NBC News- Seven years after she was one of only two women selected for an NFL officiating developmental program, Maia Chaka has made history.
The NFL announced exclusively on TODAY Friday that Chaka has become the first Black woman to join the ranks of officials at football's highest level.
"It didn't really hit me until just now," Chaka said on TODAY. "When I saw the introduction, I'm like, 'This is really real,' because this is just something that we're just always taught to work hard for. Sometimes we just don't take time to stop and smell our own roses.
"I've just been grinding for so long at this, it's just an honor to be able to join the National Football League."
She is also just the second woman to become an NFL official after Sarah Thomas, who made history in 2015 and broke more ground last month when she became the first female referee to work in the Super Bowl.
Chaka received the life-changing call on March 1, when NFL vice president of officiating evaluation and development Wayne Mackie told her she was joining the ranks of NFL officials. Mackie, who was an NFL official for 10 seasons, has been a mentor to her over the years, so she thought it was just a conversation to catch up.
Mackie told her he wanted her to get prepared for an upcoming meeting and then added, "Also, you have a lot of work ahead of you."
"He goes, 'Welcome to the National Football League,' and I just went nuts," Chaka said. "I asked him, 'Hey are you punking me, you've gotta be kidding me,' because I've been at it for so long, I just never thought the day would come. I just enjoyed working."
Chaka has been training with the NFL since 2014, when she and Thomas were two of 21 referees chosen for the NFL Officiating Development Program after scouts observed Chaka officiating college football games.
She has worked NFL preseason games as part of the developmental program, but now she will be part of the crew for regular-season action. Chaka began her career in 2006 doing high school games and then moved up in the college ranks to Conference USA and then the Pac-12 Conference, according to The Virginian-Pilot.
Chaka and Thomas also made a bit of history in 2014 when they became the first female officials to work a FBS bowl game, between Washington and BYU.
Chaka most recently has been working Pac-12 games and also worked the sidelines for the short-lived XFL last year.
"You need to have a lot of patience," she said about what makes a good official. "And then after having patience, you have to be able to listen, and then you need to have the confidence on the field to make the call. You also need to make sure that you are very decisive in that whatever decision you make, you stand by it.
"You're going to make mistakes. It's not necessarily how many mistakes that you make, it's how you recover from all those mistakes that you make."
Chaka can now look forward to the moment in September when she jogs on the field to officiate her first regular-season NFL game as a member of a crew.
Outside of football, Chaka has been a celebrated health and physical education teacher for the past decade at Renaissance Academy in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where she works with at-risk youth.
"I just want them to know if you have a passion for something and if have a drive for something, don't let it hold you back just because you think that something may give you some type of limitation," she said. "Just continue to work hard and always, always, always just follow your dreams."