Maia Chaka will be the first Black woman to work as an NFL referee when she takes the field in her new role this fall. The NFL made the announcement Friday morning on the "TODAY" show ahead of a live interview with Chaka.
"It didn't really hit me until just now when I saw the introduction," Chaka, who has been working Pac-12 Conference games, told "TODAY." "I'm like, this is really real. This is something that we're always taught to work hard for and sometimes we just don't take time to stop and smell our own roses. And I've just been grinding for so long in this. It's an honor to be able to join the National Football League."
She is one of two women working as NFL referees and joins Sarah Thomas at the game's highest ranks seven years after made history together at the FBS level.
Who is NFL referee Maia Chaka?
Chaka and Thomas were the only women chosen of 21 referees for the NFL Officiating Development Program in 2014. As part of that training, she has worked NFL preseason games over the years and counted NFL vice president of officiating evaluation and development Wayne Mackie as a mentor.
Mackie called her Monday at around 9:15 p.m. for what she thought was just a call to catch up and chat, she said on "TODAY." Instead, he told her she has a lot of work ahead.
"He goes, 'Welcome to the National Football League,' and I just went nuts," Chaka said, via "TODAY." "I asked him, 'Hey are you punking me, you've gotta be kidding me,' because I've been at it for so long, I just never thought the day would come. I just enjoyed working."
Her officiating career began in 2006 at high school games and she moved into the collegiate ranks with Conference USA, per The Virginian-Pilot. She then joined the Pac-12 crews and even officiated some XFL games last year.
Chaka, Thomas made history as referees in 2014
Chaka and Thomas made history in 2014 when they became the first women to officiate a FBS bowl game. It was between Washington and BYU. Thomas made history in 2015 as the first woman to ref an NFL game and again this past February when she was the first one to ref a Super Bowl.
"You need to have a lot of patience," Chaka said of what makes a good official. "And then after you having patience, you have to be able to listen. And then you need to have the confidence on the field to make the call. You also need to make sure that you're very decisive in that whatever decision that you make you stand by it.
"You're going to make mistakes and it's not necessarily how many mistakes you make, but it's how you recover from all those mistakes that you make."
Chaka is a health and physical education teacher at Renaissance Academy in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and works with at-risk youth. She was named a teacher of the year a few years ago and wants her story to be an inspiration.
"I just want them to know that if you have a passion for something and if you have a drive for something, don't let it hold you back just because you think something may give you some kind of limitation," she said. "Continue to work hard and always, always, always just follow your dreams."
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