‘This was never an easy path’: Sarah Fuller and the winding road to two-sport immortality

  • Covers the SEC.
  • Joined ESPN in 2012.
  • Graduate of Auburn University.

Soccer practice was dragging one morning last spring when Vanderbilt assistant coach Kelly Keelan tried something different to break up the monotony. While the rest of the team practiced on the football field in the indoor facility, she gathered goalkeepers Sarah Fuller and Sophie Guilmette near the end zone.

“Today,” Keelan told them, “we’re going to do long-range distribution.”

She placed a ball near the 10-yard line and instructed Fuller and Guilmette to take aim at the large curtain hanging from the rafters near the back edge of the end zone. They were going to have a contest to see who could kick a soccer ball into the football team’s makeshift field goal target. With every made kick, they’d step back another 5 yards and try again.

Keelan, who gave it a go herself, was eliminated from competition early.

Then Guilmette missed and stepped aside.

Fuller kept going. The senior from Wylie, Texas, wound up stepping all the way back to the 45-yard line, where she sent the ball soaring into the sheet.

Thinking back on it all these months later, Fuller laughed. Who knew then what that moment would portend? “It was pretty cool,” she said.

Six days after she wore a Vanderbilt soccer kit for the final time, and with the Commodores down a number of specialists because of COVID-19 testing and in need, Fuller put on a Vanderbilt football jersey and spoke to the media as the team’s starting place-kicker. She’d become the first woman to participate in a Power 5 football game. The “Today” show and “Good Morning America” wanted to interview her.

Fuller kept things light as she attempted to make sense of this sudden star turn no one saw coming. She wasn’t nervous as she made her debut; it was just another form of competition, she said. But all that came with it was, in fact, very different. Her phone was blowing up to the point that she had to mute her notifications to stay focused. She left it to her boyfriend to tell her which famous people had mentioned her online.

“Honestly,” she said, “I haven’t taken a second to soak it all in.”

Her new teammates cheered her on, saying how impressed they were by her confidence and ability. She didn’t attempt any field goals or extra points, but she booted a successful squib kick to open the second half. Coach Derek Mason said of Fuller, “A champ is a champ,” nodding to her having helped the soccer team to an SEC championship. (After being fired amid an 0-8 season on Sunday, Mason in a statement said it had been his honor to coach “hundreds of Vanderbilt young men and one courageous female.”)

Vanderbilt soccer coach Darren Ambrose was happy to hear Mason’s comments. He caught all the photos the TV broadcast showed of Fuller hoisting the championship trophy and how they made note of her having a league-best 0.97 goals-against average this season.

It was terrific promotion for his program, but Ambrose couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something missing from the presentation. It was too … perfect. Too glossy. Too made-for-TV. Without knocking anyone for it, he said it felt like a skin-deep portrait of his former player.

Even the anecdote about practice fell short as Ambrose chuckled and pointed out how their spring exhibition season was canceled because of COVID-19. Despite being a senior, Fuller needed the experience. She had hardly seen the field thanks to three serious injuries. So she dutifully rode the bench as redshirt freshman Guilmette was named the starter in September.

That didn’t exactly fit the storybook narrative out there of the star soccer player-turned-place-kicker, but that was the good stuff, Ambrose said. The real stuff. The disappointment and the pain and the broken bones and the tears that came before the triumph. One needed to look closely to notice the grit beneath her nails as she held up a trophy in one sport and then made history in another.

The world would remember Sarah Fuller’s name no matter what. But people needed to know who she really was.

For someone unaccustomed to the spotlight, Fuller handled it well before and after the game against Missouri on Saturday. She smiled for the cameras, laughed at all the right moments and gave credit where she said credit was due — to her teammates, coaches and everyone who supported her.

It was clear she understood the scope of what she had done.

That’s why she chose to wear a sticker with the words “Play Like a Girl” on the back of her helmet. She had learned about the nonprofit organization in college and wanted to support its mission of encouraging girls to play sports and gain access to educational STEM programs.

It would take time for this all to sink in, but in the meantime, she wanted little girls to know something important.

“All I want to do is be a good influence to the young girls out there because there were times I struggled in sports, but I’m so thankful that I stuck with it and it’s given me so many opportunities and I’ve met so many amazing people through sports,” she said. “And I just want to say that literally you can do anything you set your mind to.”

When Ambrose heard her say that, the hair on his arms stood up. He got a chill as a flood of memories hit him, from the early days of recruiting Fuller back in Texas all the way through her final game at the SEC championship in Orange Beach, Alabama.

Nothing was given to Sarah Fuller.

The summer before her freshman year, she broke her foot and had to sit out the season. Adjusting to life without soccer and the rigors of college courses, she said she grew depressed.

Then, as a sophomore, the toll of playing goalkeeper and throwing her body to the ground over and over again finally caught up with her, as she suffered a back injury. She slipped a disk and missed the entire season while recovering.

And then, after sitting patiently behind two talented goalkeepers, COVID hit in the spring. Five exhibition games were canceled and she didn’t get the opportunity to prove herself to her coaches. This summer, she felt something wrong with her other foot. As it turns out, running had caused a stress fracture. In the fall, she failed a fitness test, which she’d done several times before.

