Hustle. Grind. Conquer. Dominate.
These four words are plastered on a wall in Maia Chaka’s office, which is located in the locker room at Renaissance Academy in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Chaka, a high school health and physical education teacher for at-risk students, uses those terms to inspire teenagers. But they also symbolize her way of life.
“You have to just appreciate the process in everything that you’re going through,” Chaka told . “Once you get that down, and you master a task, now you move on to the next task, but you keep those same four principles with you.”
That mindset helped propel Chaka to the momentous news she would receive one night while sitting at home playing NBA 2K with her nephew.
It was March 1 and the call came from Wayne Mackie, the NFL’s vice president of officiating evaluation and development. Mackie relayed the message to Chaka that she was being hired as an NFL official, making her just the second woman and the first Black woman to hold such a title.
One hell of a way to begin Women’s History Month.
The official announcement came on March 5 during a segment on the Today show. Her students found out while scrolling through social media.
“It’s so funny, my kids were so excited that I was like on The Shade Room, Baller Alert,” recalled Chaka, rocking a black Nike fleece and big hoop earrings on a Zoom call. “Like, to them, that is bigger than CNN, and the Today show.
“Their idea of celebrity status is going viral. I had to show them that it doesn’t really make any difference, I’m still the same person. It doesn’t change me. It doesn’t change the way that I work.”
Chaka, 38, had been part of the NFL Officiating Development Program since 2014 and has worked tirelessly to reach this point. She even reffed in the short-lived XFL last year. Chaka knew the hustle and grind she’d put in would eventually pay dividends.
The words on her wall aren’t just for decoration.
Officiating wasn’t initially part of the plan for Chaka. She grew up with an older sister and younger brother in Rochester, New York, but spent much of her childhood as the only girl on the block playing sports with the local kids.
“My ultimate goal was to be the first woman in the NBA,” said Chaka. “That was like my first dream as a kid.”
When she wasn’t hooping and making the boys in the neighborhood look bad, Chaka would spend time at her parents’ bookstore, Kitabu Kingdom. (Kitabu is Swahili for book.) Her mom, Terry Chaka, was a visual artist and her dad, Gerald Chaka, was a part of the Black cultural US Organization, which was co-founded by Maulana Karenga, who is best known for creating the African American holiday Kwanzaa.
Established in 1986, Kitabu Kingdom was the first Black bookstore and art gallery in Rochester. It not only sold books, but also fine art, collectibles from Africa and Afrocentric fashions.
“The reason for the store was to tell stories that no one had ever heard,” Terry Chaka said.
Chaka would occasionally run the cash register at the store and would help visitors choose books and materials. This surrounded her with educational resources that allowed her to tap into African American history at an early age.
But while Chaka had a thirst for knowledge, she said, she didn’t like going to school growing up. In high school, Chaka felt she lacked the necessary support to think outside the box. That sparked a passion in her to help change the way students could learn.
“That was the reason I went to school, because I wanted to be able to teach, and I specifically wanted to teach high school students,” said Chaka. “I had a goal in my mind that I wanted to teach students who were less fortunate or had different issues. … I always had that in me where I wanted to teach a different population. Like the underdogs.”
She attended Finger Lakes Community College in Canandaigua, New York, and played on its basketball team for two years. She then enrolled at Norfolk State, a historically Black university in Virginia, to major in health, physical education and exercise science.
NSU wasn’t necessarily her first choice, but it enabled her to care for her great-aunt, Clara Echols, who was a math professor at the university for 30 years and was dealing with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease at the time. Echols said if she came down to Virginia to watch over her, she would ensure Chaka went to school for free. Chaka knew the type of burden it would put on her in just her early 20s, but it was an offer she couldn’t refuse.
Echols, who died in 2005 at 93, was the wife of Joe Echols, a former Negro Leagues baseball player who was a head football coach at Morehouse College and Norfolk State and a part-time scout for legendary Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi. Joe Echols, who died in 1977, was credited for helping expand NSU’s athletics department, which led to the school naming its basketball arena Joseph G. Echols Hall in 1982.
