Fuller breaks barrier in Power 5 football game debut

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Vanderbilt Athletics

Sarah Fuller, the first woman to play in a Power 5 football game, dons a helmet decal saying, “Play Like a Girl.”

Kira Ratan, Features Lead Editor

As the second-half kickoff approached, it seemed as though the entire world of sports was watching. Players re-emerged from their locker rooms and started to fill the benches and sidelines, but one player on the field stood out in particular. A long ponytail stuck out from a helmet with a sticker that read, “Play Like a Girl.” It was Vanderbilt’s newest kicker, and her name was Sarah Fuller.

Fuller, a senior at Vanderbilt, kicked off for the team at the start of the second half of their Nov. 28 game against Missouri, and made SEC (Southeastern Conference) history by becoming the first woman to ever play in a Power 5 Conference football game. Although Vanderbilt fell to Missouri 41-0, the Commodores continued to celebrate the historic achievement after their loss. On Nov. 30, Fuller was named SEC Special Teams Player of the Week.

Fuller didn’t begin her college career as Vanderbilt’s starting kicker, asshe was originally recruited to the SEC school for women’s soccer. According to ESPN, assistant coach of the football team, Kelly Keelan, approached the goalkeepers of the women’s soccer team, Fuller and Sophie Guilmette, and asked if they would try some “long-range distribution” kicking. She didn’t have any expectations seeing as it would be both girls’ first time kicking a football, but Fuller impressed her immediately. 

Starting from the 10-yard line and moving back five yards at a time, Fuller was able to move to the 45-yard line and nail a kick. Fast-forward to mid-October; all of Vanderbilt’s starting kickers were out due to COVID-19. So, they called on Fuller, and only six days after she and the Vanderbilt women’s soccer team won the SEC tournament championship against Arkansas, Fuller took to the field as a college football player.

Fuller knew what precedent she was setting when she stepped on the field. After the game, she told ESPN’s Alex Scarborough what it was like to start as a female kicker.

“The fact that I can represent all the girls out there that have wanted to do this or thought about playing football or any sport really, and it encourages them to be able to step out and do something big like this, it’s awesome,” Fuller said. 

Masters alumnus and Vanderbilt sophomore Sage Francis said he was excited to see a woman starting on his school’s football team, although he knew that it took a lot of work to get to this point. 

“I’m very happy to be part of a university that made such a groundbreaking decision, but it’s important that we remember that there have been women wanting to play football and get equitable treatment in sports long before this,” Francis said.

She is not only creating history but she is serving as a real inspiration to everyone.”

— Sage Francis '19

News of Fuller’s accomplishment made waves across the world, including in Dobbs Ferry. Masters senior Franny Mann was particularly excited about Fuller’s start. As a three-season athlete, she felt she could relate to having to jump between sports and being the only girl in what can be a male-dominant realm. Mann played ice hockey as a child and had to join an all-boys team because there weren’t any girls’ teams. There, she had to overcome a lot to earn respect.

“I was the starting goalie, and it was challenging because the boys were all way bigger than me. Although it was tough, I was able to keep up with them, and stood my ground, and earned the starting spot over two other boys. I felt like I could relate to Sarah in that way,” Mann said.

Mann isn’t the only student at Masters who’s been breaking gender barriers. Sophomore Henry Timmer has been dancing, specifically training in ballet, for seven years, and said he has had his fair share of being the odd man out, literally.

“I’m actually usually the only boy in my [dance] classes. As a boy, I have had to deal with people telling me I was weak for choosing dance over a different sport, and since it’s considered a feminine sport, I would get called gay or other names a lot. But, in reality dancers are some of the strongest people,” Timmer said. 

Timmer isn’t the only one who’s received criticism for breaking down stereotypes. Although Fuller received much praise from the sports world, others did not seem as excited for her. After her debut, memes and posts on social media began circulating criticizing Fuller’s skills or her ability to play a historically male sport as a woman. An instagram post on @nfllmemes_ig with a picture of the NFL draft with Sarah Fuller’s name saying that her only strength was that she was an “excellent cook” garnered over 180,000 likes.

Mann said that she became upset after seeing that several jokes were made about Fuller on social media and thought that people should cut her some slack since she only had around two weeks to train with the team after being named the starter.

“People didn’t seem to acknowledge that she’s out there playing two Division I sports; that takes an insane amount of skill and athleticism, whether you are male or female,” Mann said.

The scrutiny has not stopped Fuller from being proud of her accomplishment, and she says she’s excited to continue her year as a member of the Vanderbilt football team. Fuller started as the place-kicker for Vanderbilt again in their game against Tennessee on Dec. 12, and after successfully kicking an extra-point, became the first woman to score a point in a Power 5 football game. Whether she will become Vanderbit’s kicker for the rest of the season remains to be seen.

“I’m proud to be going to school alongside Sarah Fuller. She has put so much work into her career and I don’t expect her to slow down anytime soon. She is not only creating history but she is serving as a real inspiration to everyone,” Francis said.