History found Vanderbilt football's Sarah Fuller, and it turns out she was perfect for it | Estes
Few could know what it was like to be in Sarah Fuller’s shoes on Saturday, but Savannah Reier has a better idea than most.
Reier still remembers the gawking from opposing players. And their jeers, including some she can’t bring herself to repeat now. She can still see the puzzled look on a high school football coach’s face when she first signed up for the team — and then didn't miss a kick in her tryout. She can still hear how quiet the practice facility at the University of Alabama was when she lined up to kick against — and defeat — some of the nation’s best prospects in a camp.
She scored more than 100 points in three seasons at high schools in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, but she hasn't had the opportunity to kick in college.
And that’s why, with Vanderbilt's Fuller about to become the first woman to play in a football game for a Power Five program, Reier was nervous for someone she’d never met.
“I understand the magnitude of this opportunity,” Reier said.
Fuller’s participation in Vanderbilt’s blowout defeat at Missouri wasn’t a Nashville story or a Tennessee story or even a strictly American story. This was a global accomplishment, historic on a scale that simply hasn’t had much time to sink in yet.
This all came together so fast in a holiday week, it didn’t allow much time for anyone — Fuller included — to dwell on the staggering significance.
“How do I define it? I honestly haven’t taken a second to soak it all in, really,” Fuller said. “I just think it’s incredible that I am able to do this, and all I want to do is be a good influence to the young girls out there. … You can do anything you set your mind to.”
The shame of it was Fuller didn’t get to do more. Vanderbilt's offense had been showing more signs of life, but you couldn’t tell that Saturday. Missouri dominated. The Tigers didn’t allow the Commodores anywhere near a field goal, much less an extra point.
Saturday was special enough, though. Fuller did it. She kicked off to start the second half. She played SEC football.
While, yes, few could know what that was like for her, everyone can now envision something they couldn’t before. That was the beauty of this magnificent moment.
Turns out, Fuller was perfect for it, too.
“I couldn’t think of a better person to be a role model for thousands of kids across the country,” said Hugh Bradford, Fuller's coach when she played in high school on The '98 D'Feeters club soccer team near Dallas.
Fuller’s enthusiasm emanated through screens Saturday, first on television and then in a postgame Zoom press conference. She was having a blast. She took it upon herself to try to inspire a listless football team at halftime. She said afterward that she’d be happy to continue kicking for the Commodores “if they’ll have me.”
“I want to learn more about how to kick and how to do things better,” she said, “because I think I really can refine it and get better from here.”
For all that the scourge of COVID-19 has taken from us this year, it did give us this.
Wouldn’t have happened were it not for the virus. This wasn’t born as a political statement or a publicity stunt as much as midseason desperation. The Commodores were out of options at kicker because of COVID-19. On their campus, students were returning home for the semester.
In Fuller, the goalkeeper on Vanderbilt’s SEC Tournament champion soccer team, there was someone who had been taking COVID-19 tests and was able to join immediately.
“She could have very easily said no,” Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. “Instead, she prepared all week. … I couldn’t have forecasted what would happen this week in terms of the number of specialists. I think there was something bigger at work here.”
That Fuller was willing and eager to try — all the while knowing she’d be playing an unfamiliar sport — was brave and bold and not that surprising to those who know her.
“When I heard that, I was like, ‘Of course, it’s Sarah,’” Bradford said. Yes, Fuller is 6-foot-2. She’s very athletic and always had an exceptionally strong leg in soccer.
But it was more than just physical traits.
“Mentally, the kid is tough as nails. She always has been,” added Meagan Wilson, assistant coach for the D’Feeters club team.
That toughness was a prerequisite, too, the ability to handle pressure on a major stage — and on a moment’s notice. As Fuller acknowledged, “the social media aspect has just gone way more than I ever thought.”
And as Reier acknowledged from afar, what Fuller took on this week required guts, “just because it’s not easy as far as all the pressure and just being a female in a male-dominant sport.”
Like Fuller, Reier was a collegiate athlete in another sport. She played basketball at the University of Hawaii the past two seasons, because it was a path to a scholarship.
Reier, though, would have jumped “in a heartbeat” at the opportunity Fuller received — and still would. She once discussed the possibility with Hawaii’s football staff, but a coaching change made that a no-go.
After her senior season on the court this past year, Reier entered the NCAA’s transfer portal as a football player because she'd have a year of eligibility to try it. No interest.
“The opportunity just never really presented itself,” Reier said, “so I kind of started to move past that. But now with this being brought up (with Fuller), it’s pretty cool to think it would be possible if you were in the right situation.”
So many other girls and young women can now think the same.
Saturday was for them.
It was also for the Savannah Reiers, someone who got close. Someone who would love a chance to kick for a college team. Someone who attended high-level camps and doesn’t remember any other female kickers doing the same.
“It's super inspiring," Reier said. "Just the fact that she’s getting the opportunity, it’s going to be great as far as advancement of women in football.”
Reach Gentry Estes at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.