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The She-Zebra

If you're watching a football game and start complaining about one of the referee's calls and the petite woman sitting at the bar next to you says you're wrong, simmer down. If she's Erin Meehan, you probably are wrong.

When it comes to the finer details of football — say, the difference between "illegal hands to the face" and "face masking" — Meehan knows her stuff. She should: Meehan, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, is one of a few women referees in the game. Meehan, who is 37, spends nights and weekends in zebra duds on a football field in Broward or Miami-Dade, calling games for every level of play, from youth league to semiprofessional. She aims to make it to the National Football League as its first female referee.

"From August to December, I have no life outside football," she says. "When the Super Bowl comes every year, I'm in mourning because I know it will be so long before the season starts back up."

Meehan has been around football since before she could blow a whistle. Her father is a legendary high school football coach in Greenwood Village, Colorado, a suburb of Denver. Jack Meehan coached the Cherry Creek High School Bruins for more than 30 years and was the school's athletic director for 14 more. Sports Illustrated recently ranked Cherry Creek fifth on its list of the nation's best high school athletic programs. Erin and her sister Kate, who is four years younger, were often at their father's side.

"Erin was always a gym rat, even in her early years," Jack says. "She used to come to practice and to all the weight-training workouts. She just loved it."

Erin would watch her father's players drill. She paid close attention during games. She soaked in the atmosphere of football, the smell of popcorn on Friday nights in the fall, the glare of stadium lights, the echoes of a P.A. system. She discovered the nuances of a great play and the camaraderie of the football community. And, says Jack, "she was also very good at teaching my quarterbacks how to play jacks."

As Erin grew up, she always seemed to be playing one sport or another — volleyball, basketball, soccer, softball, track, and diving. In high school, she didn't have as much time to hang out at her father's practices, but she talked with him over dinner, typical daddy-daughter conversations about pass interference, intentional grounding, and the wishbone offense. She got on the field herself in college when she played for the Tri-Delt intramural team at Arizona State University. They played flag football — no pads, no helmets, no tackling — but she ran down the field with the ball just the same, dodging and weaving past defenders.

After graduating from ASU with a business degree, Erin moved to Clearwater, Florida, in 1999. She became an avid fantasy football player. Guys at her work who joined football pools frequently asked her for advice — "you know, they don't know the game that well, but they join for social reasons," she says. Yet she missed being closer to the game. So she thought about officiating. She knew the game well enough, she figured. "I just said, 'You know what, this would be really cool.' So I called my dad and asked how to get started."

Jack put her in touch with officials in Florida. "She really involved herself in Clearwater," he says. "She becomes very fixed on a goal."

Meehan took an officiating class and scored exceptionally. By the end of the year, she was an alternate on crews doing youth league games. In 2000, she moved across the state and got a regular schedule calling youth league games in Miami.

Football referees are essentially free agents, though they work in teams. So one official can call a youth league game on Tuesday, a high school game on Friday, and a college game on Saturday. A typical football officiating team consists of a referee, a head linesman, a line judge, an umpire, a back judge, a side judge, a field judge, and a timekeeper. The referee is in charge of the crew. That position is often called a "white hat" because the head ref always wears a white hat.

Meehan worked her way up the ranks of officiating teams. From the youth leagues, she started officiating middle school and high school games. Then she moved on to the semipro circuit, which is often played in spring. "It's all about the number of snaps," she says. "The more you're on the field, the farther [in your career as an official] you get."

This year, she began calling games in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Meehan is not the only woman officiating in the MEAC. Two others have full schedules working football games. Sarah Thomas, a pharmaceutical saleswoman from Mississippi, became the first female official in Conference USA last fall. Thomas had worked high school games for 11 years before the call-up.

Meehan doesn't want to stop working youth league games, though. "You gotta teach them the rules when they're young," she says.

Meehan says she hasn't experienced any explicit chauvinism from coaches, players, or fellow officials. "I've been really lucky that way."

The biggest obstacle she faces, her father agrees, is her height. Because most football players are tall (and linemen are both tall and wide), some crew positions make it harder to see everything on the field. And staying out of the way can be a challenge too. "I told her, 'At five-foot-three, do not be an umpire. That would not be conducive to your health,' " Jack says.

Dealing with loud and obnoxious parents is part of her job. And coaches aren't exactly sweet to the striped ones, as she learned well growing up on the sidelines. That part of her story is like a modern fable: the child of a great coach wanting to be a referee, like the offspring of a lion wanting to be a zebra. For decades, Jack stalked the sidelines, eyeing the officials. "Sometimes we discussed things — maybe loudly," he jokes. "If an official is consistent and in position to call it, I've never had a complaint. I'd call them afterwards and talk to them and even asked if they wanted to come look at the game film."

"I saw my dad yelling at officials all the time growing up," Erin says. "I don't break down and cry when I throw a flag and they yell about it."

She's not Jack's only tough daughter. Her sister, "Killer" Kate Meehan, is a professional kickboxer in Tampa Bay.

Meehan says it could take her years still to get to the NFL as a referee, but she's already played that role at Dolphin Stadium: Two years ago, when the Jacksonville Jaguars were in town to play the Dolphins, Meehan was head referee for the halftime youth league game. Jack's mouse pad in Colorado has a picture of her from that day, wearing her white hat.

"They say there are three things polite people should never discuss over dinner: politics, sports, and religion," she says. "Well, I worked for John McCain in college, and I love to talk about it. And I'm always in the middle of a sports conversation."

And religion?

"My religion is basically football."

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Michael J. Mooney

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