Cat Conti never played sports, let alone had any interest in them, when she was growing up in Southern California. She wanted to be a Hollywood star.
Like many wannabe actors, she found herself waiting tables after college. And had it not been for her getting to know a high school coach at the sports grill where she worked, she wouldn't be among the four women who will be on-field officials in the Football Bowl Subdivision this season.
The 38-year-old Conti had been assigned to the Southeast Missouri State-Kansas game on Sept. 6, making her the first woman to work a football game in the Big 12 Conference.
''The ultimate goal is to be able to do it at the highest level,'' Conti said. ''Tennis players want to play Wimbledon, golfers want to play Pebble Beach, and football players want to get to the Super Bowl. The reality of it is, I'm hoping I get a second Big 12 game ever in my life.''
Conti will work mostly as a line judge in the Mountain West for the second straight year. She landed the Big 12 gig through the league's officiating partnership with the Mountain West and FCS-level Southland Conference.
Mountain West supervisor of officials Ken Rivera said Conti has moved up on merit and hasn't drawn much notice from coaches - which is a good thing.
''Usually coaches don't call me to tell me how good an official is,'' Rivera said. ''They call because they have an issue, and we haven't had any blowback with Cat at all.''
Conference USA has three female officials in Sarah Thomas, Maia Chaka and Amanda Sauer. Thomas and Chaka also will work some NFL preseason games as part of the league's developmental program.
C-USA supervisor of officials Gerry Austin said he's noticed more women working high school and small-college games the past decade. Austin said the women he hired in C-USA have proved to be every bit as good as their male colleagues when it comes to field presence, knowledge and ability to apply the rules.
''If they get the call right, I don't care if they're women or mutants,'' Austin said. ''In the end, that's what I'm judged by - do they get the call right, do they manage the game right. It behooves me to put people on the field who can make that happen. The fact we have diversity, is that a thought-out process? In reality, yes. We should have diversity.''
Conti, from Thousand Oaks, California, said she knew nothing about football before she dated a boy in high school who was a San Francisco 49ers fan. She developed a passion for the game in college and became fascinated with the chain crew on the sideline.
''As a theater arts major, I started lying to everybody for my own entertainment, telling them I'm going to move to San Francisco and be a yard-marker for the 49ers,'' Conti said, laughing. ''Every time the chain crew would go on the field for a measurement, I'd punch the guy next to me in the shoulder and say, `I'm totally going to do that someday.'''
She was waitressing the day she met local high school coach George Contreras and asked him, half-jokingly, how one gets a job on a chain crew. He suggested she pursue on-field officiating instead. A few months later he brought her a newspaper clipping about an upcoming orientation meeting for prospective officials.
''I thought, `Why not?''' Conti said.
That was in 2000. Conti ascended through the high school and junior college ranks and, by 2010, had to resign from her job as a ninth-grade English and drama teacher so she could go all in on officiating. She now does personal training to supplement her officiating income.
Conti said she's taken no more abuse than a male official would and that no one has outwardly questioned her ability based on her gender.
Kansas coach Charlie Weis joked last week that he would have to watch his language in the presence of Conti.
Weis needn't worry. Conti won't be able to hear him because she'll be working as center judge, the eighth official who stands in the offensive backfield opposite the referee. She will watch the interior line for holding and ready the ball for play.
Conti said all she wants is to be treated like one of the guys.
''If everybody has to watch their language, or if everybody has to watch how they conduct themselves and I'm `super sensitive Suzy,' then I don't belong out there,'' Conti said. ''I'm in their world. That's the reality. I am inserting myself into their universe, and I'm just happy to be there.''