Written by LARRY RUBAMA
Maia Chaka’s phone rang at 9 p.m. Monday
The call was from Wayne Mackie, the National Football League’s vice president of officiating evaluation and development.
That wasn’t surprising. Mackie has been Chaka’s mentor as she progressed through training to become an NFL official.
“I thought he was just calling to give me some advice on something else or to look at some film,” Chaka, a Norfolk State University graduate who teaches health and physical education at Renaissance Academy in Virginia Beach, said Friday in a telephone interview. “I wasn’t expecting to get a call to be hired.”
But that’s what happened — Chaka made history as the first Black woman to become an NFL official. The announcement of Chaka’s promotion was made Friday morning on the Today Show.
“Maia’s years of hard work, dedication and perseverance — including as part of the NFL Officiating Development Program — have earned her a position as an NFL official,” Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, said in a release. “As we celebrate Women’s History Month, Maia is a trailblazer as the first Black female official and inspires us toward normalizing women on the football field.”
Chaka joins her friend, Sarah Thomas, who made history when she became the first female hired as a full-time NFL official in 2015. Thomas became the first woman official to work a Super Bowl when she was part of the seven-person crew in Tampa Bay last month.
In 2014, Chaka and Thomas were selected for the NFL’s Officiating Development Program, which identifies top collegiate officiating talent to expose them to some of the same experiences as NFL officials, working to determine if they have the ability to succeed in the top football league.
“I was proud for her and her moment,” Chaka said about Thomas working in the Super Bowl. “I removed myself completely from it. I didn’t think about, ‘When is it going to be my time?’ I was just focusing on being the best official that I could be — not just being the best female — but being the best official. I never wanted to put a time limit on when my success would come.”
But now, Chaka’s time has come, and she can’t wait. She feels she’s put in the work to get there.
Chaka started her officiating career working high school games in Hampton Roads. She’s also worked collegiately in the Pac-12 Conference and Conference USA. In 2014, she and Thomas were the first female officials to work a Football Bowl Subdivision game — the Fight Hunger Bowl between Brigham Young and Washington. She’s also worked in the XFL and Alliance of American Football.
“It goes to show that it’s not cliché, that hard work does pay off as long as you stay to the grind,” Chaka said. “The biggest thing for me is I got this with integrity. I didn’t try to shortchange or cut any corners. I got it just the honest way of keeping your nose down and grinding and working for it.”
The news came the day after Black History Month ended and as Women’s History Month was beginning.
“It’s an accomplishment for all women, my community and for my culture,” Chaka said. “I just think it’s great just to have more representation, positive representation of women of color. That’s real important, especially for the young girls growing up, just to see as much positive representation as they can.”
Maia Chaka, center, spends hours studying the rule book. She works to perfect her positioning on the field so she’s in the right spot to make a call. And she works on her hand mechanics. (Preston Gannaway | The Virginian-Pilot)
Locally, there has been a rise of more women trying to become officials at the high school level.
“They’re now getting the courage to actually step up and try something different,” Chaka said.
After her appearance on the Today Show, Chaka said her phone “is blowing up.”
She’ll take this promotion as she does with every assignment as an official.
“As officials, you’re taught to work every game like it’s the biggest game,” she said. “This is no different.”
Larry Rubama, 757-575-6449, firstname.lastname@example.org