Joining the list of trailblazers across the world, Maia Chaka has rewritten history as the first Black woman tapped as an NFL game official.
Chaka who has spent more than 14 years teaching health and physical education at Renaissance Academy, an alternative education school in Virginia Beach, Virginia, has lens set on life lessons the kids can get from the feat:
“What I want them to get out of it is, No. 1, you see somebody that you engage with every day make it to the highest level,” Chaka, 38, told USA TODAY Sports.
“That should be motivation for you. It’s real important that they have representation right there in front of them. I also want them to know that it’s OK to step outside the box and work with people who are a little different from you. … A lot of times, especially with the kids I’m working with, they’re afraid to work with people that don’t look like them or don’t listen to the same music they listen to. They’re afraid to step outside their comfort zone.”
Chaka’s journey in the football world began as a full-time teacher, right out of college in 2006, then she was interested in becoming a basketball referee.
Before enrolling at Norfolk State, she played basketball at Finger Lakes Community College in upstate New York, near her hometown of Rochester. Encouraged by Shawn McMahon, a colleague who officiated high school football games, she tried out football:
“I told him I didn’t know much about football,” she recalled. “I never played. He told me it didn’t matter because I’m an athlete who understood rules and concepts, and that I’d be great at it if I just tried.”
Great she is and now officially officiating .
From working high school games to Conference USA to the Pac-12 Conference, to being among the crews in the short-lived XFL, since 2014, Chaka participated in the NFL’s developmental program for officials.
The kids are ecstatic about her new job. Hours after the NFL announced her hiring on Friday, a fellow teacher sent her screen shots of social media activity, USA Today reports.
“To have students saying, ‘I remember her. That was my favorite teacher.’ Or, ’She changed my life,’ those are the things that I work for,” Chaka said.
“I’ve always had the passion and the drive to bridge that gap and get people over the hump,” she said. “Some people think that these kids may not deserve great teachers or great leaders. I think the complete opposite. I think the best teachers, the best leaders, are needed in this type of environment.”
More than just an officiator, in 2008, she created a club, G.E.M.S (Girls with Empowering Minds and Spirits), with a mission to boost self-esteem, attendance and academic achievement.
Chaka’s resume includes awards for Teacher of the Year (2014), Reading Teacher of the Year and I Make A Difference, but she will tell you the ultimate reward is to “enhance somebody’s life, to make it a better life.”
According to Chaka gender has no influence on how she is treated by coaches or players who dispute calls.
“I think that coaches were afraid to talk to me,” she recalled. “And so my sideline partner used to get an earful, because coaches didn’t want to offend me or say the wrong thing. So they were leery when I first came in. But after a year or so, it was equal-opportunity chew-outs.”
The toughest thing about her journey?
“Man, I would say … just having to be patient,” Chaka said.
Despite getting passed over multiple times in recent years as NFL jobs opened, she was determined to reach the highest level, too,
“It was tough to have worked with so many people and watch them go into the league prior to me,” Chaka said. “I was like, ‘OK, when is it going to be my turn?’ ”
“When I finally stopped thinking about when my turn was coming, it became my turn,” she said. “As tough as it is to see your colleagues move on while you are stagnant for a little bit, you still have to find it inside of you to continue to work hard and get better.”