In many ways, Chris Donnelly is just like other highly respected high school football referees. Coaches give Donnelly high marks, they praise her ability to deftly navigate temper tantrums among coaches and quash concern over clock malfunctions. Yet something is notably different about the referee: Donnelly is a woman.
"They were calling me, 'Ms. Official,'" Donnelly told the Philadelphia Inquirer about coaches during a recent game. "People don't know what to call me. It's so funny."
According to Inquirer sports columnist Rick O'Brien, Donnelly, in her first years as a Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association football official, is one of three women who help call games in the state's District 12. With some 110 total officials eligible, she and fellow female referees Valerie King Smith and Ruthy Rotimi make up less than 3 percent of the district's officiating work force.
While she's still considered new on the job, Donnelly has quickly gained respect for the way she handles controversial situations and makes potentially inflammatory -- but correct -- calls. In one game earlier this year, a visiting team was driving deep into the hosts territory as time dwindled in the fourth quarter, needing just a touchdown to tie. On a pass near the sideline, Donnelly saw a pass interference penalty and immediately threw a flag, despite standing in front of the host sideline and vociferous fan base.
While those coaches didn't like the call at the time, they recognized later that it was a correct one.
"She was very good," Frankford (Penn.) coach Mike Capriotti said. "She was on top of things, knew what she was doing. She's as good as anybody we ever had."
There's a reason for Donnelly's quick adjustment to the speed and pace of high school football: She's a former player herself. A counselor and girls basketball coach at Philadelphia's Academy at Palumbo (Penn.) by trade, Donnelly was a safety and cornerback in the National Women's Football Association, playing for both the Philadelphia Liberty Belles and Philadelphia Phoenix. All the while, Donnelly, who played college basketball at the University of Scranton, worked as a referee for girls basketball games.
When a serious knee injury ended her football career in 2007, the official said moving on to football games was a natural next step.
"I got into it because I love the sport, still miss playing it," Donnelly told the Inquirer. "This is a safer way to be on the field and be involved."
While Donnelly said that the camaraderie between officials at the high school level is her favorite part of the job, she insists that she doesn't see refereeing high school games as her final stop in the football officiating hierarchy. With line judge Sarah Thomas becoming the first woman to officiate an FBS bowl game last year, Donnelly knows that there's precedent for a talented female ref in the college game.
"I want to ride this as far as I can," she said. "But I don't want to get pushed through just because I'm a female. I want to be there because I deserve to be there."
At least one of the men she's worked with thinks her talent in the job speaks for itself.
"She's been in the big games, and she's delivered," said Tommy McClain, a legend in local refereeing circles and crew chief in District 12's top contests. "She was invisible. I didn't even know she was out there. And, as a referee, that's your goal."