As a young girl, Samantha Davis, ’14, watched her father review tapes of football games he officiated as a college referee. By the time Davis was a teenager, she’d picked up enough about the game to offer her own take on the plays—and to point out her dad’s mistakes. “I started correcting him on his positioning,” Davis said with a laugh. “And he’d say, ‘You should do this. You know too much not to do this.’”
Davis said her father, Gerald, believed in her talents long before she did and scheduled her to ref a semi-pro Indoor Gridiron League game when she was a 19-year-old freshman at La Salle. She picked up the rules quickly. “I always liked football,” said Davis, who at a petite 5-foot-1 found officiating as “a way to be a part of the game without actually being a player.” She spent the next four years pursuing a bachelor’s degree in history at La Salle and, on the weekends, refereeing everything from high school games in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association to men’s and women’s pro Arena Football Leagues.
NFL reps took notice. In the 2014 season, Davis became the eighth woman hired by the NFL’s Women in Officiating program, which selects talented female referees and grooms them to have a chance at being scouted for the NFL. To increase her pro football exposure, Davis took a position as Game Day Kicking-Ball Coordinator with the Philadelphia Eagles. Most Sundays, you’d find Davis pacing the sidelines at The Linc, ready to hand off a designated kicking football to an NFL official placing for a punt, field goal, or extra-point attempt.
This fall, she’ll have the honor of becoming one of few female football officials in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Divisions II and III. “This will be the first time I’m part of a crew,” Davis said—no more picking up games here and there. Her weekends will be spent traveling to colleges along the East Coast. During the week, along with taking conference calls to review plays, Davis will complete coursework toward a master’s degree in history at La Salle. Her long-term goal is to work at a museum and ref NFL games on the side.
To get to the pros, Davis’s path now aligns with that of every NFL ref hopeful: move up to NCAA Division I, where she hopes to be scouted by the NFL. “Once you’re in Division I, the NFL has a ‘watch list’ of 21 officials they’re looking to bring up,” she explained. If she gets scouted, Davis will join an elite handful of women making history as we speak—the first female to ref an NFL game was Shannon Eastin in 2012.
“It’s a long process, and there’s not exactly a time frame,” Davis said. “Right now, I’m just really excited about college.”
She can think of surprisingly few instances where she felt that being a woman in a mostly male sport was a problem. Like every official, when it comes to coaches and players, it’s their opinions of her calls—not gender—that can get them fired up.
Davis has modeled her professors at La Salle in maintaining her composure when faced with confrontation. “If a student approached them with a problem, they always tried to be understanding,” she said. “I’ve brought that to the field. When a coach (argues) with a call, I am able to present myself in a professional way, rather than become defensive.”