Big 12 Will Have First Female Official

DALLAS - Remember what your parents used to say about lies, you shouldn't tell any and that honestly is always the best policy. If Cat Conti had been honest to her friends and other inquirers regarding her plans after graduating from Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., then she might have never become the first female football official to work a Big 12 Conference football game.

Conti will make that a reality on Saturday, Sept. 6, in Memorial Stadium in Lawrence, Kan., when she will fill in as the center judge on a put together officiating crew assigned to the Southeast Missouri State at Kansas game by Big 12 supervisor of officials Walt Anderson.

Conti actually got started on the road to being one of the most successful female members of a vocation based on honesty and integrity by telling a white lie in her final semester of college.

"For my own entertainment I got tired of telling people I was going to go home and get a job," said the attractive 38-year-old. "I started telling a small while lie. I said I was going to move to San Francisco and become a yard marker for the 49ers. Everybody said, 'what is that?' I said, 'you know those old guys that have orange vests and they hold a stick on the sidelines. That's going to be me.'"

Conti said everybody believed her because nobody was making up stories in those days about being a career member of the chain gang at an NFL stadium. What she did was the boring answer she quit giving. She was working at a sports bar waiting tables when a football coach came in and she asked him about how to get on as a member of the chain gang.

"He told me that a lot of them are retired officials," Conti related before a session for head linesmen and line judges at the College Football Officials West Clinic in Dallas last weekend. "Immediately, I thought there goes that idea and his next sentence was, 'you should think about doing that.' I remember laughing at him, to his face, 'No, no, no, I don't want to be in the game. I want to stand on the sideline and hold a stick.'

"I was not interested in being on the field, but he was very serious and four months later he came into the restaurant with a newspaper clipping on where an officials meeting was. I thought, what have I got to lose and I showed up."

It would have been interesting to see the way Cat Conti presented herself at that first officials meeting she attended. I'm sure it is nothing like these days, where the now veteran of two seasons in the Mountain West Conference as she worked 12 games in the 13 weeks of the season last fall, is seen as a respected young official, but is not confused with the guys.

Her toes are painted a metallic blue and she dresses the part of a 38-year-old professional business woman. Conti is a professional fitness trainer and also an independent representative for a line of eye makeup products. She was also a drama teacher in high school for eight years. Don't you know that came in handy?

It was 2000 when Conti first showed up at that officials meeting in Southern California. As you might imagine, Conti was shown no slack as a beginning football official.

"I started at the bottom with everybody else, the knee knockers where it was helmet, shoulder pads, and legs, three yards and a cloud of dust," Conti described of the local little league football. "Then you work high school and in Southern California we have an incredible community college system with great athletes and so I worked my way up through the community college system."

Another fortunate break for Conti, who oddly enough did not grow up a football fan, was getting to know Ken Rivera, supervisor of officiating for the Mountain West Conference and the proprietor of the Reno Football Officials Clinics and Camps.

Conti's dad was a Los Angeles Dodgers fan and her family watched baseball. It was a high school boyfriend that turned her into a football fan and a huge 49ers fan of the Steve Young and Jerry Rice era. She did not play sports in high school. In fact, she got a job at age 13 and has had one ever since. Now she has several, including being an official.

"I loved football and then I'm doing the officiating and I learned early in my career that there are training camps that officials can go to and I first met Ken in 2002," Conti said. "Early in my career he began seeing the progression of my career over the course of 10 years and I trust them implicitly with knowing and having a good perception of what I'm ready for as an official and I trust them."

Conti is talking about Rivera and also Walt Anderson. The two work closely together in the CFO West with officials working games in both conferences.

"Cat has been through our program and she has not been cut any slack," Rivera said. "She has had the same expectations we have of all of our officials from first starting out with us and throughout our program."

