HAYS, Kan. — Emma Ellerbee finds herself thinking, “No way this is happening,” a lot these days.
She shakes her head and tears roll down her cheeks as she talks about life-changing experiences at Fort Hays State University that could lead to her dream career. And she’s a freshman education major still a month away from the completion of her first semester.
First, the freshman from Hastings, Neb., found what she thought was the ideal part-time job while looking for work her first couple weeks in Hays.
She ran across an online ad for high school referees through the FHSU intramurals department. An avid sports fan whose dream was to coach major college football someday, Emma thought it would be the perfect opportunity to be on the field and learn more about the game at the same time.
Then one weekend when her grandparents were visiting from Hastings, Emma’s grandfather spotted a poster in the Memorial Union with Sarah Thomas’ photo on it. Thomas, the NFL’s first female official, was going to be the speaker for this year’s FHSU Presidential Series on Nov. 12.
It’s no secret in Emma’s family that Thomas has been her idol for several years, so her grandfather stopped to check out the poster.
“It says she’s coming to FHSU to speak,” Richard Johnson said. “No way,” was Emma’s reply.
Emma promptly jotted the event down in her calendar to keep that day in November open. It couldn’t come soon enough. She was one of the first to take a seat during a question-answer session with Thomas and students in the Department of Health and Human Performance Department and the intramurals program.
Following Thomas’ visit with several student groups, Emma approached Thomas to take a photo with her. They got to chatting about sharing similar goals. Before she knew it, Emma had Thomas’ cellphone number, and Thomas promised to keep in touch and offered any help she could to Emma.
Emma was so moved by the afternoon’s events, she bypassed a night meeting in her residence hall to attend that night’s public presentation by Thomas.
Thomas entertained the audience with stories of challenges faced as a female in a male-dominated job, anecdotes of her career and balancing her profession with her family life with three children.
At least twice during the presentation, Emma shook her head in disbelief.
The first was when Thomas talked about her mother being a home economics teacher while growing up. Emma’s mom, Kate Portenier, teaches family and consumer sciences (formerly home ec) at Adams Central High School in Hastings.
Another was when Thomas flashed up on the screen two of the quotes by which she lives. They are also two of Emma’s favorites: “Be yourself, because everyone else is already taken” and “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
Emma thought — you guessed it — “No way!”
“With all the similarities, I just felt this connection,” Emma said. “It was super, super inspiring — just an amazing experience.”
So inspiring, in fact, that after sleeping on it, Emma decided the next day that she was going to pursue NFL refereeing, with coaching still available as a backup plan.
“It was like she hit me with a truck, it impacted me so much,” Emma said. “I love the game and love being on the field. I am so excited about keeping in touch with her.”
Emma’s passion for football began at a young age when she watched NFL and major college games on TV with her dad, A.J. Ellerbee. She was raised a Kansas City Chiefs fan, and her love for the game grew with each passing year.
By the time Emma was in middle school, she joined her school’s football team in Omaha and played middle linebacker. Similarly, Thomas talked about playing on boys’ sports teams growing up.
Emma didn’t play high school football, but she still stayed involved. In an effort to bring the student body closer together, she created an organization called the Red Rowdies who created themes and dressed up for games to cheer on the athletes in different sports.
But her first love is football.
Sometimes in the fall, Emma can be found watching the sport either on TV or live six days a week. Now she has a goal of playing an even bigger part in her favorite sport.
It was almost too much to wrap her mind around this week. Was this really happening, or was it all a dream. Emma and Thomas have already texted back and forth, and Thomas sent a tweet about the two meeting to the NFL.
Wednesday morning, Emma woke up to reality. By noon, she was already working on her plan of following in the footsteps of the NFL’s first female referee, who was nearly as stoked about helping a certain 18-year-old college freshman at FHSU as Emma herself.
“The peak for me is to get to meet people just like me,” Thomas said.
That she did at Fort Hays State.