Growing up in Rochester, New York, Maia Chaka played “pretty much every sport under the sun” — except football.
“After all my playing days were done, officiating was a way of staying involved in sports,” Chaka said. “I chose football because I was never able to play it.”
Chaka, a physical education teacher at a school for at-risk students in Virginia Beach began officiating at the high school level. After five years of working varsity-level games, she attended an officiating camp, where she caught the eye of a former NFL official, Gerald Austin. Austin invited her to officiate an East Carolina University scrimmage.
“It was basically a job interview or an audition,” she said.
She passed the audition. Austin hired her immediately after the scrimmage.
In 2014, as she entered her eighth season in stripes, Chaka was invited to join the NFL’s Mackie Development Program (MDP). MDP officials — the top non-NFL officials in the country — are the first to be considered to fill openings on NFL crews. As an MDP participant, Chaka is mentored by veteran NFL officials, works minicamps, attends clinics and officiates a preseason game.
“I’ve gotten so much feedback,” she said. “But the main thing is to always be calm. Control what you can control. Go out there, be confident and own your position.”
In 2014, Chaka got her first NFL experience as back judge for a preseason game between the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles. She admits that looking up at the numerous Super Bowl banners proudly hanging in Gillette Stadium was “surreal,” but once play began, it was just another game.
“You never know where you’ll end up if you try doing something,” she said.
In March 2021, the dream of becoming an NFL official came true with Chaka becoming the first Black female referee to serve in an NFL game. Chaka’s debut came in Week 1 of the 2021 season between the Carolina Panthers and New York Jets, serving as a line judge.
The accomplishment was a result of years of hard work and perseverance, but Chaka knows it’s important not to forget the work that got her there.
“You can’t just wake up one day and decide to be an NFL official. You have to train,” said Chaka. “And just that constant exposure of being around it and being around other veteran officials. I think that was definitely helpful.”