The electrifying feeling of stepping foot onto the field of an NFL game is unmatched—“magical” as Maia Chaka describes it. Taking part in an NFL football game is something so many dream of but only few actually achieve. Chaka made that dream a reality when she became an NFL official ahead of the 2021 season.
“That’s an environment that’s unlike any other I’ve been in,” Chaka explains. “Once you absorb that, then kickoff happens, and it just becomes football.”
From NFL stadiums to her humble beginnings on the intramural fields at Norfolk State University, Chaka always knew she wanted to work in athletics. She characterizes herself as “always an athlete, always a jock.” She didn’t play any sports on the collegiate level, so she could focus on her education, but she knew she wanted to stay close to sports in some capacity.
Like many sports fans, Chaka was heckling a ref at a game, who then presented her with a challenge, “one of them said if I could do it better than them, I should try it.” So, she did just that. Chaka took a work-study job at NSU, officiating intramural basketball and flag football games.
After graduating from NSU in 2006, she began a full-time teaching position at the Renaissance Academy in Virginia Beach and expressed an interest in becoming a basketball referee. However, her friend, Shawn McMahon, who officiated high school football games, urged her to try football officiating. Chaka credits McMahon for encouraging and supporting her to pursue a position with little-to-no female representation at the time.
She began officiating high school football games in the Commonwealth. Along the way, McMahon helped prepare her for the next level, collegiate football. In 2011, she became a Division I official with Conference USA. Under the guidance of other officials, Chaka started to believe in herself more.
“Once you’re surrounded by other people at that level, it becomes a reality. That’s when I knew this could probably become a career.”
After three years officiating college football, Chaka was tapped to join the NFL Officiating Development Program, a training and mentoring opportunity for college-level officials. Chaka says she was probably one of the youngest people in the program and was eager to learn.
“For me, it was just about getting that exposure straight out the gate and being able to adapt to the speed and players.” She continues, “learning those rules and speaking the lingo that the coaches spoke because it’s completely different on every level.”
While in training, Chaka continued to officiate, working for the Pac-12 Conference and XFL. As she continued to drive down the field of her career, simultaneously learning the ins and outs of the NFL, Chaka grew frustrated with how much time she was spending in the NFL Officiating Development Program. It had been seven years, while many officials only stay in for two or three years. Finally, she got the call she had been waiting for.
“I was really expecting the phone call to be about reviewing my progress or just talking about my performance. I wasn’t expecting it to be a call to be hired.”
In March 2021, the league officially announced that Chaka would make history in the upcoming season as the first Black woman to ever officiate an NFL game: “It was just a huge shock. I couldn’t believe it. The day finally came for me.”
She took the field Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021, as the line judge in the week one matchup between the Carolina Panthers and the New York Jets. Chaka credits her officiating crewmates for helping her feel prepared for the season opener.
Chaka says being a good crewmate is one of the essential parts of being a good ref. She spends six straight months with eight members of her officiating crew during the NFL season, building each other up and learning from each other’s mistakes. Chaka also explains that a good official should be coachable, along with willing to take feedback and learn from it.
And just as Chaka once heckled refs, now she has fans pestering her about calls. She says she doesn’t let what they say bother her. “They don’t determine my paycheck. They don’t determine the outcome of the game.” Of course, no fan is happy with every call, but Chaka admits that she never wants one of her calls to make her a trending topic on social media.
Both on and off the field, Chaka strives to empower and positively influence people, especially young people. She currently serves as Student and Program Success Coordinator for An Achievable Dream at Lynnhaven Middle School. However, her goal is to provide programs to all of the Coastal Virginia area.
Chaka recently launched a nonprofit organization, Make Meaningful Change, explaining that she’s always thought there was something more she could do outside of the school building. She’s spent the last few months planning and implementing programs for her nonprofit, along with providing events and resources for students.
“There are a lot of young people who are influenced by me, and I understand that,” she acknowledges. Her goal is to steer people in the right direction, “that’s the driving force behind my nonprofit.”
Following her appointment to the NFL, Chaka wants to empower other women and women of color to pursue what inspires them. Her advice: “master every level.”
“We [women] can’t skip steps,” she expresses. “You want to be able to do everything that all of them men can do, and you probably have to do it 10 times better than them sometimes in order to get some type of recognition.”
For Chaka, this recognition comes from her family, friends, colleagues, students, and the millions of NFL fans who tune in every Sunday.
COVER IMAGE COURTESY OF AN ACHIEVABLE DREAM