Bend It Like Fuller: How A College Soccer Star Broke Ground For Women In Football

Dec 11, 2020
Originally published on December 14, 2020 7:05 am

As it turns out, all it takes to bust stubborn gender norms is for a few injuries to heal, a global pandemic and being in the right place at the right time. At least that's how Sarah Fuller did it.

The soccer goalkeeper made history last month when she became the first woman to play a football game in the Power Five — a group of the largest and most popular conferences in college sports.

After the senior helped lead Vanderbilt University to a Southeastern Conference soccer championship, Fuller got a surprise phone call: "Have you ever kicked a football before?" Vanderbilt soccer associate head coach Ken Masuhr asked Fuller. She had.

With several players in quarantine due to the coronavirus, the university's football team was down a kicker.

Fuller had just finished packing for her holiday break back home to see her family in Wylie, Texas, when her coach said he needed a split-second decision.

"I was very shocked," Fuller told NPR's Ailsa Chang in an interview with All Things Considered. "He was like, 'Yes or no, yes or no — don't think about it, just — yes or no.' "

As an athlete who loves a challenge, Fuller jumped on the opportunity. She was on the field within an hour, and after a few successful practice kicks, Fuller joined the team.

Following her historic second-half kick against the University of Missouri, she's earned praise from other glass-ceiling breakers — including Hillary Clinton and U.S. soccer greats Mia Hamm and Megan Rapinoe.

But Fuller shifts praise onto the women and girls who are passionate about playing football.

"I would say soccer is my sport," she said, "But I think it's incredible, those girls that go out there and do that and have been working to do this and they want to do that."

Several young female kickers on high school football teams have also reached out to her, she said. "They're like, 'This is so cool,' " she said. "I'm like, 'No – what you're doing is cool' ... I've been very inspired by them and their courage to step out."

Fuller said she just happened to be "the right person at the right time for the job and was able to help out."

That's not to say it was an easy road for her. She spent much of her college soccer career as a reserve player after suffering a fractured foot as a freshman, a slipped disc her sophomore year and yet another foot fracture before her senior year.

"To any of the young girls out there — anyone in general — I would just say to continue working hard but understand that there are going to be challenges that come your way," she said.

Fuller, who thought of her supportive parents as she booted those first practice kicks, said, "The best thing you can do is stay positive and stay motivated and stay strong and have people around you that will continue to support you during the tough times. Because at the end of the day, if you push past those struggles, it makes you stronger and that much closer to your goal."

Though her very first kickoff didn't save the Commodores from losing to Missouri last month, Fuller proved her talents transcend soccer. Listed as the second kicker on the depth chart, she's been called back to gear up for Saturday's game against Vanderbilt rival University of Tennessee.

NPR's Jason Fuller and Sarah Handel produced and edited the audio version of this story.

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What's the true mark of a champion? Never giving up. One fractured foot before freshman year, a slipped disc sophomore year, and then another foot fracture just before her senior year - well, that's not exactly the ideal route to making history, but it is the road that Sarah Fuller traveled. After helping her soccer team at Vanderbilt University win their first SEC Soccer Championship since 1994, Sarah Fuller got a phone call. Turned out the Vanderbilt football team needed a kicker. After a few practice kicks, Fuller joined the football team. And on November 28, she made history as the first female athlete to play a game in one of the big five NCAA conferences - what's known as the Power Five.

Sarah Fuller joins us now. Welcome, and congratulations.

SARAH FULLER: Hi. Thanks for having me. Thank you.

CHANG: So I need to know. When you first got that phone call about how the football team needed a kicker, what went through your mind at first?

FULLER: Well, (laughter) I was like, oh, really? I was very - I was very shocked. And he didn't give me - my coach didn't give me a lot of chance to think about it. He was like, yes or no, yes or no.

CHANG: (Laughter).

FULLER: Don't think about it, just yes or no. So I was like, yes. OK. Let's do it. So I was able to get out on the football field within the hour and took a few practice kicks. And they thought I was good enough, so I got geared up.

CHANG: That is so awesome. So what did it feel like when you took those first tryout kicks?

FULLER: It was actually a lot of fun because I - you know, I'd never really done it. I'd kicked a football a little bit when I was younger just for, like, a fun little competition thing. Obviously, I didn't think I'd actually be kicking in a SEC football game at any point in my life, but very thankful for the opportunity. And yeah, it was a lot of fun.

CHANG: So when game day came, can you just tell me what that felt like?

FULLER: Yeah, I was really excited. I mean, I'm an athlete, so I'm used to it - not as much cameras. There was a lot more cameras than I'm used to. But COVID, you know, kind of minimized that a little bit, which was kind of nice. But...

CHANG: (Laughter).

FULLER: You know, just going out there and getting warmed up and everything, I, you know, felt like an athlete, not any different from preparing for a soccer game.

CHANG: Was there anyone you were thinking about as you took the field?

FULLER: Yeah. I was thinking about my parents and, like, just all the things that we've been through together. And they've been there on the phone calls where I was crying and struggling and was told I wouldn't travel and all that stuff. So I was thinking about them and just how this - that moment was just - it was happening, and it was huge. And so it was really amazing to have them there.

CHANG: Oh, they were there at the game?


CHANG: Oh, I love that. I'm sure you heard from a lot of people who were so excited about this opportunity that you were getting. Did you hear from, like, big-name athletes or even from any other female kickers?

FULLER: Yeah. I heard from, like, Tim Howard and Mia Hamm and, like, LeBron James. All those people were really cool.

CHANG: Woah.

FULLER: But I've had, like, little, younger girls who are kickers on their high school football teams and stuff like that. And they've reached out to me, and they're like, this is so cool. I'm like, no, what you're doing is cool. Like, you went out there. You want to play football. Like, you went and pursued that. So honestly, I've been, like, very inspired by them and their courage to step out and do that on their high school teams...

CHANG: Yeah.

FULLER: ...Which has been really cool to see.

CHANG: Well, I want to hear more about what this experience has represented to you. I mean, as you think of other women who might come after you on the football field, what would you say to them?

FULLER: I would just say to, like, continue working hard, but understand that there are going to be challenges that come your way. And the best thing you can do is stay positive and stay motivated and stay strong and have people - like, people around you that will continue to support you during the tough times because at the end of the day, if you push past those struggles, it makes you stronger and that much closer to your goal.

CHANG: So true. Sarah Fuller, placekicker for the Vanderbilt Commodores football team, thank you so much for joining us today.

FULLER: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROKE FOR FREE'S "ADD AND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.