When the players started filing onto the field for the second half, I switched couches, inching closer to the television. I stole a glance toward my wife who had been diligently working on her laptop at the kitchen island. At this moment though, her eyes were glued to the TV. The Vanderbilt kickoff unit was lining up across from the Missouri return team. I pulled out my phone. My video was shaking too much so I rested the phone on my knees, glancing back up at the game.
The senior kicker took a moment to survey the field, before pooch kicking the ball to a spot 35 yards down the field where only a Mizzou blocker could recover it. The blocker fell on the ball, denying the streaking Vanderbilt coverage players a chance to recover it. It was an unremarkable play in an otherwise atrocious game. Yet it was the most remarkable play of the college football season by far because as Vanderbilt kicker Sarah Fuller trotted off the field following the kick, she left glass shattered in her wake.
What made this moment so amazing, apart from the obvious, was the lead up to it all. It was bred from necessity. Due to COVID tracing, Vanderbilt was missing multiple kickers coming into Saturday’s game. Needing someone to fill that gaping hole in the roster, head coach Derek Mason did the most logical thing he could. He called up the head coach of the SEC championship-winning soccer team and asked if anyone on his roster could or would be up for joining the team. Darren Ambrose had just the player.
Standing at 6’2”, starting goalkeeper Sarah Fuller is an imposing figure on a soccer field. Not only does she have a cannon for a right foot, regularly blasting punts and freekicks into the final third of the field, but she also uses every inch of her frame to her advantage. Fuller bullies attacking players inside her penalty box, using her size and reach to climb above scrums and to cut down space for shots on net. She is a "keeper's keeper", in my biased opinion. Fuller may have joined the football team as a kicker, but she honestly might be Vanderbilt’s best option at tight end as the season moves forward. Her offensive potential of course would rely solely on her teammates’ ability to give her opportunities.
Early in the game, it became clear that the very idea of the Vanderbilt offense giving Fuller opportunities to kick a field goal or extra point was as abstract as her very appearance had seemed just a week ago. Vanderbilt only crossed midfield twice in the first half, and Mizzou effectively ended the game before halftime. It felt like a very real possibility that Fuller would remain on the sideline, barred from the record books by the performance of her team. As halftime began, Vanderbilt’s kickoff to open the second half seemed like it may be her only chance to see the field. So it was thrilling to watch the ESPN halftime show break away from the studio to cover Fuller practicing kicks during halftime, signaling that she would indeed enter the game.
Her kickoff wasn’t the first appearance by a woman in college football. That honor goes to Liz Heaston, who booted two extra points for NAIA Willamette in 1997. It was, however, the first time a woman joining a football team was widely embraced by the sports landscape. As the news of her possible history-making appearance began to swirl, it was met with excitement from people on social media as well as football programs across the country. It wasn’t that people knew she might play. People were rooting for her to play. I was rooting for her to play. I subjected myself to the horror-show that is Vandy football for an entire game, all because of a single person.
This watershed moment feels particularly important because the massive swell of support for Sarah Fuller came from a simple sentiment. We simply wanted to watch her fulfill the dream of playing. She didn’t kick a game-winning field goal. She didn’t dazzle with an onside kick that turned the tide of the game. She didn’t have to. It was understood that the value in today was seeing someone get an opportunity to do her job and do it well. That is something that more aspects of our society should embrace.
I hope kids all over the country were called to their TV’s this afternoon. Boys, girls, everyone. I wish I had been able to share it with someone young. I wish I had been able to point to the screen and say “Watch this, this is how life should be. You can do anything.”
Hopefully, we’ll all get more opportunities to share that sentiment in the future, thanks in large part to Sarah Fuller.