Sarah Fuller’s impact goes beyond a historic kick (or two) in a college football game

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Sarah Fuller's impact goes beyond a historic kick (or two) in a college football game

College football Saturdays in the middle of a pandemic have tended to all run together, but the morning started differently last weekend.

Over breakfast, I told my two daughters that Sarah Fuller had a chance to make history at Vanderbilt. I did not have to explain why. Their eyes went wide.

In between bites of her French toast, my 9-year-old daughter started chanting, “I want to see HERstory!”

I did, too.

In a different year, in a different time, in a different house, I sat with my dad on the couch to watch football on Saturdays, desperately wishing I could put on a jersey and shoulder pads and play quarterback just like the players I watched on television.

I knew I would never actually get this chance, of course, and I did not need anybody to explain why. Boys played football. Girls did not. Those were the rules. But that did not stop me from practicing my spirals with my dad in the front yard so that I could be Dan Marino in our neighborhood pickup games — where the boys always let me play quarterback. I might have had zero future in the NFL, but no one said I had to quit football.

I focused all my efforts on becoming a sportswriter, and told anyone who asked that is what I would be when I grew up. By the time I got to the University of Florida in the mid-1990s, a few women had started to break through football barriers, and I wanted to learn more about them. They did what I always dreamed about, and I had to know how it felt — not to be the first woman to kick an extra point, but to actually be on a football team.

As I reported a story on Liz Heaston, the first woman to kick in a collegiate game at NAIA Willamette University in 1997, I learned then-Florida coach Steve Spurrier had offered walk-on opportunities to multiple women soccer players who had planned to play soccer for the Gators. Now I had to talk to Spurrier. It was early December, and he would soon be leaving for New York to attend the Heisman Trophy ceremony. I called his house, and his wife told me he was still at the office.

So I drove to the football stadium to find him. Sure enough, his car was parked out front. I climbed the stairs to the coaches’ offices. The lobby was dark and quiet aside from a light coming from under Spurrier’s door.

Reporters were usually not allowed into the football office uninvited, so I had no way of knowing how Spurrier would react when I knocked on the door. My mind turned over the possibilities as I stood frozen. I got myself this far, I told myself. No point in playing it safe.

I knocked and prepared for him to scream. Instead, he opened the door and looked at me quizzically. I told him why I was there. He invited me into his office and told me to have a seat. I could lie and say I was totally calm and prepared for this moment, but I was as a 20-year-old college student, and never really thought I would get him to talk to me. Now that I was sitting there, as he showed me his photos with Danny Wuerffel and other memorabilia in his office, my heart was thumping so hard I was sure he could hear it from across his desk. He then asked me what I needed. I told him what I had learned. He smiled.

“We’ve had a lot of walk-on kickers,” Spurrier told me. “If it’s a game where we’re way ahead, we allow them to go out there and kick one. So why not let a female kicker go out there and kick one, too?”

Maybe Spurrier remembered that conversation when, nine months later, I asked to punt with the team during a practice for a column I wanted to write. He eagerly said yes, then coached me up on how to punt as the other special-teams players gave me dirty looks. Spurrier told me to ignore them, and also told the equipment manager not to pick up my terrible punts until they stopped rolling. “To maximize the yardage!” he gleefully said.

Spurrier clearly wanted to send a message to his punters, who were averaging a dreadful 32 yards per punt, and he used a woman sportswriter with no previous football experience to do it. But it was not just Spurrier who got something out of the entire experience. For an hour, I had been a part of a football practice, and it was one of the coolest experiences in my professional life. I got one tiny moment where I could tell the world, “Yeah, I punted out at practice today.”

When I recently called Spurrier for a story on current Florida star quarterback Kyle Trask, he asked, “Have you practiced your punting lately?” He clearly has not forgotten, either.

Over the years, women such as Katie Hnida and April Goss and Ashley Martin have had opportunities to kick in Division I games, along with many girls on the high school level, as well. I have cheered for them all. Because they are me: a girl who just wanted to play some football.

So when Saturday rolled around, I thought about all this. Though women had kicked in games before, when Fuller took the field for the second-half kickoff, I had a cheering section with me for the first time — a 12-year-old and a 9-year-old — clapping and hollering and waiting to see history made for themselves.

As sports reporters, we are told not to cheer in the press box, to never show emotion, to remain objective at all times. But when Fuller kicked the ball, my eyes welled up in a completely unexpected way, and I allowed the power of this one simple moment to temporarily overwhelm me. What Fuller accomplished meant something completely different to me now, as the mother of two girls, who are already talking about taking on the world with their headstrong spirit and courage.

I thought back to my dad, sitting on the couch with him, the way my girls were sitting with me. He told me I absolutely could write about football, and I could do anything I wanted, and to never let anyone tell me otherwise. I looked at the TV screen and Fuller — the way she carried herself, the way she came through for her university and team, ignoring the torrent of criticism about a girl daring to do a so-called man’s job.

I looked at my two girls.

“Mommy, are you crying?” my older daughter asked me.

Maybe Fuller gets another chance at kicking a field goal in one of Vanderbilt’s final two games. Maybe another woman comes along and kicks a field goal in a Power 5 game. Maybe this is just another line in a history book. What happened this past Saturday is not going to profoundly change the course of football. No one should expect it to.

But what Fuller did do is give girls like mine a moment when they could see for themselves: They, too, could do anything they wanted.

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