. Call high school games.
She would have to attend rules meetings and technique seminars, and she knew she’d likely be the only woman there.
She let fear keep her away for more than a decade.
“Just doubting myself,” she said.
But eventually in 2018, Ford built up enough belief in herself to give it a go, join the association and attend the meetings.
“Of course, they gave me that look like, ‘Who’s the girl?’” she said with a laugh. “It takes a lot of confidence. You have to be confident in what you know and confident in the calls that you make.”
Ford was confident because of her experience as a player and an official. Sure, the football games she had called as an official had been at a lower level, younger age and slower pace, but she knew enough to know her abilities.
At the end of her first season, Ford was named the association’s rookie of the year.
Not long after, she got a call from Shawn Houk. The longtime official told her that his crew was looking to work with a newbie. In addition to junior high or junior varsity games, she would do spot duty during varsity games with Houk’s crew.
“We put her into a game,” Houk said of his early impressions, “and the third play of the game, my flag and her flag landed at the same spot.”
They conferred, and Ford had not only seen exactly what Houk had but also picked up on a foul that is rare.
“It was like, ‘OK, she knows what she’s doing,’” Houk said.
After that season, Houk’s crew happened to have an opening and brought Ford on board.
Houk asked her what position she wanted, expecting her to pick one of the spots along the sideline. That’s where most young officials like to start. But Ford chose umpire, the position behind the defensive line and linebackers.
“Right in the middle of the ruckus,” she said. “It’s the one people hate to do.”
But Ford played linebacker throughout her career. That was an area of the field where she was comfortable
“She’s done a great job,” Houk said. “She’s really held her own.”
The whole crew did this past season. Houk and Co. landed a coveted state-finals assignment, Class 6A-II between Bixby and Choctaw. Because of Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association regulations, Ford hadn’t been calling varsity games long enough to work the title game.
Not that it dampened her spirits.
“It was exciting,” said Ford, who was in uniform on the sideline to support her crew. “It’s almost like being in a state championship as a player or national championship as a player.”
It was the first time Houk and his crew had done a state final, and now, they want to go back.
They want it for Ford.
If that happens, Ford wouldn’t just be part of the growing number of female officials. She would be making her own history. No woman is believed to have been an official for a state title football game in Oklahoma.
Really, though, Shannon Ford has already overcome so many hurdles, none bigger than her own doubts and fears.
“If you learn your craft, then you build that confidence,” she said, “and once you throw that first flag? OK, nothing changed. Nobody hates me.
“I’m just doing my job.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok, and support her work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.
Want to get involved?
High school football officials are in short supply in Oklahoma and around the country. Efforts to recruit new officials have been ongoing for several years as those who are already officiating the sport are prepared to teach and mentor new officials.
If you are interested, the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association can put you in touch with an officials’ association in your area.
Call the OSSAA at (405) 840-1116 or email Grant Gower, director of officials, at firstname.lastname@example.org.