When the officiating assignments for this year’s college football season came out, Catherine “Cat” Conti didn’t flinch.
“Everyone saw the assignments, everyone saw I was assigned a Big 12 game,” Conti told Yahoo Sports. “It was a big deal, but it wasn’t.”
Conti will be the eighth official for the nonconference game between Kansas and Southeast Missouri State on Sept. 6, her first Big 12 game and the first time the Big 12 has ever had a female officiate one of its games. The moment is so historic that Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby mentioned it during his state of the conference speech during Big 12 media days two weeks ago.
“She is not there because she is a female,” Bowlsby said. “She is there because she's paid her dues and because she is a really outstanding football official.”
Conti said hearing Bowlsby mention her was a surreal moment, but that her progression to a Big 12 game wasn’t nearly as monumental. Since 2000, Conti has worked her way from reffing freshman games for free in Ventura County, Calif., to making a name for herself as an outstanding line judge in the Southland and Mountain West Conferences.
For her, not getting a Big 12 game this season would have been a step backward in a journey that has been as much a personal sacrifice as it has been a labor of love.
“It’s a big deal because it’s never happened before and because I happen to be a woman,” Conti said. “But it’s not a big deal because I’m an official who’s progressing through their program and it’s the next logical opportunity.
”I’m pursuing a passion.”
How it all started
Conti isn’t ashamed to admit she knew nothing about football while growing up.
“I grew up watching baseball and collecting baseball cards with my brother; we were a Dodger family,” Conti said. “Honestly, at 11 years old, I couldn’t tell you anything about football except that they wore tight white pants. I never watched a full game. I didn’t even go to our high school football games.”
But then, in high school, she started dating a boy who loved the 49ers and her sports allegiances changed. She started watching football every weekend and in college in Santa Barbara, she said she stuck out because of her love of the game.
But while many of her male counterparts were watching the action on the field, Conti was watching the men in the chain gang, though she referred to them as the guys with the sticks and the bibs. She wondered how she could get such a coveted job?
And when she graduated and all of her friends went on to pursue high-level careers or go live off their rich parents, Conti spun her own future tale.
“For my own entertainment, I started lying to everyone and saying I’m going to move to San Francisco and be a yard marker for the '49ers,’” Conti said. “And they all believed me. I called it a yard marker, but I was just referring to the guys on the chain crew.”
In reality, Conti would go home to work at a sports bar, which still gave her football, but not from the sidelines as she’d hoped. One day, she asked a football coach who frequented the bar about the chain crew and was dismayed to learn that usually those jobs are taken by retired officials. But the coach offered her another option. Four months later, he walked into the bar with an ad for a referee camp. Conti thought it was crazy. She didn’t want to be in the game, just on the periphery where she could get a better view of the action. She took the ad, and it wasn’t until a few hours before the camp started that she decided to see what it was all about. She had no idea that one decision would change her life.
In 2000, Conti started on high school and youth games as a line judge. She didn’t make much, so she took a job at her former high school as an English and drama teacher and reffed Thursday through Saturday. She tried to get as many games as she could, sometime reffing freshman games for free just for the experience. She started shelling out money and flying all over the country to go to reffing seminars and camps. She was driven and she was starting to get noticed.
In 2004, she caught the eye of the officiating coordinators from the CFO West — Walt Anderson, Ken Rivera and Byron Boston. Those three men coordinate officiating crews for the Big 12, Mountain West and Southland Conferences, respectively, and they saw potential in Conti.
For the next six years, they watched her progress. She continued to do high school games on Thursdays and Fridays and started doing community college games on Saturdays.
In 2008, the principal of her high school thought officiating was taking too much time away from Conti’s work with the drama program and he asked her to choose. She walked away from the school and two years later, Boston reached out to her to do work in the Southland Conference.
“We’re not in the social experimentation business, we’re in the football officiating business and our job is to put the best officials, male or female, on the field,” said Anderson, who is the head of Big 12 officials and a referee in the NFL. “We have a pretty extensive evaluation process in the CFO West that all officials have to spend a lot of time going through. And over a period of years, it’s our job to make the assessment, is this person ready for the next level or not? That’s what we’ve done with Cat just like we’ve done with the guys and to her credit she has done the steps necessary from her standpoint. A lot of people don’t realize how much time these college officials devote to the game particularly in the offseason trying to get prepared to try and achieve as high a level as they can.
“Just like all the officials want to do, she’s trying to move up the ladder.”
Getting the call
In 2010, Conti was asked to work one Southland Conference game. It was in Texas, she was the Southland’s first female referee and she knew Boston was taking a big chance putting her out there.
