At 12:50 p.m. CT, Sarah Fuller’s right foot thumped a football into the air in Columbia, Mo. It was one small kickoff for Vanderbilt, one giant blast for womankind.
Fuller punched a low, directional kick 30 yards, where a Missouri Tiger fell on the ball. She trotted to the sideline and received hand slaps from three teammates, and an affirming tap on the helmet from special teams coordinator Devin Fitzsimmons, who threw an arm around her shoulder pads and offered some coaching.
On the back of Fuller’s helmet was the sticker, “PLAY LIKE A GIRL.” At last, the girls got a chance to play with the boys.
At that moment, the emergency Vanderbilt Commodores kicker became the first woman to pierce one of the last sanctum sanctorums of men: Power 5 college football, where the biggest and richest programs play. There has been an increasing trickle of women staffers here and there, but never a player. Never someone putting on the helmet and shoulder pads and taking the field in a game.
Now it has happened, after COVID-19 issues left the Commodores bereft of kickers. Fuller, a goalkeeper recruited Monday from Vandy’s Southeastern Conference champion women’s soccer team to handle place-kicking duties against Missouri, very suddenly found herself thrust into a pioneering role. She handled it like someone who was born for the moment.
A low-profile game on the SEC Network between .500 Missouri and winless Vandy garnered an audience far out of proportion with the game’s quality. (The Tigers won, 41–0.) Mothers and fathers watched with daughters nationwide. So many women and girls wanted to see someone from their gender go where they had never gone before.
Fuller, a senior from Texas majoring in Medicine, Health and Society, handled this Thanksgiving Week star turn in a way that makes two things very clear: we have already come a long way in terms of empowering women in America; and college campuses (especially athletic locker rooms) are one of the best places to find evidence of that.
Fuller has an I Can Do This confidence, an I Belong belief in herself that will only increase that momentum. “All I want to do is be a good influence on all the young girls out there,” she said in an ebullient, charismatic postgame zoom call with media from across the nation.
In a testament to her own assuredness—and to the acceptance she received from coach Derek Mason and everyone else in the football program—Fuller actually asked to speak to the team at halftime. Permission granted, she told her brand-new male teammates to basically pick up the camaraderie. “We’ve got to get pumped up,” she said. “We’ve got to cheer each other on.”
Backup quarterback Mike Wright said the downtrodden team responded, coming out with an improved sideline intensity. “You can take a leader out of your sport,” Wright said, “but you’re still a leader.”
Fuller laughed and said, “I tend to be a little more aggressive, so my speeches really fit better with our football team than the soccer team. I’m glad I got to step up and use my goalkeeper voice in the locker room.”
Her goalkeeper voice will keep resonating, far beyond the Vanderbilt football locker room. In this month alone we have seen the election of female vice president and the debut of a female Power 5 football player, and while one is certainly more significant than the other, both matter. And it took special women to make both happen.
The “Play Like A Girl” sticker was part of a campaign in Nashville that Fuller has embraced, encouraging girls to stick with sport and get into science, technology, engineering and math academic pursuits. The message was also on the masks worn in the stands at Faurot Field by her parents. She’s been active in a number of other societal causes outside of her sport.
If you want to find someone to throw onto a national stage as an impromptu ambassador for your athletic program, your school and an entire gender, Sarah Fuller is an extremely good choice.
“There’s moments in time nobody really knows about or you can’t forecast,” Mason said. “I couldn’t have forecast this week the number of specialists that could be lost. I think there was something bigger at work here. I’ve always believed women are capable of doing fantastic things.
“I know we think of football being a man’s sport, and it is, for the most part. Ninety-nine percent of it is. But she made some history. She did what most thought would never be done. … Sarah Fuller was just able to show that this game is not just limited to one sex.”
The troglodytes out there who are weirdly bothered or threatened by Fuller kicking for Vanderbilt need to understand something: this was not a publicity stunt from a winless team or a coach on the hot seat trying to engender some positive P.R. This was a marriage of program necessity and individual willingness to take on a challenge.
Lacking kickers—there is a backup quarterback and another skill-position player who kicked some in high school—the football program reached out to Vandy soccer. (Vandy women’s soccer; the men’s program was eliminated a few years ago.) On Monday morning, assistant soccer coach Ken Masuhr called Fuller, who was packing up her things to go home to Texas for Thanksgiving. He asked if she’d ever kicked a football before.
She had. And she already had been in the Vandy athletic COVID testing protocol, so there was no acclimation problem. And, yes, she was willing to drop her plans and report to the Vandy football facility in an hour.
Fuller’s first practice field goal was good, and she kept making them at a consistent rate. She said her max distance was about 38 yards. “She came in not scared at all,” said linebacker Ethan Barr. “All week she was really confident. She’s proven to us she can kick the ball.”
Unfortunately for Fuller, she never got a chance at a scoring kick Saturday. Vandy never got inside the Missouri 30-yard-line, so there were no field-goal attempts and no extra points.
Her kickoff was short, but to the disappointment of some haters who were hoping this experiment would flop, that was by design. The coaching staff wanted to keep her kicking motion consistent with what she was accustomed to in soccer, which meant a directional kick with no follow-through.
What she wants to do now is to stay with the football team and learn more about kicking an oblong ball.
“I would be happy to if they’ll have me,” Fuller said. “Honestly, I’m having so much fun and I want to learn more about how to kick and how to do things better. Because I really think I can refine it and get better. I’m excited.”
Sarah Fuller said that while still wearing her No. 32 Vanderbilt football jersey. It fit perfectly.