Meet Lori Locust, Maral Javadifar & Sarah Thomas: the women of Super Bowl LV

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February 9th, 2021

During Super XLIX, Procter & Gamble brand Always ran a powerful ad campaign that asked young men and women what it meant to "run like a girl." After the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ triumph in Super Bowl LV, we should ask ourselves what it means to coach like a girl.

On Feb. 7, Buccaneers assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust and assistant strength and conditioning coach Maral Javadifar became the first female coaches to win a Super Bowl.

The two women accomplished the feat one year after former San Francisco 49ers offensive assistant Katie Sowers became the first woman, and first openly gay coach, to work a Super Bowl. Sowers fell just short of a title, as her 49ers lost, 31-20, to this year’s Super Bowl runner-up, Kansas City, in Super Bowl LIV.

On Sunday night, Locust and Javadifar’s Buccaneers got the better of the Chiefs, a team many expected to steamroll Tampa Bay on the way to a second straight championship.

Instead, the Bucs trounced Kansas City, 31-9, in a game that also featured the first female Super Bowl referee, Sarah Thomas. 

Throughout the historic night, fans took to social media to congratulate all the women at the forefront of Super Bowl Sunday, but, unsurprisingly, a horde of critics also chimed in to shun the idea of women participating in gridiron football.

The ridicule females in sports face is no new phenomenon, but Locust, Javadifar, and Thomas are helping shift the perception that only men belong on the playing field.

These women didn’t reach the NFL’s biggest stage overnight. They put in decades of hard work and film study, persisted in spite of frequent rejection, and often worked for free, just to get their foot in the door.

Let’s get to know the stories behind these three women who became a major part of Super Bowl LV.

Locust took winding path to the top

Last year, Locust, 56, joined Javadifar as the first full-time female coaches in Buccaneers history. Head coach Bruce Arians had learned about Locust from the general manager of the Alliance of American Football’s Birmingham Iron, where Locust was an assistant defensive line coach.  

Prior to her experience with the AAF, Locust — a longtime Steelers fan — played defensive lineman in a women’s league while in her 40s. Injuries forced her to the sidelines, and she began coaching her former teammates.

She next took a job at her alma mater, Susquehanna Township High, where she worked unpaid as an assistant for nine years. "Coach Lo" also held roles with men's semi-pro teams, and the Keystone Assault, then a member of the Women’s Football Alliance.

In 2018, she found her way to an internship with the Baltimore Ravens during the team’s training camp. In Baltimore, she also met Bucs linebacker Shaquil Barrett’s brother, who Locust coached against in semi-pro ball.

Now working with Shaq in Tampa, Locust has assisted defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers in leading a unit that has surrendered the fewest rushing yards per game in the league the past two seasons. This year, the Bucs also tied for the fourth most sacks (48) in the NFL.

"The biggest compliment to me is when they start to call you 'Coach,' " Locust said in an interview with NFL 360. "I get the ‘yes, ma’ams,’ and ‘no, ma’ams,’ … and I know they’re trying to be respectful, but when I get those players to … where they’re just calling me coach, you’re not looking at gender. You’re looking at somebody in front of you that can help you."

"MJ" Javadifar brings unique skill set to Bucs

Javadifar, 30, also got her start with the Buccaneers last season, when head strength and conditioning coach Anthony Piroli told Arians he wanted to hire someone with both a physical therapy background and a performance-based mindset.

The perfect fit was Javadifar, a licensed physical therapist and former college athlete.

A native of Queens, Javadifar played basketball at Pace University in New York and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in molecular biology. She earned her Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from New York Medical College, and worked as a performance physical therapist in the Virginia/DC area.

"When you go to an athlete and show that you care and can share knowledge with them that’s going to make them better ... they’re going to buy in," Javadifar said in the same NFL 360 segment above. "As long as you can do your job at your highest level and the level that the organization needs you to … gender, race, ethnicity — none of that should matter."

Thomas simply strives to be No. 1

As for the woman in zebra stripes at Super Bowl LV, Thomas, 47, has been working at her craft for nearly three decades.

The college basketball star got her start in officiating when she attended a meeting with her older brother at the Gulf Coast Football Officials Association in 1996.

At the time, Thomas didn’t know much about the rules of football, but she was allured by the team aspect of an officiating crew.

She began as a referee for youth leagues, jumped to middle school and junior varsity games, and became a high school official in 1999. 

In 2006, Conference USA's coordinator of officials and two-time Super Bowl referee, Gerry Austin, hired Thomas. The following year, she made her debut as the first woman to officiate a major college football game, between Memphis and Jacksonville State.

In 2015, Thomas earned the distinction as the first full-time female official in the NFL. Her first game was as a line judge for a matchup between the Chiefs and Texans.

Now in 2021, Thomas has received the ultimate honor, as a Super Bowl official, but it's not something she necessarily aimed for. 

"Knowing the impact that I’m having on not just my daughter, but young girls everywhere…is remarkable and I’m truly honored and humbled to be a part of this year’s Super Bowl crew," Thomas said. "Being selected for (the Super Bowl), I can’t say it was a goal … My goal is just to be No. 1 at my position."