That event prompted one of many tough and sometimes tearful conversations Ambrose has had with Fuller through the years, whether it was about injuries or playing time or realistic expectations. She could have easily quit at any point. She could have let her bad luck get the best of her and “cashed it in and went through the motions,” Ambrose said.

She didn’t. She’d call her mom or dad and cry, and then she’d go back to work.

She went through the fitness test again and passed. And when she didn’t win the starting job, she kept on supporting her teammates, kept on training and eventually got her opportunity.

She took over as a starter four games into the season and never looked back. Guilmette didn’t have any ill will for being benched. She said there were three ways she could describe her teammate: “Confident, resilient and hardworking.”

Before the championship game against Arkansas on Nov. 22, Ambrose gathered his team to deliver a message. He told them that there wasn’t anything more they needed from him — no tricks, no tactical advantages. “All you need,” he said, “is courage.”

“Courage,” he added, “is all about putting yourself out there in a difficult situation.”

He might as well have been talking directly to Fuller, because for the better part of four years, she put herself out there with no reward in sight. It wasn’t until that game and later the opportunity to break the barrier of becoming the first woman to play Power 5 football that her efforts truly paid off.

“That was the thing I admired about her,” Ambrose said. “Because that could have gone a lot of ways, the decision she made on Monday. Who knows if she had the chance to make an extra point and missed it, what would be the comments made then? That’s the piece about her — the tenacity and the determination and the grit she’s shown to get to where she did.”

And that’s the lesson Ambrose wants little girls and boys to know — the lesson Fuller hinted at in her postgame comments and then reiterated Sunday with a small group of reporters.

“I just want to make it really clear this was never easy, this was never an easy path whatsoever,” she said. “But the fact that I didn’t stop and I didn’t give up, I think it’s huge.”

Fuller will soon graduate and transfer closer to home to the University of North Texas, where she’ll begin work on a master’s degree in hospital administration and continue playing soccer. Ambrose, who is fully supportive of Fuller’s decision, said, “North Texas has a tornado coming their way.”

Katie Hnida and April Goss were on a Zoom video conference for the entirety of the game on Saturday. As they watched and waited for Fuller to get her shot, they found themselves reflecting on their own stories.

In 2002, Hnida became the first woman to play football at the FBS level at 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 she took on. When Fuller got the call Monday that Vanderbilt was in need of a kicker, she didn’t blink. She was at the practice facility within the hour and was traveling with the team to Missouri that Friday.

Hnida and Goss are hopeful that more women like Fuller are coming. As a matter of fact, Vanderbilt incoming freshman goalkeeper Sara Wojdelko played football in high school in Michigan.

Both Hnida and Goss mentioned how profound it is that this country elected its first woman vice president in Kamala Harris. But as both women listened to Fuller’s comments after the game, the brief mention of her injuries and perseverance brought back their own memories and it all hit home.

All three women are about much more than the moments for which they’re remembered.

Goss said her name is associated with one snap she took at Kent State. Never mind the two years she played in high school or the yearlong wait in college to try out. Never mind that she played four years at Kent State, going through countless 6 a.m. practices and workouts and wondering the entire time, is this worth it?

She held her breath through a coaching change and didn’t know whether the new staff would embrace her. She had a teammate die in his sleep.

“The world saw this one moment in time, but the journey to get to that moment is oftentimes lost,” she said. “It’s what I know I’ll always remember. That kick, while it was incredible to me, isn’t my favorite. It’s the little interactions to get to that point.”

Hnida found herself feeling those same sentiments, but for different reasons. After she became the first woman to score points in an FBS football game at New Mexico in 2003, she alleged a year later that she was sexually harassed and raped by a teammate at the University of Colorado in 2000. (She left Colorado in 2001 and transferred to UNM a year later.)

“It was really miserable,” she said. “And I really hated that I felt like my name was more recognizable because of what happened at CU versus the fact that I was an athlete that worked really hard to go out and make history.”

The work, Hnida said, is what people should remember. Learning of Fuller’s backstory and how she struggled to get to this point had Hnida excited.

“I think that’s a tremendously important thing, especially when you’re talking about people being pioneers,” she said. “We all are in that boat that stuff happens in life and it’s really important that we don’t just gloss over and go to the pretty stuff.”

Hnida thought of an article she read after Fuller’s game on Saturday. It was about a girl in Texas whose missed extra point nearly cost her team a playoff game. The girl was down on herself after her mistake but had to shake it off because with time expiring she was called on to attempt a 19-yard field goal. The kick won the game.

Hnida got flashbacks to her own experience of having an extra point blocked in the 2002 Las Vegas Bowl. That was devastating, she said, because she was so intent on making history and came up just short.

Eight months later, she kicked two successful extra points against Texas State.

It’s something she brings up talking to young people today.

“It’s so important to tell people that we all fall,” she said. “That’s a part of life. That’s a part of our athletic careers. It’s about getting back up no matter how many times you fall.”

Whatever happens from here, Fuller might be remembered for making one kickoff on a chilly afternoon in November. But her story in getting there, and beyond, is what defines her.

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