History: Fuller breaks grass ceiling

Sarah Fuller became the first woman to ever play in a Power 5 football game, and she did it during Vanderbilt’s 41-0 loss to Missouri at Faurot Field.
Sarah Fuller kicks her way into history at Faurot Field on Nov. 28, 2020. SEC Media Portal

Connor Bazelak ran the offense well. Larry Rountree III had a career day and Tyler Badie was awesome, too. Missouri’s defense suffocated Vanderbilt’s freshman quarterback, and in particular, Nick Bolton did some more Nick Bolton-ing.

None of that felt all that important today.

On a bright and cloudless afternoon at Faurot Field, Vanderbilt soccer goalie and now football kicker Sarah Fuller lined up for the second-half kickoff and booted it 30 yards to the Missouri 35-yard line, where it was fielded on one hop and downed by the Tigers.

It was a “pooch kick,” designed to prevent a return. It began a drive that ended in a short Harrison Mevis field goal. But that didn’t matter.

Fuller became the first woman to ever participate in a Power 5 football game.

“Honestly, I haven’t taken a second to soak it all in,” Fuller said. “I just think it’s incredible that I was able to do this.”

Fuller’s introduction to the team was first reported by Simon Gibbs of the Vanderbilt Hustler on Tuesday and confirmed by Fuller, Vanderbilt and the Southeastern Conference on Friday. Coach Derek Mason made the move out of necessity, with all of Vanderbilt’s other kickers unavailable due to COVID-19 and contact tracing.

“Anytime you break a barrier, it’s to be commended,” Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz said. “For her to have the courage to come out Monday and be a part of a football team, knowing that it’s gonna be a barrier broken, that’s awesome.”

Her presence gave Twitter a reason to throw a Vanderbilt-Missouri watch party.

National media, fans from all over the country and non-football fans who were just excited about Fuller’s accomplishment tuned in. They expressed their excitement when Vanderbilt’s offense moved the ball in the first half, then disappointment, anger or just straight-up bewilderment when each drive inevitably stalled.

It seemed as though Twitter became progressively demoralized with each passing drive. Nicole Auerbach, a national college football writer for The Athletic, tweeted, “VANDY ACROSS MIDFIELD” with back-to-back siren emojis on either side during the second quarter.

That drive ended with back-to-back sacks of Vanderbilt quarterback Ken Seals by Missouri edge rushers Trajan Jeffcoat and Tre Williams. It turned out that the Commodores crossed midfield twice, only once going the wrong way.

Fuller, however, wasn’t fazed. Vanderbilt was set to kick off at the start of the second half. And she would be taking it.

“Honestly, the SEC championship game was more stressful,” Fuller told SEC Network after the game.

When Fuller walked onto the field with the rest of the kickoff team, the first indicator that she was there was the roar. Everyone at Faurot Field stood on their feet and cheered almost as loud as they had all season.

Sure enough, there she was. And she made history.

“All I want to do is be a good influence to the young girls out there,” Fuller said. “Because there were times I struggled in sports, but I am so thankful I stuck with it. … I just want to say, ‘Literally, you can do anything you set your mind to.’”

Fans and media greeted the news that Fuller would dress for the Commodores well, with most reactions positive, but not all. Comments ranged from unintentionally ignorant to intentionally ignorant to blatantly sexist and misogynistic to downright violent.

There will always be idiots who hide behind anonymous usernames and profile pictures online, but those comments showed that women in sports still have a long way to go. Though for what it’s worth, her teammates — the ones whose opinions matter — accepted and celebrated her presence in the locker room. She even gave a halftime speech.

Everyone at Faurot field today recognized that Fuller’s feat was a big step for women and girls in sports, including Drinkwitz. The first-year coach made sure to seek out Fuller before the game and congratulate her.

“He came up and told me, ‘I’m a dad of four daughters,’” Fuller said. “And he’s like, ‘They’re watching, and this is incredible that you’re doing this.’ And I think what’s so cool is I’ve had girl dads come up to me, and they’re like, ‘You’re inspiring my little girl.’”

It’s important to note that having daughters is not a prerequisite for supporting women in sports, but today was an important day for the first-year coach in part because it was an important day for his girls.

“I just shared with her that I had four daughters of my own,” Drinkwitz said. “That made me very proud to be on the football field with her.”

Edited by Danny Ryerson | dryerson@themaneater.com

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