Catherine "Cat" Conti has a dream of becoming the first woman to referee in the NFL. FOXSports.com's Bill Reiter shares her story.
By Bill ReiterFoxSports
The woman without fear takes a seat in the bustling restaurant and, without a breath, dives into her story.
Her faith. Abandoning it for a decade. And the blessings that have come from returning to it.
The ring on her wedding finger that reads, “True love waits.”
Being a daughter, a student, a jokester, a victim and survivor of something horrible and a wandering soul who once told a joke that had been meant to distract from what she didn’t possess but that instead sparked a journey that has become everything.
Every last bit of Catherine Conti — the charm, the humor, the confidence, the demons, the determination — now point her and her every fiber toward one goal: Becoming the first woman referee in the National Football League.
“Why me?” she said. “Well, God told me. Plain and simple. God told me.”
This is not some 34-year-old woman dreaming big dreams rooted only in fantasy. This is a goal that could very well happen.
"At her age and positioning, she’s at a perfect place,” said Mike Pereira, the former senior director of NFL officiating who now works for FOX as rules analyst. “And patience is an absolute virtue. And with the people now behind her, she’s got a heckuva chance to get there.”
In the months ahead, FOXSports.com will take you into her journey — from her time next season as one of the first female full-time officials in Division I football to just what it takes to try to reach the highest level of officiating.
But, first, her story.
Out of something horrible
She is not ashamed because she knows there is no shame in being a victim. Nor does she long to dwell on this. It shaped her.
It is part of what she calls her journey; it matters, but it does not define her.
So this will be brief.
When she was young, about 4, a family member everyone trusted began molesting her.
Cat knew it was wrong, but she was a little girl, and what could a little girl do against such horrible acts? She pondered this as they occurred, and, for the first time, the very real consequences of right and wrong — and her sense that she must master and steer her own life — became an intricate part of who she is.
At age 8 she told the man to stop.
“I said, ‘Nope, that’s not right,’ ” she said.
She did not tell anyone else for a long time and he did not go to jail.
“No,” she said, “no. That didn’t happen back then.”
But he did stop. And, yes, the consequences lingered. How could they not? But so too did the strength it took a little girl to end such horror so early and then to forge ahead.
Catherine Conti is an absolute dynamo of energy, all charm and wit and good humor. Funny, sincere, candid, disarmingly direct — person after person interviewed marvel at the impact she has on a room.
She is the opposite of the damaged victim hiding from the world.
“I’m not one of those women who hates men, who holds everyone accountable, who want so to seek and hurt them,” she said. “I didn’t go that direction.”
She went this direction: toward absolute independence.
This is the high school student who decided to make Christianity a mainstay of her life. The same one who, in college, had a conversation with God in which she told him, “You know what, this doesn’t feel real. And I know that you don’t want me being involved in anything that’s not real or authentic. So I’m just going to stop. I’m going to stop until it feels real again.”
Nine years later, when it felt real again, she returned to her faith. This time as a white woman at a predominantly black congregation.
This is part of the ripple effect of what happened to her: Absolute candor. A yearning for fairness. A need for right and wrong to matter, for good and evil somehow to get balanced on the scales.
To be able to assert order and control over her own life.
“She definitely had to make some decisions when she was little, because it happened when she was like 5 and 6,” her mother, Corky Burright, said of the abuse. “So when she was little she — I didn’t find out until she was 12 — she had already decided that she was in charge of her own life.”
In officiating, there was the pursuit of fairness and there was control. There was this man’s world she could step into that reinforced the fact that, though one man was not good, most others are.
“When you spend a lot of your life in an environment where the control really wasn’t in your hands, there’s something that appeals to people like Cathy where it’s like, ‘OK, it’s about fairness,’ ” said Rob Cox, her best friend who’s known her since 10th grade. “And she can say, ‘No you can’t do it this way.’ ”
So we have a little girl, damaged but not ruined, hell bent on control, on balancing the scales. We have this little girl growing into a woman dead set on not letting victimhood define her.
