Maia Chaka remembers the last time she played football while growing up as a child in upstate New York.
When Chaka was a kid, she said she would pass, punt and kick around a football with boys in her Rochester neighborhood. A lot of times, she says she played better than the boys. But eventually, the 2006 NSU graduate had to tackle other sports.
“Football has always been my favorite, but after a certain point physically, I wasn’t able to play with the guys anymore and I moved on to other athletic activities.”
But her decision never took away Chaka’s desire to be around football. And now the physical education teacher has made history this year in the National Football League.
Chaka, 32, is one of two women currently selected into the National Football League’s Officiating Development program and could become a full-time game official. A league official said she is one of 21 participants in the league’s advanced program. If selected, which could take as long as two to three years, Chaka would be the league’s first African American woman to officiate games on a regular basis.
But her goal is to be on the sidelines next season.
In August, Chaka became the first African American and third woman to referee an NFL game. She worked the sidelines during the New England Patriots vs the Philadelphia Eagles preseason game last month. She said it was a positive experience.
Chaka currently works as a teacher at Renaissance Academy in Virginia Beach. She began refereeing games on the high school level, then advanced to the Division I ranks. She current spends many of her weekends in the fall and winter as a college football referee for Conference USA.
Chaka said whenever she’s been on the field, the players aren’t concerned that she is a woman. They just want her to make the right call.
“A lot of the players want you to see things from their point of view,” Chaka said. “My job as an officiator is to make the right call.”
Last February, the NFL contacted Chaka about entering their advanced training program for prospective NFL referees. During the NFL off-season, she was trained in an intense NFL program and received hands-on advice about officiating from full-time referees.
“I like to think of it as an internship and training program,” Chaka said. “I have access to the training tools and I get hands-on training like the regular officials do.”
Chaka, just like players and athletes after games, she said she reviews hours of film to evaluate and grade how she called a football contest. She said the officiating process is a serious job.
Chaka said she fell into refereeing after a mentor asked if she would be interested in covering a high school football game. After a few games, she said she became interested in learning the calls. Chaka also was inspired by her great uncle, Joseph G. Echols, the former NSU football coach, athletics director and longtime University supporter.
The NSU graduate acknowledges the history she could potentially make, but she is very humble about it. Her overall goal is to make it to the NFL, she says.
Chaka said regardless of the outcome, she wants more women of color who are interested in sports careers to know there are other ways to be around the game.
Courtesy: Norfolk State Communications