Her regular position on the field is line judge, positioned at the line of scrimmage opposite the head linesman and on the same side with the field judge. Her responsibilities in her mechanics include monitoring play in the trenches and also the short passing game. Her position puts her on the sideline in front of the bench and she is right there to hear "cat calls" from the stands and any disagreements from the sidelines.

"It's interesting that you mention that," Conti explained. "I think there has been somewhat of a learning curve and an acceptance curve, if you will. I did not get in this to try and prove anything. I did not get in this to try and trail blaze. What I wanted to do was be involved in the game of football.

"I've been called Suzy and I take it all in stride. I feel if I'm going to have thin skin then I don't belong on the football field. When a coach gets in my face and he challenges me then I actually feel that I'm getting treated like every other official. Just like every other official I need to be challenged and I need to have an answer that is professional and being even-headed and offering him a reasonable answer. sometimes you have to talk through your whistle, 'coach, I've got it and no, coach it wasn't.'"

This season in her games in the Mountain West she will get to hear it from both sides. In the past the line judge and field judge worked one side of the field the entire game and the head linesman and side judge worked the other. This season at halftime in Division I games they will switch.

Conti is fine with that and she is also gladly accepting of the Big 12 assignment that will put her at the center judge position opposite the referee in the offensive backfield. It is the eighth official that was created last season and is responsible for setting the ball for play more rapidly so as to not impede no huddle, spread offenses.

"I'm excited about it," Conti said. "My whole goal is to be well prepared. I want to communicate with my crew because that is not my crew working that game. I like being out in the middle of the field. Like you said, I don't have to listen to coaches. I have a different look at the game and I am a runner. I like being around the players. They are all at least a foot taller than I am, but that's okay.

"One of the biggest compliments that I can get is when somebody is watching the film and they don't know I'm a woman underneath the hat and the black pants. Boy, I'm a glad we're not wearing knickers anymore. There was no hiding with those."

Conti has done some switching around and is now settling in with a crew in the Mountain West that includes referee Eddie Shelton and umpire Rick Orsot. As an official that has filled in, she has had some plum assignments. Last season she opened in Hawaii with a crew of mostly Big 12 officials including veteran referee Greg Burks, umpire Scott Campbell and one of the best side judges in Division I officiating in Gene Semko in working USC at Hawaii, a premium assignment.

Finding her place is important to Conti.

"I had a chance to work with this crew (Shelton and Orsot) three times last season and those were three of my best weeks last season," Conti described. "This crew, their wives travel and I met some of their kids and when they went to Hawaii (for a game last season) some of the wives were sending me text messages, 'wish you were here with us Cat.' It really is a family and I think Ken and Walt have my best interest in putting me with a crew where I fit. We have to be there for each other and trust each other."

Conti has been mentioned as a possible candidate to be the first female official in the NFL. She has certainly risen to as high as any woman in Division I football officiating, but instead of detailing future conquests and achievements on the football field Cat Conti has a really simple response when asked about the fun and satisfaction she gets from wearing stripes.

"My second year of officiating, Southern California doesn't get a lot of rain and I remember we were volunteering on a freshman game and they only have three officials, so young officials can volunteer and help out," Conti remembers.

"It was a Thursday afternoon and it was raining and it was in November. I was standing on the sideline (side judge) waiting for the snap and I remember a drop of water gathered on the bill of my cap and just dripped in front of my eyes. I thought this is it. I have arrived and this is the coolest thing in the whole world.

"When I sit back and think of the mazing fraternity that football officiating is and I think the fact that I'm welcomed and I am embraced and I think part of that is the guys that work with me get to form their own opinion of whether I can officiate and what I am doing."

Chances are it won't be raining on Sept. 6 and the Memorial Stadium turf will be sending up heat waves at kickoff, but Cat Conti will get that serendipitous moment that see first enjoyed on that rainy afternoon in 2001. This time it will be as a woman officiating a Big 12 game for the first time.

"I'm single, never been married, have no kids and people say I am living the dream."

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