This is the alchemy of Cat Conti, and it turns a joke into a destiny.
A joke, the power of words and the start of a dream
She’d gone to Westmont College in Santa Barbara, and truth be told she wasn’t much of a football fan.
She studied theater arts, and while doing so, she learned a thing or two about the power of invention, of selling a fantasy, of, well, acting.
So when surrounded by so many well-to-do classmates talking about life after college — European adventures, travel odysseys, grad school, all and any escape funded by rich mothers and fathers — it seemed natural to let her sense of humor answer the question, “What are you going to do, Cat?”
What was she going to do after college?
She was a working-class girl loaded with debt. She was going to do what she was supposed to. Get a job, pay off her bills, scratch out a life. What else was there?
“For my own entertainment I said, ‘Actually, I’m going to move to San Francisco and be a yard marker,' ” she said.
A yard marker. That’s what she called the folks on TV working the NFL chain crew. A yard marker. People ate it up.
“I was talking about how I was going to be on the chain crew for the 49ers,” she said. “And they believed me. Because who would make that up? Who would make that up?
“I would say, yeah, I’ve written some letters, made some phone calls. I’m going to be famous. I’m going to be the old guy in the orange vest.”
Only later would she realize how much the ruse would root in her life. How much that joke would affect her future.
The ruse lingers
She leaves college, works at restaurants and bars, starts teaching, stops teaching, starts working as a personal trainer.
All this time she watches football and, as she watches, remembers the joke.
Only now it feels like something more than a joke.
For years this goes on: Joking about her future in the NFL, everyone now in on the joke and laughing with her, and as the laughter dies only Cat feeling like something’s changed.
She’s just not sure what.
“We don’t realize how powerful our words are,” she said. “Period. I kept saying it over and over again. And I planted the seeds in my own heart, in my own mind.”
She attributes what started her NFL journey in April 2000 to faith. She believes God has a plan for everyone, and this was His for her.
Call it fate. Call it luck. Call it destiny. Call it God’s hand or call it an absolute act of happenstance.
Whatever it is, it’s the most improbable of starting points for a future NFL career: A woman, a woman waiting tables at a sports bar, not too long before she’s fired, letting that long-ago joke resurface to change her direction and set her on her way.
Fate, luck and guts
The man who sometimes has lunch at the sports bar is named George Contreras, and he is a high school football coach. It is the year 2000 and he sees in the waitress with whom he sometimes talks more promise than befits someone serving beer and delivering wings.
“She was a bright girl, and you could tell she was funny and outgoing and intelligent, and she had this football interest she wanted to try out,” said Contreras, now a retired high school football coach from Ventura County.
He expresses this to her, and so as Cat answers it just pops out.
“I said, ‘Well, you know just out of curiosity, I’m kind of not doing anything with my life,’ ” she said. “ ’I’m working at a sports bar. How does one become a team crew member for the NFL?’ ”
He tells her. He says she must start with high school officiating, and she scoffs, thinks it’s silly, but he persists.
He gives her a phone number of a man to call, a man who sets up training for high school officials. She calls, and the man says come back four months from now. Hanging up the phone, Cat thinks, well that’s that. Four months? On to something else.
Only Contreras remembers this conversation, and four months later he is back in the bar with a newspaper clipping listing all the details of where to go to become a high school football official.
“I said, ‘OK, put up or shut up,’ ” Contreras said. “ ’Here it is.’ ”
Cat woke up on a Tuesday morning and decided, Why the hell not? I’m going. Time to put up.
One of the men at the meeting, seeing her, tried to explain this wasn’t volleyball officiating. It was football.
“And he says, ‘A contact sport,’ ” Cat said. “And I say, ‘Great.’ So he shrugs his shoulders and says, ‘All right, then I guess you want to sign up,' and he hands me a pen and a piece of paper.”
Then she begins, slowly, haltingly, to learn the game and its rules. And she discovers she loves it, absolutely loves the adrenaline and the game and the work and the intense focus that football brings out of her.
