The NFL's first female official is welcoming her role as a sports pioneer.
Shannon Eastin says she's excited and a bit nervous but not at all intimidated by the challenge of working a pro game. Eastin makes her NFL debut Thursday night as the line judge when the Green Bay Packers play at San Diego in the preseason opener for both teams. A 42-year-old referee in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference — college football's second-highest level — Eastin has 16 years of officiating experience.
She is among the replacement officials hired by the league while the regular officials are locked out. Like the rest of her current colleagues, she could easily be back to her regular officiating gig once a new labor deal is struck.
"I want to encourage women: Don't be afraid," Eastin said on a conference call Tuesday. "Pursue and have dreams. This is my dream. With very step I hope to show it really doesn't matter if you are male or female."
Eastin is in a particularly difficult spot for three reasons:
— No woman has officiated an NFL game;
— The Chargers host the Packers on national television;
— She is viewed by some of the NFL's regular officials as a scab.
"Hopefully there is some understanding on their part I have got to do what's in the best interest of myself," Eastin said of the regular officials, "just as they have to do what is in their best interest."
Regardless, she says this was a chance she couldn't pass up.
"I believe I am ready," she said. "I'm a realistic person and I know what is realistic for me. I am not going to play football. I feel it is realistic for me to officiate.
"I make myself ready for any opportunity that comes my way. I will come in with my eyes wide open."
She'll also come in with millions of eyes on her, as well as on the other replacement officials. A crew worked the Hall of Fame game on Sunday with mixed reviews.
Beginning Thursday, the replacements will officiate 16 more games. It is the first time in 11 years that replacements have worked games; that standoff lasted one week into the regular season.
Her biggest challenges will be handling the different rules in the pros and positioning, Eastin said. She has visited some team training camps to prepare and didn't see a huge difference in the speed of the game.