By Nate Davis, USA TODAY
Shannon Eastin is used to being a pioneer, and she'll make history Thursday night when she becomes the first woman to serve as an official in an NFL game.
"For me, this is my dream coming true. I'm honored that the NFL has chosen to place me in this position. I feel blessed and excited," she said Tuesday while admitting she's likely to have some nerves. "I appreciate everybody's interest in this story."
Eastin, 42, who's entering her 17th season as a football official, will serve as a line judge in the Packers-Chargers preseason game in San Diego.
And with the possible exception of the men she's replacing, Eastin says she's been received warmly thus far in NFL circles.
"The reaction from players has been amazing. But players have always reacted well -- I'm not sure why that is," said Eastin, who spent the weekend honing her skills at the Seattle Seahawks training camp.
"They joked with me just like I'm one of the guys. I've appreciated the players tremendously throughout training camp."
She said Arizona Cardinals wideout Larry Fitzgerald was particularly supportive and "extremely kind" when she visited Cards camp.
Eastin says the message from the players is consistently: " 'All eyes are on you. Do a good job. Do us proud.' Very positive."
She says coaches have predominantly been "wonderful" throughout her career, though she can't fully escape chauvinism.
"I've had instances where I have had nothing to do with the call at hand, but I'm the one that's blamed," she said. "That's the rare instance where it's gotta be my fault (just) because I am the woman on the field."
She admits it comes with the territory.
"Knowing that I am a female in a man's world, I have always probably put the most pressure on myself, understanding that pretty much everything I do is going to be magnified," she said. "I know what I signed up for."
Might her gender even be an advantage?
"Some people say women can even be better because their attention to detail is greater," she said. "I don't know about that."
But don't be surprised if women eventually make a larger presence in the reffing ranks.
Tony Corrente, the Pacific-12 Conference football officiating coordinator and an NFL referee, said he knows of only a handful of female officials at the college level -- where the NFL seeks talent -- but he added he "definitely" can foresee women becoming NFL candidates.
"Twenty years ago, did you ever think you would see women boxing in the Olympics?" he said. At the Pac-12, "we are looking for the very best officials regardless of gender, ethnicity, whatever. As more women take an interest in the officiating aspect of football, I am sure you'll see that happening."
Eastin, who counts former NFL refs Red Cashion and Jerry Markbreit and the NBA's Violet Palmer among her influences and mentors, has spent the past four years working in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and became the first crew chief in that league. Her opportunity to break ground in the pro ranks is a byproduct of the ongoing lockout of the NFL's regular officials, who have been unable to reach a new collective bargaining agreement with the league.
"I'm gonna work with the NFL as long as they need me," said Eastin, who was contacted by the league in the offseason after negotiations with veteran officials ground to a halt.
"And should that change, then I'll pursue going back to college. ... I'm not really concerned about that at this point."
For now, she's more focused on adapting to the speed of pro players and ensuring she's mastered the myriad rules that differentiate the NFL from the college level.
Eastin, who lives in Tempe, Ariz., says she's received mixed feedback from the locked-out officials but felt obligated to pursue the chance to work at the NFL level.
"Hopefully there's some understanding on their part that this is an opportunity for me," she said. "I had to do what was in the best interest of myself just as they're doing what they feel is in the best interest of themselves."
Eastin is certainly no stranger to maximizing her potential.
In addition to the milestones she's achieved in her officiating career -- which includes stints as a basketball ref in the Southland, Sun Belt and Western Athletic Conferences and being the first woman to work a junior college national championship football game -- she became, at age 11, the youngest judo athlete ever accepted to train at the United States Olympic Training Center and earned six national championships.
However she says she's followed football her entire life.
"As a child I wanted to play football, and my mother said no, so our compromise was judo," said Eastin.
"Football's always been in my blood."
Contributing: USA TODAY Sports' Steve Berkowitz