She officiates at the JV level, she volunteers, she stands in the rain and afterward drinks warm beer with the guys, she bears the brunt of the skeptics and the scorn and the sneers, and she sees how good and welcoming others can be.
Again and again, for little money — and often just volunteering to do it for free — she goes to every game she can. She learns quickly.
At every stop, she wows the people around her. At a camp to teach officials how to officiate, she is given at its end the award for the camp’s best official, and the men who award it to her — Division I and NFL officials — hold back tears while she accepts.
“Each year, she’s just impressed more and more with her work ethic," said Ken Rivera, the coordinator of football officials for the Mountain West Conference who presented her the award all those years ago.
“She’s impressed enough of us over the years that she’s got some real upside potential for her officiating future,” he said.
“I think she has a chance at some point to get into Division I. And there’s not many females for whom that’s true. It’s a journey, man. It takes a long time.”
In her quest to be perfect, in whatever unseen force compels this young woman to embrace this world of officiating so intensely, many of the men are not just moved. They are won over.
“She commands respect because she does a very, very good job,” said Patrick Turner, one of her mentors and a Big 12 official.
“I’ve watched her progress. She works so hard. She’s come a long way. What makes her special is she worked so hard and tried so hard to learn the profession — which she did.
Said Rivera: “She’s been paying her dues, coming through the ranks, and doing a very good job.”
It’s that respect, too, that reached Cat. That made the road to the NFL feel like a journey worth embarking on.
Realizing that her hard work, her time studying film, her humility and willingness to learn, her conditioning, her focus — it is all noticed and it is appreciated.
“That was the thing I hadn’t anticipated — the camaraderie, that fraternity, being welcomed into this social entity,” Cat said. “And I think because I went in with the attitude, ‘Wow I think this is the coolest thing I’ve ever done,’ I think that’s why they respected me. I didn’t come with a chip on my shoulder or anything to prove. I just came in with, ‘I want to learn, I want to do the best job I can.’ And I still have that attitude.”
For her, the acceptance feeds her desire to be great at this. The challenge of getting better feeds it. It’s not money — referees do not make enough to even remotely live on unless they reach the NFL.
Instead, she simply loves being on the field, loves the role, loves the challenge. She loves the game and her place in it.
What was a joke is now a quest.
“I wouldn’t underemphasize the passion involved,” Pereira said. “You just get so into this. It gives you a unique sense of yourself, in that you’re working with kids and you have a role in fairness.
“In integrity, in the integrity of the game. There’s nothing like it. I’m so proud of her in the obstacles she’s already overcome.”
So it begins
Five years officiating high school games. Six years doing junior college games. Last year, her first shot at some Division II games, followed by small four-year colleges.
This past season, she cracked Division I when she officiated a Southland Conference game. Only one other woman, Sarah Thomas of Conference USA, is on a roster of officials for a Division I league.
Earlier this month, the phone rang.
It was the Southland Conference. They wanted to put her on their roster.
They wanted to make her a Division I official.
“We like her dedication,” said Byron Boston, the Southland Conference’s supervisor of officials. “We watched her for many, many years at clinics in Reno, Nev., and I gave her a game in the Southland Conference last year. She did very well there. We think she’s got a lot of potential and a lot of upside. We feel like now she’s ready to go.”
She hung up.
She sat at kitchen table, quiet.
“She’s moving up this ladder pretty quickly,” Pereira said. “Ultimately her goal is to be in the NFL, and I will say the NFL has been looking at female officials and there are just a couple around. There is one now in Conference USA, Sarah Thomas, and she’s another one who’s being looked at by the NFL. It’s a long process.”
Perhaps longest of all for Catherine Conti: From that little girl who conquered her fear to that college kid with her joke to years of wondering if there was a future in her fearlessness and that joke and her sense of right and wrong.
So much time. So much further to go.
“I’m going to make it,” Cat said. “I know I will.”