Football practice dragged on one morning last spring when Vanderbilt assistant coach Kelly Keelan tried something else to break up the monotony. While the rest of the team trained on the indoor soccer field, they assembled goalkeepers Sarah Fuller and Sophie Guilmette near the end zone.
“Today,” said Keelan, “we’re going to do a remote distribution.”
She placed a ball near the 10-yard line and instructed Fuller and Guilmette to aim at the large curtain hanging from the rafters near the trailing edge of the end zone. They would hold a competition to see who could kick a soccer ball in the soccer team’s makeshift field goal goal. With each kick they stepped back another five meters and tried again.
Keelan, who tried it himself, dropped out of the competition early.
Then Guilmette missed and stepped aside.
Fuller carried on. The senior from Wylie, Texas stepped all the way back to the 45-yard line, where she sent the ball into the hand.
Fuller thought back to it all those months later and laughed. Then who knew what that moment would mean? “It was pretty cool,” she said.
Six days after she last wore a Vanderbilt soccer jersey and the Commodores lost a number of specialists to COVID-19 testing and in need, Fuller donned a Vanderbilt soccer jersey and spoke to the media as the team’s starting place – Kicker. She was the first woman to participate in a Power 5 soccer game. The “Today” Show and “Good Morning America” wanted to interview her.
Fuller kept things light as she tried to understand that sudden star turn that no one saw coming. She wasn’t nervous when she made her debut; It’s just a different form of competition, she said. But everything that went with it was, in fact, very different. Her phone exploded to the point where she had to mute her notifications to stay focused. She left it up to her boyfriend to tell her which famous people she mentioned online.
“Honestly,” she said, “it didn’t take me a second to take everything in.”
Her new teammates cheered her on and said how impressed they were with her confidence and skills. She didn’t try field goals or extra points, but she launched a successful squib kick to open the second half. Coach Derek Mason said of Fuller, “A champion is a champion” and nodded to her after helping the soccer team win an SEC championship. (After being fired in an 8-0 season on Sunday, Mason said in a statement he was honored to coach “hundreds of young Vanderbilt men and one courageous woman”.)
Vanderbilt football coach Darren Ambrose was delighted with Mason’s comments. He captured all of the photos the TV show showed of Fuller taking the league title and how she found she scored the league’s top 0.97 goals against average that season.
It was a great advertisement for his program, but Ambrose couldn’t get rid of the feeling that something was missing from the presentation. It was too … perfect. Too shiny. Made for television too. Without knocking anyone for it, he said it felt like an up-close portrait of his former player.
Even the anecdote about practicing stayed away when Ambrose giggled and pointed out how their spring show season was canceled due to COVID-19. Even though Fuller was a senior, he needed the experience. She had barely seen the field thanks to three serious injuries. So she dutifully drove on the bench when Redshirt rookie Guilmette was named a starter in September.
That didn’t exactly fit in with the storybook narrative of the star soccer player turned place kicker, but that was the good thing, Ambrose said. The real stuff. The disappointment and the pain and the broken bones and the tears that came before the triumph. You had to look closely to notice the grit under her nails as she held up a trophy in one sport and then wrote a story in another.
The world would remember Sarah Fuller’s name no matter what. But people needed to know who she really was.
For someone not used to the spotlight, Fuller handled it well before and after Saturday’s Missouri game. She smiled for the cameras, laughed at the right moments, and gave credit where she said credit is due – her teammates, coaches, and everyone who supported her.
It was clear that she understood the scope of what she had done.
So she wore a sticker that said “Play Like a Girl” on the back of her helmet. She learned about the nonprofit in college and wanted to support their mission to encourage girls to exercise and gain access to STEM education programs.
It would be some time before all of this started, but in the meantime, she wanted little girls to know something important.
“All I want to do is be a good influence on the young girls out there because I have had problems with the sport at times, but I am so grateful that I have stayed with it and it has given me so many opportunities and I met her. ” a lot of great people through exercise, “she said.” And I just want to say that you can literally do whatever you want to do. “
When Ambrose heard her say that, the hair stood up on his arms. He went cold as a torrent of memories hit him, from the early days of Fuller’s recruitment in Texas to her last game at the SEC championship in Orange Beach, Alabama.
Sarah Fuller was given nothing.
The summer before her first year, she broke her foot and had to skip the season. Getting used to life without football and the rigors of college classes, she said she became depressed.
Then, in her sophomore year, the toll of playing goalkeeper and throwing her body to the ground over and over again caught up with her when she sustained a back injury. She pulled off a disc and missed the entire season while recovering.
And then, after sitting patiently behind two talented goalkeepers, COVID scored in the spring. Five exhibition games have been canceled and she has not had the opportunity to prove herself to her coaches. That summer she felt that something was wrong with her other foot. As it turned out, running had caused a tension break. In the fall, she failed a fitness test that she had already taken several times.
