NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BVM) — On Saturday, Nov. 28, Vanderbilt football kicker Sarah Fuller made history. When she trotted out onto the field for the opening kickoff of the second half, it marked a momentous moment in the history of college football and collegiate athletics as a whole.
With her 30-yard kickoff against the University of Missouri at Memorial Stadium, Fuller became the first female to play in a Power 5 football game and the first female to ever play in a Southeastern Conference football game.
— Vanderbilt Football (@VandyFootball) November 28, 2020
The kicker was at the center of numerous pregame discussions around the nation, catching the eyes of a number of athletes and celebrities alike on social media and thrust Fuller firmly into the spotlight. The kick was equally if not more buzz-worthy generating thousands of posts, responses, shares and discussions with video of the kick becoming perhaps the most played piece of media across the country over the weekend.
Sports figures all over were rooting for Sarah Fuller on her historic day 🙌 pic.twitter.com/KXCQujBFGe
— ESPN (@espn) November 28, 2020
The kick and the attention surrounding the moment has made Fuller an overnight sensation, but as many sensations are, Fuller’s career to the gridiron has been years in the making.
A native of Wylie, Texas, Fuller came to the Commodores as a high-touted recruit as a goalkeeper for women’s soccer. Although she was expected to do great things early in her Vanderbilt career, injuries would cost the goalkeeper her first two seasons with the team. As a junior, Fuller was a backup in the goal and saw her spring exhibition season canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite these tribulations, Fuller was still able to make a name for herself for her final season with the team. Although she did not start the season in the goal for the Commodores, Fuller would take over the goalkeeper position after four games and would retain the position for the remainder of the schedule. She played in nine matches this past season, collected 28 saves and recorded three clean sheets while helping lead Vanderbilt to an SEC tournament title on Nov. 22, its first since 1994.
“I have worked my whole life to be an SEC champion,” Fuller said. “That was when I was at my most proud if I can really be proud of myself. I was really proud of that accomplishment given all that I’d been through and all the injuries. … It was like ‘Wow, I achieved that.’”
— Vanderbilt Soccer (@VandySoccer) November 22, 2020
Less than six days later, Fuller was invited to kick for the Vanderbilt football team after the Commodores were left with a limited number of specialists due to contact tracing of COVID-19 within the program. When asked if she wanted to kick for the team, the answer was an easy one for Fuller.
“[My assistant coach] said ‘Well they need a kicker. Would you be willing to come out and try to kick for them? Can you be there in an hour?’” Fuller said. “I was like ‘I’ll be out there in 30 minutes!’”
While it took some time for Fuller and her teammates to adjust to their new team and teammate, respectively, Fuller felt that all she needed to do was perform. Once she took the field and hit a few field goals, the hesitation from teammates fell away and Fuller was fully embraced by the team because they knew she could get the job done.
“My first real day of practice, the guys were a little hesitant but it wasn’t because I was a girl it was more of ‘Are you able to do this job?’” Fuller said. “When I got out there and I made field goals they were like OK and we started high fiving and I became part of the team. I think at the end of the day it doesn’t matter who you are, it’s just as long as you can do the job well that’s what matters.”
Though her experience on the sidelines of the football game may not have seen or even felt the same as her experiences in the goal for Vanderbilt soccer, Fuller’s headspace was. This was, after all, just another athletic competition in her mind, something she has become accustomed to during her life.
“There’s literally nothing different,” Fuller said. “How I would prepare for a soccer game is how I’m preparing for a football game.”
Though the team and Fuller were both prepared to have her kick for points during the game, whether that be a field goal or extra point, the Commodores never got the opportunity to during the 41-0 loss.
Even so, Fuller was able to spread her story throughout the country. Fuller even furthered her platform, becoming the first football player to wear the phrase “Play Like a Girl” on the back of her helmet to draw attention to the non-profit organization that encourages young women to get involved in athletics and to gain access to science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs. Due to her performance, Play Like a Girl was able to raise over $13,000 in donations.
However, the phrase also had a deeper meaning for Fuller and her moment in history.
“It used to be an insult like ‘Oh you play like a girl’ and I wanted to turn that on its head and say ‘No, that’s actually a huge compliment to play like a girl,’” Fuller said. “We’ve fought through so many things and we’re showing up now. We’re breaking down these barriers and I wanted to make that clear.”
Fuller’s historic kick also earned her a special recognition from the SEC. On Monday, Fuller was named the conference’s co-special teams player of the week.
— Vanderbilt Football (@VandyFootball) November 30, 2020
Although she may be known for her history-making kick, Fuller is not done yet. She plans to continue kicking for the Commodores for the remainder of the season while continuing to serve as an inspiration to future female athletes looking to change expectations in the sports world.
“I would say [girls] can do anything they set their minds to,” Fuller said. “It’s not always going to be easy. There’s going to be ups and downs. The willingness to fight through the downs and cherish the ups is really important. Just keep fighting and keep working hard towards your goals.”
Though her biggest moment in the spotlight may have come and gone, it’s clear that Fuller will be a continuous advocate for change in the world, which is the best reward anybody can earn.
“The more people I talk to, the more I realize this is really making a big change,” Fuller said. “There’s a lot of women that are on the football staff whether it’s athletic trainers, the media team or whatever it is, there are a lot of women involved in these sports. Why can’t we have bathrooms? Why can’t we have locker rooms? … It’s simple things like that that are gaining attention and I’m really excited to be part of that narrative where we’re going to change that and make this the norm.”