Amanda Sauer’s path to midfield at Ohio Stadium, wearing the white hat as referee of Ohio State’s spring football game, started in the stands at a high school north of New York City.
Ironically, she complained about a call.
It was late summer in 2011 as Sauer watched a game at a Westchester County high school alongside her husband, Peter. Amanda saw one of the high school players deliver an obvious block in the back, but no flags flew.
Rarely one to bite her tongue, Sauer asked aloud: How could they miss that?
“If you can see that from here,” a man sitting near her said, “you should come to our meetings.”
The man officiated youth games. Sauer had never officiated football or any sport, and other than the occasional blown call, she never even noticed the officials while watching games. Still, she kept thinking about the offer and thought officiating could be a great way to get involved with her favorite sport.
So that night, Sauer attended her first meeting and went through candidate school in the Westchester County Football Officials Association.
A week later, she worked her first youth game. By the end of the fall, she was working some junior-varsity high school games as an umpire.
Less than six years later, Sauer took the field at Ohio State. She announced three penalty calls to the sold-out crowd of 82,000, and her trial run wearing the referee’s white hat suggests bigger, and more historic, opportunities lie ahead.
They can’t get here soon enough for Sauer. That’s what happens when a dream doubles as a life vest.
The unintentional official
Sauer grew up on a farm in Lower Burrell, Pennsylvania, northeast of Pittsburgh. They had cows, sheep and … pigskin. She remembers her dad drawing formations on his chest as they played football with her brothers and cousins. Sauer led the basketball, tennis and lacrosse teams in high school, but football occupied her fall Sundays.
Football also connected her to Peter, whom she met in Pittsburgh before both went off to their junior years of college. Peter played basketball at Stanford, captaining the school’s Final Four team in 1998, and later had pro stints in Greece and Italy. But like Amanda, he favored football. He once asked for tumbler glasses of every SEC team for Christmas and hoped to see football games at each stadium in the league.
After Sauer’s quick introduction to officiating, she didn’t take long to immerse herself in the rules, positioning, technique and culture of football officiating. “I was hooked right away,” she said. “It completely changed how I watched football.”
Even when Sauer wasn’t working a game, she often showed up to shadow an official. She attended as many meetings as she could. She started with a cursory knowledge of NFL rules but had to master the rulebook for youth and high school games.
“She had an appetite,” said Chuck Piebes, a former Purdue quarterback who worked as an official and became a mentor to Sauer. “She really, really wanted to do this. That came across immediately. She asked all the right questions and she picked things up very quickly, a lot quicker than a lot of our candidates do.
“She was dedicated right from the get-go. She knew what she wanted, and nothing was going to stop her.”
Bob Sutherland, who taught officiating candidate school with Piebes, remembers Sauer asking in-depth questions during the course. They began speaking regularly about the mechanics of officiating. When Sutherland critiqued Sauer during games, he came away impressed.
Her ambition stood out immediately.
“She was talking NFL and college,” Sutherland said. “She had her dreams and her future. I would just say, ‘Slow down here, slow down. We have a ways to go.’ I didn’t think she wouldn’t do it. I just didn’t think it would happen so fast.
“She proved me wrong.”
Sauer spent only one season officiating in Westchester County, where she and Peter raised their three young daughters.
As the 2012 football season approached, the Sauers prepared to move. After hopscotching the country because of Peter’s work — St. Louis, San Francisco, New York — they bought a house back in Pittsburgh. He would run a multi-manager investment fund. Amanda would officiate in the storied Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League, which had produced Dan Marino, Joe Namath, Mike Ditka and other stars.
On July 7, Amanda and Peter celebrated their 11th wedding anniversary. The next night, while playing basketball in his regular Sunday league, Peter collapsed and later died. He was just 35.
“The worst moment of my life,” Amanda said. “True shock. He had no issues. He was 6-7, 225 pounds, still in shape. … They still don’t know exactly what happened.”
Amanda soon moved into the house they had bought, not far from where her parents lived. Barely a month after Peter’s death, she was back in stripes, working WPIAL games as an umpire, positioned just behind the linebackers, right in the middle of the action.
“It had been a brutal move. I was in a fog,” said Sauer, 40, sitting in a conference room recently at the Big Ten Conference office. “It’s corny to say, but I really think it saved my life. It helped me to get direction and focus. That bit of me time allowed me to be a better parent. My kids see me — I work my tail off, I study a lot of film, I have these meetings.
“It definitely saved me.”
Running down a dream
Officiating became much more than a way for Sauer to cope with her grief and her new reality. A successful season in the WPIAL that culminated with a playoff assignment only amplified her ambition.
She wanted to work in college football, but other officials said anyone looking to make the jump needed five to seven years of experience. Piebes said it often takes new officials three or four years just to join a high school crew and work varsity games.
At an officiating event in New York, Sauer met Sarah Thomas, who in 2007 had become the first woman to officiate a major college football game. The two instantly connected.
“The whole day we spent together,” Sauer said of Thomas, who in 2015 became the NFL’s first female official. “She’s my mentor. She’s also one of my closest friends.”
Thomas, who had gotten her start in Conference USA, knew the league was looking for more female officials. She called Gerald Austin, the league’s officiating coordinator, and recommended Sauer. Austin soon invited Sauer to the league’s officiating clinic.
He asked about goals.
“She said she wanted to be the white hat, the referee,” Austin said. “I said nobody comes in and goes right to the white hat. First, you have to establish yourself in the staff, so that when you become the crew chief, that crew is comfortable.
“But she certainly seemed confident on the field, and any official needs to have confidence.”
With referee tabled, Sauer said she wanted to remain an umpire. She made her college officiating debut in 2013, at a Tulane game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, a venue she had seen for years on TV. The first series was “a little bit of a blur,” but she settled in, calling her first penalty — actually two fouls — when a returner signaled for a fair catch and took off running (a no-no), only to be walloped (also a no-no considering it was a dead ball).
