Seven years after being one of only two women selected for an NFL referee development program, Maia Chaka made history.
The NFL exclusively announced TODAY on Friday that Chaka has become the first black woman to join the official ranks at the highest level in football.
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“It hasn’t really hit me until now,” Chaka said on TODAY. “When I saw the intro, I was like, ‘This is really real,’ because it’s just something that we are always taught to work hard at. Sometimes we just don’t take the time to stop and smell ours roses.
“I’ve been working on this for so long, it’s just an honor to be able to join the National Football League.”
She’s also just the second woman to become an NFL official after Sarah Thomas, who made history in 2015 and broke new ground last month by becoming the first female umpire to work in the Super Bowl.
Chaka got the life-changing call on March 1, when NFL Vice President of Evaluation and Officials Development Wayne Mackie told her she was joining the ranks of NFL officials. . Mackie, who has been an NFL official for 10 seasons, has been a mentor to her over the years, so she figured it was just a conversation to catch up.
Mackie told her he wanted her to get ready for an upcoming meeting, then added, “Plus, you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you.”
“He said, ‘Welcome to the National Football League’ and I just went crazy,” Chaka said. “I asked him, ‘Hey, you’re punishing me, you’re laughing at me,’ because I’ve been there for so long, I never thought the day would come. I just enjoyed working. “
Chaka has been training with the NFL since 2014, when she and Thomas were two of 21 referees chosen for the NFL Officials Development Program after scouts observed Chaka officiating at college football games.
She worked in the NFL preseason games as part of the development program, but will now be part of the squad for regular season action. Chaka began his career in 2006 playing games in high school, then rose through college to Conference USA and then Pac-12 Conference, according to The Virginian-Pilot.
Chaka and Thomas also wrote a bit of history in 2014 when they became the first official women to participate in an FBS bowl game, between Washington and BYU.
Chaka recently worked on Pac-12 games and also worked on the sidelines of the short-lived XFL last year.
“You have to have a lot of patience,” she said of what makes a good official. “And then after you have patience you have to be able to listen, and then you have to have confidence on the court to make the call. You also need to make sure that you are very decisive so that whatever decision sticks to you.
“You’re going to make mistakes. It’s not necessarily how many mistakes you make, it’s how you get over all of those mistakes you make.”
Chaka can now look forward to the September moment when she jogs the field to referee her first regular season game in the NFL as a crew member.
Outside of football, Chaka has been a renowned health and physical education teacher for ten years at Renaissance Academy in Virginia Beach, Va., Where she works with at-risk youth.
“I just want them to know if you have a passion for something and if you have a desire for something, don’t let it hold you back just because you think something can give you some kind of limitation,” says -she. “Just keep working hard and always, always, always follow your dreams.”