How Sarah Fuller and Vanderbilt football came to be
Sports are the ultimate meritocracy… or at least they’re supposed to be. One facet of the general gatekeeping of football, by its fans, reared its ugly head over the last three weeks as yet another trailblazer left their mark on the history books.
On November 28, 2020, Sarah Fuller and Vanderbilt University made history. Due to the team being decimated by Covid-19 cases (particularly in their special teams’ room) and with just days to prepare, head coach at the time, Derek Mason, pulled from an unlikely source to shore up the kicker position.
One day following Vanderbilt’s SEC Soccer Championship, Mason contacted goalkeeper Sarah Fuller to try out for the football team. She took the challenge head-on and made the team. That weekend, Fuller was the only kicker on Vanderbilt’s roster as they traveled to Missouri.
Fuller made history that weekend as the first woman to kick for a Power Five institution, but there is a long list of women who broke into football at the collegiate level and paved the way for Sarah Fuller and Vanderbilt to accomplish what they did.
Unsurprisingly, the first woman to score in a college football game took the field just over 20 years ago. Liz Heaston, a soccer star at Willamette University, took four extra-point attempts over two games in 1997 as the replacement kicker for the football team.
Following an injury to the starting placekicker against Linfield College, Heaston stepped in and completed both of her attempts of the night. The momentous occasion was recognized immediately.
Heaston earned calls and interviews with national organizations, namely the Today Show and CBS This Morning. Her football career ended after those two games, but her impact was felt around the country. Heaston’s jersey now hangs in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Division 1 Beginnings
The first woman to play in Division one college football actually started placekicking before her time at Jacksonville State University. Ashley Martin started kicking at East Coweta High School and had an interesting routine after each of her collegiate soccer practices.
As the story goes, Martin would take a football onto the practice field and fire off-field goal attempts after every practice. The head football coach, Jack Crowe, was in a bind because he needed someone to take extra point attempts exclusively. He found his kicker as he watched Martin kick from his office window.
She got her shot and took it. In total, Martin kicked three extra-point attempts through the uprights in her only game of action as part of a 72-10 thumping. After her foray into football, Martin continued playing for her scholarship with the school’s soccer team. This might have been the biggest brick in the road that was paved for Sarah Fuller and Vanderbilt.
The Most Well-Known
Arguably the most well-known player in this timeline may not be most known solely for her play on the field. Katie Hnida started her college football career with the University of Colorado-Boulder in 1999 and she didn’t see the field for the Buffaloes; she did suit up as a backup, though, making history as the first woman to dress for a bowl game.
After falling ill the next season and losing her place at Colorado, Hnida took her talents to the University of New Mexico. There she etched her name into the history books twice: first, becoming the first woman to play in a D-1 Bowl game, having her extra-point attempt blocked against UCLA; and again as she became the first woman to score in a D-1 game.
Even though Hnida became ingrained in the history of football as a player, she may be most well known for her courage off the field. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, in 2004, Hnida accused a former teammate at Colorado of rape while the program was awash with sexual assault accusations by other women.
Present Day: Sarah Fuller and Covid-19
Sarah Fuller’s college football career may have ended with her singular kick for Vanderbilt. The team’s game against Georgia, for which she was named the starting kicker, was postponed due to Covid concerns. For the upcoming game, against Tennessee, Fuller is listed as the backup. Even if she doesn’t get the opportunity to kick again, her impact has been felt.
In the era of social media, people who likely had the same opinion when women like Martin and Hnida made their mark are now able to voice that opinion to the world, no matter how negative it may be. Even before taking the field, the stream of comments regarding her “durability as a player” came streaming in. Her sole kick, a designed and perfectly executed squib, drew even more criticism.
Sarah Fuller is a soccer player, who came in to kick a football on just four days of practice. While I’m certain she could’ve shown off her leg strength (evidenced by a free-kick assist against Tennessee that traveled most of the field), the coaching staff decided to go with a style of kick that was more comfortable for Fuller. Those who criticized the kick must have little understanding of the play call and quality of execution.
All in all, Sarah Fuller’s kick did little to affect the game. Vanderbilt’s football team is awful, they lost 41-0 to Missouri and Derek Mason got fired after the game. However, the reactions to Fuller are the point of this piece.
As a disclaimer, I am not advocating for any woman to be allowed on the gridiron simply because they are a woman. I am, however, advocating for a more open reception to any athlete that is qualified enough to take the field with the best of the best. Football is already one of, if not the, biggest sport in the United States. There’s no reason it can’t grow to include women.
It doesn’t matter who someone is, what someone is, or how much someone follows a sport. Those qualities that make people different and diverse are what’s supposed to make sports great. Sports are supposed to be unifying, but the response to Fuller’s kick showed that they can also be dividing.
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