Positioned just behind the linebackers, the umpire is officiating’s version of the traffic cop. Sauer loved being in the middle of play, “except when you see that tight end coming like a train and they’re coming for you,” she said. She still has back pain from a hit she took during a game at Florida International.
In 2014, Sauer joined a crew with a complete set of game assignments. But in October, her eldest daughter, Cate, was diagnosed with a rare form of skin cancer. Surgeries and chemotherapy followed, and Amanda realized that Conference USA’s travel schedule made it difficult for her to return home quickly to care for Cate, who completed her treatments in January 2016 and is doing well.
Amanda wanted to keep officiating in 2015 but needed a more convenient option. When Bill Carollo, coordinator of the Collegiate Officiating Consortium, which handles Big Ten, Mid-American Conference and Missouri Valley games, called to gauge Sauer’s interest, she jumped at the opportunity.
Sauer was nervous for her interview, but when Carollo asked her about goals, she aimed just as high as she had with Austin, adding a twist.
“I said, ‘Besides someday getting to the NFL, I want to be your first female referee and do a Michigan-Michigan State game,'” Sauer said. “I just threw that one out. He kind of sat back a little bit and processed what I’d told him.”
Life as part of a crew
Sauer’s singular pursuit of the white hat would first require her to prove herself on a COC crew, which would work most of the season together, including the all-important conference games.
COC referees draft new members when they have vacancies. Last year Larry Smith needed a center judge, a recently established position that lines up closest to the referee in the offensive backfield.
“I knew she had the ability to work, and I knew she had worked Division I before,” said Smith, who leads a Mid-American Conference crew. “I wanted to give her an opportunity.”
There were some hiccups early on, as Sauer and other new crew members settled in. As the season went on, Sauer earned more respect for her decision-making and knowledge of the rules during games and video reviews.
Sauer also built bonds with Smith and the other officials. On Friday nights, after dinner and the pregame meeting, they gathered in a hotel room to eat snacks and watch Mountain West games, which they broke down as if they were officiating. When the crew arrived at stadiums, Smith had the male officials immediately change into their uniform pants and undershirts, so Sauer could join them.
“The jokes are flying, everyone is having fun, we would always have music playing,” Smith said. “It just felt normal. Everyone is giving everyone crap, which is what you want. It was relaxed. She was in on all of that.”
Last season at Western Michigan, the crew’s line judge suffered a knee injury late in the first half and could not continue. Although Sauer had never worked at line judge, Smith had her shift over. She went from identifying potential holds with linemen to trying to keep up with Western Michigan star receiver Corey Davis.
“We got in the locker room [at halftime] and everybody’s trying to teach me to be downfield and what I should be looking at,” she said. “I put all my faith in them telling me, and they kind of did the same.”
Sauer’s dedication has resonated with the crew. The COC’s annual meeting often falls on the anniversary of Peter’s death, yet Amanda attends. She worked the Toledo-Northern Illinois game at the White Sox’s Guaranteed Rate Field on Nov. 9, which would have been Peter’s 40th birthday.
“I couldn’t imagine having to do that,” Smith said. “That shows the willingness and the sacrifice. You have to sacrifice a lot of things to officiate at this level. She’s a very strong person. She’s tough, she’s very educated, she’s very opinionated, but you’re not going to meet very many Division I officials who aren’t, especially ones who aspire to become crew chiefs and referees.”
Destination: White hat
Sauer ended the 2016 season by earning a bowl assignment, the ultimate reward for college officials. In December, she returned to the Superdome, site of her first college game, to work the New Orleans Bowl.
She has spent much of the offseason in the officiating realm. Two weeks ago, she attended a meeting at the Big Ten office for younger officials labeled as potential future referees. Shortly after the Ohio State spring game, she went to New York for another officiating meeting. She also meets regularly with a group of officials in Pittsburgh to review film.
“February, March, we get after it,” she said. “We all have ambitions to move up. We’re always talking about, ‘What game are you going to get? Are you moving up?'”
Sauer is currently trying to learn every officiating role on the field. But she doesn’t hide her ultimate goal, the white hat, or shy away from what it would mean.
“Women will be blown away and proud,” she said. “Maybe it will encourage some of them to get involved.”
Last year, Sauer refereed two nonconference games, and the Ohio State spring game marked another step, and other leadership opportunities could come this fall.
Carollo, a former NFL and college referee, selects every Big Ten, MAC and Missouri Valley referee. Sauer is on his radar, but so are many others. It takes experience, strong evaluations and organization and leadership skills to wear the white hat on Saturdays.
“Does she have the capability? Yes. Is she getting better every year? Yes. Does she fit in and do the right things on and off the field with the crew? Yes,” Carollo said. “Now, are you better than the next guy? You’ve got to be a little bit better than the next guy because people are going to say she got it just because she’s a woman. Everybody wants to be on the big stage, Big Ten, SEC, whatever it might be. But everybody’s not ready to be there.
“I’m willing to put my reputation on the line to give her an opportunity.”
The wait isn’t easy for Sauer. “Being a Type A person, you want it now,” she said. But officiating already has given her more than she could have imagined when she sat with Peter in the stands all those years ago.
Last year, Sauer brought her daughters — 12-year-old Cate, 11-year-old Charlotte and 9-year-old Cassie — to Wisconsin, as she made her officiating debut there. They jumped around between the third and fourth quarters. They also jumped around when their mom took the field.
What would Peter think of her now?
“He would be over-the-moon excited,” Amanda said. “Maybe, for once in his life, he would have been quiet. He would have felt like my kids feel, so pumped that his wife, their mom, is doing what she wants to do.”