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'Paving The Way': Sarah Thomas Makes NFL History, Inspires Female Officials

FOXBORO (CBS) - Before the first whistle blows in Sunday's game between the Patriots and Chargers, Sarah Thomas will have made history again. The Mississippi native was the first woman to ever officiate a college football bowl game.

Then she became the NFL's first full-time female official. Now, she'll be the first woman to officiate an NFL playoff game. Among all the eyes sure to be on her – a special group of supporters – her fellow female football officials.

"I personally know of 12 female officials nationwide at the college level currently," said college football official Julie Howell from Abington.

Howell began officiating girls' lacrosse when she was in college. It was her dad who suggested she join him on the football field.

Julie Howell
NCAA football official Julie Howell (WBZ-TV)

"The funny thing is my first reaction was, I can do that? Here I am eight years later officiating division three colleges all across New England," she said.

Howell loves the passion and the pace of the game, but admits it can feel like she's under a microscope.

"Everybody has that pressure to make sure they get the right call, but you definitely stand out. You're noticed," she explained.

Sarah Thomas
Sarah Thomas. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

A tremendous amount of effort goes in to getting it right. After every game, Howell is already preparing for the next, and the offseason is dedicated to studying ever-changing rules.

"Each of us is looking at different things. We all function together. If we all do our job well, ideally we won't miss anything," Howell said.

And Sarah Thomas has earned her way to the top.

"I wish her the best of luck," Howell said. "There is very clearly a lot of eyes on her to do a good job now that she's been given this opportunity. I'm sure she's going to crush it. Paving the way for the rest of us."

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