This event led to one of many tough, and sometimes tearful, conversations Ambrose has had with Fuller over the years, be it about injuries or playing time or realistic expectations. She could easily have stopped at any time. She could have let her bad luck get the best out of her and “take it in and go through the moves,” Ambrose said.
She didn’t. She would call her mother or father and cry and then she would go back to work.
She went through the fitness test again and passed. And when she didn’t win the starting job, she continued to support her teammates, continued training and finally got her chance.
As a starter, she took over four games in the season and never looked back. Guilmette had no ill will to sit on a bench. She said there were three ways she could describe her teammates: “Confident, resilient and hardworking.”
Before the championship game against Arkansas on November 22, Ambrose gathered his team to deliver a message. He told them they didn’t need anything from him – no tricks, no tactical advantages. “All you need,” he said, “is courage.”
“Courage,” he added, “is all about getting into a difficult situation.”
He might as well have spoken to Fuller directly because she stood there for nearly four years with no reward in sight. It was only in that game, and later on when she broke the barrier of becoming the first woman to play Power 5 football, that her efforts really paid off.
“That was what I admired about her,” said Ambrose. “Because that could have gone many ways, the decision she made on Monday. Who knows if she had the chance to make an extra point and missed it, what would the comments be? This is the piece about her – the tenacity and determination and strength she showed to get where she did it. “
And that’s the lesson Ambrose wants to share with little girls and boys – the lesson Fuller hinted at in her post-game comments and then repeated with a small group of reporters on Sunday.
“I just really want to make it clear that this has never been easy, this has never been an easy path,” she said. “But the fact that I haven’t quit and haven’t given up is huge to me.”
Fuller will soon be graduating and moving closer to home at the University of North Texas, where she will begin working on a Masters degree in Hospital Administration and continue playing soccer. Ambrose, who fully supports Fuller’s decision, said, “A tornado is coming their way in North Texas.”
Katie Hnida and April Goss were in a Zoom video conference for the entire game on Saturday. As they watched and waited for Fuller to shoot them, they reflected on their own stories.
In 2002, Hnida became the first woman to play FBS-level soccer in New Mexico. And 10 years later, Goss became the second woman when she played at Kent State.
They were proud of Fuller and the challenge they took up. When Fuller got the call on Monday that Vanderbilt needed a kicker, she didn’t blink. She was at the practice facility within an hour and was traveling to Missouri with the team that Friday.
Hnida and Goss hope more women like Fuller will come. In fact, Vanderbilt’s new goalkeeper Sara Wojdelko played soccer in Michigan high school.
Both Hnida and Goss mentioned how profound it is that this country elected its first female vice president in Kamala Harris. But when both women listened to Fuller’s comments after the game, the brief mention of their injuries and stamina brought back their own memories and it all hit the mark.
For all three women, it’s about much more than just the moments they remember.
Goss said her name was linked to a snapshot she took in Kent state. No matter what two years she played in high school or how long she waited in college to try it out. It doesn’t matter that she played four years Is it worth doing tons of 6 o’clock exercises and workouts in Kent State and asking yourself all the time?
She held her breath with a change of coach and didn’t know if the new employees would hug her. She let a teammate die in his sleep.
“The world has seen that one moment, but the journey to that moment is often lost,” she said. “I know I will always remember it. While this kick is incredible for me, it is not my favorite. It’s the little interactions to get to this point.”
Hnida felt the same feelings, but for different reasons. After becoming the first woman to score points in an FBS soccer game in New Mexico in 2003, she claimed a year later that she was molested and raped by a teammate at the University of Colorado in 2000, transferred to the UNM a year later .)
“It was really miserable,” she said. “And I really hated that I felt like my name was more recognizable from what happened at CU than from the fact that I was an athlete who worked really hard to make history.”
The work, said Hnida, is what people should remember. When Hnida found out about Fuller’s backstory and how she tried to get to this point, she was excited.
“I think it’s a hugely important thing, especially when you talk about people being pioneers,” she said. “We’re all in that boat that things happen in life and it’s really important that we don’t just gloss over things and go to the pretty things.”
Hnida thought of an article she had read after Fuller’s game on Saturday. It was about a girl in Texas whose missed extra point almost cost her team a playoff game. The girl was left on her own after her mistake, but had to shake it off as time passed and she was told to try a 19-yard field goal. The kick won the game.
Hnida got flashbacks to her own experience of blocking an extra point at the 2002 Las Vegas Bowl. It was devastating, she said, because she was so intent on making history and only showed up briefly.
Eight months later, she kicked two successful extra points against Texas State.
It’s something she talks to young people today.
“It’s so important to tell people we’re all falling,” she said. “It’s part of life. It’s part of our athletic career. It’s about getting up again no matter how often you fall.”
Whatever happens from here, Fuller could be reminded of kicking off on a cool November afternoon. But their story of getting there and beyond defines them.