“It was almost like a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air-type situation,” Chaka said. “You grow up a completely different way, and then you pretty much have to uproot for different purposes.”
Chaka believed there was an opportunity to continue playing basketball at Norfolk State, but like many college students, she had to support herself and survive financially. On top of aiding her great-aunt, she was a full-time student, worked as an assistant manager at Champs Sports and also participated in work-study on campus.
“I was at a critical point of becoming a professional, becoming an adult. I didn’t think that basketball was a smart move for me to pursue,” Chaka said. “And so, I guess I felt a little guilty, and I always had the itch to be around sports. And I guess that’s what kind of drove me to officiate.”
Her first taste of officiating actually came on campus, as she played an integral role refereeing intramural basketball and flag football games.
“Me being a phys ed major at the time, I was really just trying to figure out everything I could possibly do with my degree and not just necessarily limit it to teaching inside of a classroom,” Chaka said.
After graduating from NSU in 2006 and starting her job as an educator at Renaissance Academy, she met a fellow PE teacher, Shawn McMahon, a high school official at the time whom Chaka has always viewed as a professional mentor. She was hell-bent on reffing basketball, due to her knowledge of the game and past experiences, but he pointed her in the direction of football. He told her, “I think you’ll be great at it because of your strong personality, you understand athletics and it’s a challenge for you just to learn the game.”
She took McMahon’s advice. Chaka started out on the high school level, then quickly moved up to reffing college games in Conference USA and the Pac-12. She and Sarah Thomas made history together on Dec. 27, 2013, when they officiated the Fight Hunger Bowl between BYU and Washington – the first FBS game to feature two female referees.
Thomas, who also joined the league’s officiating development program in 2014, became the first female referee hired by the NFL one year later. It took Chaka a little longer to reach her moment of fame, but she believes the extra training and experience she gained over the past seven years prepared her for this moment, knowing the type of scrutiny that would follow.
Mackie, who spent 10 years as an NFL referee, says Chaka checks all seven boxes of what he deems his “Cs to success”: confidence, commitment, credibility, communication, consistency, courage and character.
“I think it’s a credit to her hard work and her dedication that she has put in to make this happen,” Mackie said. “I look at Maia as an inspiration to all women and basically a trailblazer for young African American women. And she sets a true example that if you can conceive and believe it, you can achieve it.”
While she will be starting a new role in the NFL, Chaka doesn’t plan to change much about her weekly routine. She is dedicated to her occupation as a teacher. So much so, that after officiating Pac-12 games on the West Coast, Chaka would take red-eye flights back to Virginia to make it in time for her Monday morning class.
Needless to say, she plans to remain at Renaissance for the foreseeable future. Until she’s old enough to retire, Chaka says. Being a positive example for her students is something that brings her joy.
“My attendance has actually gone up. I have more kids attending classes,” she said, laughing. “And in the online world, all their parents want to hop in on the Zoom session.”
The kids at Renaissance view Chaka as more than a teacher. She’s a mentor. A motivator. A friend.
“She showed me how I can be in control of my own destiny,” said Aniya Eason, a former student of Chaka’s at Renaissance. “If it wasn’t for her, I honestly would’ve gave up on school. She’s one of the reasons I graduated. … She wanted to help you. She wanted to make your life better. She got a lot of kids’ life on the right path.”
Chaka understands the role she’s playing in being a trailblazer for young African American women, but the bus doesn’t stop there. She’s rooting for constant change. And though the NFL is making progress in that regard – there are currently eight female coaches in the league, including the Washington Football Team’s Jennifer King, the first Black woman on a coaching staff – in her mind, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Another task that’s been conquered.
“Hopefully now it’s gonna become a point where we’re tired of always having to announce the first Black, the first this, the first that,” she said.
“We want to be more inclusive. We want to have more women involved, in all aspects of football. There are a ton of job opportunities within the National Football League that doesn’t necessarily have to do with being on the field. And just having them be around in that aspect, too, can be helpful. Everybody needs a woman’s touch, right?”