After that assignment ended, it was quiet. She went back to her Division III games and continued her offseason learning. She sent an email to the heads of the CFO West asking for applications to do more games and then her phone rang.
Conti can still remember the moment Boston called her.
“Every official talks about getting ‘the phone call,’ ” Conti said. “And ‘the phone call’ is whatever that next level is, for that supervisor to personally call you on the phone. I remember sitting at the kitchen table and I hung up and I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, I got the phone call. I made it to Division I.’”
In 2011, not only was Conti given eight Southland Conference games, she also was assigned a Mountain West game, again breaking the ceiling as the first female official in the Mountain West. It was in New Mexico that she found herself working with Cooper Castleberry, a stalwart among Big 12 officials and Texas high school officials, and she was nervous. She knew that each time she got an opportunity to do a game on a higher level, it would be the only opportunity she’d get.
“So, you know, you go out there thinking, ‘All right, don’t muck it up,’” she said.
After the game, Rivera, the Mountain West coordinator, came in to speak with the officials, go over what they did right and what they did wrong, and when he was done with the evaluation, he pulled out a game ball, signed by all the other members of the officiating crew, and presented it to Conti.
The next year, she was assigned four Southland games, six Mountain West games and was an alternate official for a Big 12 game. In 2013, she had a similar schedule, but her Mountain West games were higher profile, including the season opener between Hawaii and USC, and she was given a BYU game, which, in officiating circles, falls under the Big 12 umbrella.
She also worked as the eighth official during Kansas’ spring game in April.
It was only a matter of time until she found herself at the highest possible collegiate level.
“Once officials reach a certain level of competence and we feel like they’re ready to be tested at that next level then we’ll give them a game at that next level and that’s what she’ll experience here just like most of our guys have,” Anderson said. “We just make sure the process is slow and deliberate. We try not to move people along faster than what they’re ready.”
Validation and a source of inspiration
The moment that validated Conti’s decision to become a full-time referee didn’t come with that first call from Boston or even with the presentation of the football at New Mexico. No, her moment came early in her officiating career when she was working a freshman game for free.
She was standing on the sideline as the line judge and the teams were coming up to the line of scrimmage. The center put his hand on the ball and as Conti was waiting for the snap to happen, a droplet of water collected on her hat and fell right in front of her eyes.
“I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is it. I have arrived,’” Conti recalls. “I get to go play in the rain. I get to be on a football field and there’s like mud everywhere and this is the coolest thing. You know, you don’t have an excuse as a grown adult person to go play in the rain. You don’t have an excuse to go play in the mud anymore. I was like, ‘OK, this is it. This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done.’”
Since then, validation has come in many forms, including media attention, emails from fans and parents of young daughters, and her coworkers. Conti said about 90 percent of her the interaction with her fellow officials is genuine. The other 10 percent are males who still have a tough time accepting a female in a male-dominated game.
Conti is one of four female officials — a pool that includes Sarah Thomas, Maia Chaka and Amanda Sauer — working in major college football. Thomas and Chaka also have worked some NFL preseason games. The four women actually met for the first time at a camp in May and shared stories of their experiences.
But Conti knows to make her story count for something she has to keep progressing. Getting one Big 12 game is a great accomplishment, but the goal is to get another and then another and then another.
“The reality is I’m going to have to go out there and do a great job,” Conti said. “I’m going to have to be excellent because there will be higher scrutiny and I understand that. I have to go out there and I have to be excellent and I have to demonstrate and show Walt Anderson and Ken Rivera that they can trust me with another game. Period.”
Conti has given up a lot to get to where she is. With her teaching career in the rearview, she does personal training to pay the bills. And as far as a personal life, well, she hasn’t quite found a way to reconcile that with her career choice and her schedule.
“As far as a balance is concerned, that’s not something I’ve given a whole lot of attention to,” Conti said. “I haven’t pursued relationships and making them work the way that I have pursued football officiating. It is something that in my idealistic, romanticizing of a perfect life, I hope that I can still have that. I really do because it’s something that I’ve wanted my entire life. But do I regret the sacrifice? Not at all.”
She said she didn’t become an official to inspire young girls who might have similar ambitions, though she doesn’t shy away from that role and has embraced the emails she’s received from parents who share her story with their daughters.
In fact, she hopes her story is one that inspires all people to take that chance on a dream that might seem far out of reach.
“I hope that I’m an everyman,” Conti said. “I hope that I’m relatable. I hope that guys who want to reach whatever their next level is will look at me and say, ‘If she can do it, if she can overcome those obstacles never having played football, being a female, if she can do it, I can do it.’ That’s what I hope people say whenever I get an opportunity to work another game.”
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