As the shrimp fried rice arrived at their table Wednesday, they bowed their heads, clasping their hands as Crystal Nichols began a prayer.
She said her blessings for the food, for the gathering of five women who would make history in black-and-white-striped uniforms on the football field Friday night.
There was Connie Wells, wearing a blazer, the voice of reason. There was LaQuica Hawkins, wearing all black, the stoic umpire. Zina Jones and Kim Bly, both authoritative yet calm, hadn’t yet arrived. And there was Nichols, sporting bright pink nails and a mixed-red dress and take-charge white hat.
The first all-female crew — and all Black women — to officiate a City Section football game.
“That we will be blessed on that football field, that we will show the universe that we have good karma and good spirit to make this happen,” Nichols continued in prayer. “And we’re going to be the Fabulous Five from this point on.”
The Fabulous Five were honored before a Friday game between home Marquez and Maywood CES. Eduardo Martinez, mayor of Huntington Park, gave them commendations to resounding cheers from the stands.
Each member of the crew was given a bouquet of roses, balloons and a gift box by the Marquez cheer squad, with pink pins affixed to their uniforms in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
“That we got them, it just represents a lot,” said Maria Granados of the unit, whose daughter Kiana is a Marquez cheerleader. “So that’s why I’m like, ‘No, we’re doing something for them, so they can feel special.'”
They were special, by sheer definition of the word, trailblazers for representation in the most male-dominated sport of all and beacons of hope for a struggling profession in Los Angeles.
City Section assignor Tony Crittendon said he had more than 200 officials available to work Friday night games before the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, he’s “desperate,” he said, with perhaps 140 available as the shortage continues. COVID-19 caused referees to look elsewhere for work, and age and overwork has led 10 officials to retire this year, he added.
“It’s been such a tough and trying couple years, as well as a tough season, so I thought that’d be a great finisher to put this together this year,” Crittendon said of the all-female crew.
Sitting in Kim’s Restaurant in Crenshaw on Wednesday night, the women — Wells, Hawkins and Nichols all knowing each other for more than a decade — swapped bites of wisdom between bites of egg rolls.
There’s secrets, learned experience, to succeeding as a female official in a game defined by testosterone. Hawkins has learned to be a listener rather than engaging, sometimes adding a touch of humor to break the ice of the gender disparity. Jones is authoritative, introducing herself to coaches and direct with the kids. Wells mimed a begging gesture with her hands, mimicking an interaction with a male ref to watch a holding call.
“Back in the day, being the pioneer woman when I first started, I used to walk off the football field at Pop Warner crying because the coaches were calling me everything under the sun,” Nichols remembered. “And I got to think that I was the b—. And then I had to wake up and smell the coffee and say, ‘No, I'm a queen.’”
For one game, they were queens among queens, no longer having to prove themselves in a “gentlemen’s club,” as Bly said.
“In this scenario, we’re all each other’s keeper, so it’s this sisterhood,” Bly said.
They called a clean first quarter Friday night in Marquez's 61-20 win, fading after a triumphant pregame ceremony into the mid-game obscurity that every referee craves.
“If we do really good …” Nichols began Wednesday night, before being interrupted by Hawkins.
“When,” Hawkins added.
“Yes, when we do good,” Nichols corrected herself. “I’m saying, we are going to do good.
“We’re going to blow ‘em away.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.