In the Los Angeles area on Saturday, U.S. soccer legend Mia Hamm and her twin 13-year-old daughters, Ava and Grace, watched the entire college football game between Missouri and Vanderbilt. Ava is a budding lacrosse player and Grace has gotten into golf, but they watched an otherwise obscure SEC football game with their mother for a chance to witness history.
At the start of the second half, Vanderbilt kicker Sarah Fuller became the first female to appear in a Power Five football game when she deftly executed a squib kick. And in the living room of one of the country’s most renowned athletes, an appreciation of the moment resonated.
“It was exciting,” Hamm told Yahoo Sports by phone on Thursday. “My husband and I have talked to [our daughters] and raised them in an environment where they can do anything. To see it happening in front of them, I think that was a powerful message for them.”
Fuller’s football career was unfortunately delayed early Friday, as Vanderbilt’s game against Georgia was postponed due to COVID-19. She was on the depth chart as the starting kicker for Vanderbilt, which meant she was expected to be used for field goals, extra points and kickoffs.
But in less than a week since Fuller’s moment, the power of the platform that she’s building has been clear by the inspiration that she has sent to those who’ve inspired her. Fuller has gone from a gutsy goalkeeper on the Vanderbilt women’s soccer team to a household name. She has embraced her new role as a role model.
“I love that so much, it’s so amazing,” Fuller told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview on Thursday. “When I went to a college game or watched older girls growing up, I felt the same way and looked up to them. Now being a college athlete and being that inspiration is really cool.”
What’s clear in the aftermath of Fuller’s powerful moment is that she has met it without flinching. She gave a halftime pep talk during the Missouri game to her new football teammates, though she admits she has yet to learn all their names. She has embraced the attention, speaking eloquently about overcoming adversity in her soccer career — two broken feet, weight issues and struggles with conditioning — before leading Vanderbilt to the SEC title earlier this month.
When Fuller went shopping for Christmas decorations at Target this week, she encountered her first trappings of being a celebrity. A mom asked her to take a selfie, a college-aged woman recognized her and others awkwardly hovered appearing to want to ask Fuller if she was indeed Fuller. She pondered the awkwardness of asking them if that’s what they wanted to ask. But didn’t.
The recognition is growing. She has gotten a shoutout from LeBron James, reached 2 million people in an Instagram post and increased a modest Instagram following to 150,000.
Her mom, Windi, is a seventh-grade English teacher and had students coming into her classroom elated at the news. One was too overcome to speak. Fittingly, her students are reading “Stargirl” by Jerry Spinelli and discussing the theme of comfort with non-conformity. Her father, Brandon, said that his friends shared videos watching the kick with their kids.
“I’m realizing that I have the capability to have a voice and send out a positive message,” she said of her platform. “I’m really trying to think through that right now and getting advice from family and friends that I trust on how to use the platform correctly.”
As much as former USWNT star Julie Foudy loved Fuller’s moment, she came away more impressed with how Fuller handled it. Foudy remarked on the “grace and courage” that Fuller showed, and took her kick as a sign of how the achievement of one generation can build to the next.
Foudy recalled growing up in Southern California and worshipping the Dodgers, Lakers and Rams, and not having any female role models. Fuller says she had both posters of the Hope Solo-era USWNT on her wall. (Fuller also admitted with a chuckle that they were hung up next to the Jonas Brothers.)
Fuller was born weeks before the USWNT won World Cup gold in a transformative 1999 run. She grew up in a generation of girls that loved the USWNT. And now Fuller has pushed her own boundaries with her ponytail hanging out of her helmet. Just like her soccer heroes.
“There are millions of girls who saw that image,” Foudy, an ESPN analyst, told Yahoo Sports of Fuller’s kick. “For a young generation that’s been watching that, who knows what’s possible? I love it that once again, you see women pushing boundaries and limits in ways that my generation wouldn’t have thought possible.”
Nearly 10 days ago, Fuller’s parents and sister were driving home from Orange Beach, Alabama, where Sarah Fuller had helped lead Vanderbilt to an unexpected run at the SEC title as its stingy and vocal goalkeeper. The Commodores had entered the tournament seeded No. 7 and blitzed their way through the field with four wins in a week.
As the Fullers rumbled in Brandon’s Chevy Silverado through Louisiana’s upper boot, Sarah called with a surprise. She told her family through the truck’s Bluetooth that the football team called and asked if she’d try out. A COVID-19 issue left Vanderbilt without a kicker, and Fuller saw the call as an opportunity to try something new. “Go have fun, that’s awesome,” Windi Fuller recalled telling her daughter. She chuckles now: “I don’t think we had any idea of how big a deal it was.”
A few days later, Windi was shaking hands with Tim Tebow. She loves Tebow and said she’s read multiple books about him. And that was one of those moments where the power of the reach of her daughter’s achievement became real. “I’d always known that she’d have the opportunity to shine,” Windi Fuller said. “I didn’t ever in a million years dream that it’d be on a football field.”
The struggle behind Fuller’s story may be the most powerful part, lost in the sudden fame and barrage of Instagram likes. While the world saw her kick on Saturday, they didn’t see everything it took for her to reach that moment. While the call from the football office was spontaneous, her years of grit put her in position.
Fuller struggled with broken feet at varying points in her career, including redshirting her first season. She overcame the cold collegiate reality at a high-academic institute like Vanderbilt that straight-A students in high school can see Cs appear on their report card. She called losing weight “difficult” and noted that failing the Vanderbilt soccer conditioning test was an annual tradition she couldn’t avoid. “There was a lot of tears,” she said. “A lot of crying on the phone with my dad.”
So when football called last Monday, it was sudden. But to earn that call really amounted to a four-year battle with waves of adversity. “I don’t want people to think I’m just walking in here and this was a cakewalk,” she said.
Fuller told Yahoo that her second week in Vanderbilt football went much smoother than Week 1. She is in the flow of practice, understands the schemes more and has blended soccer lingo with football lingo to better communicate with the coaches. She has become more self-critical of things like the placement of her plant foot and kicks that are “too toey.” She credits the coaches for streamlining what she needs to know.
Fuller says her range for field goals is within the red zone, where she said she feels comfortable. She wouldn’t say whether she’d kickoff in any way other than a squib, as she didn’t want to give away a competitive advantage.
With the Georgia game postponed, Fuller’s next opportunity to kick will have to wait. She’ll return for her final semester at Vanderbilt in the spring, where she’s eager to compete in the NCAA tournament and will then graduate with a degree in medicine, health and society. She’s planning to transfer to the University of North Texas, not far from her family home in Wylie, Texas, to play two more years of soccer and get a graduate degree in hospital administration. (She says a distaste of blood ruled out being a doctor or nurse, but she still wanted to help people.)
She’ll compete for North Texas for two more years, which she can do thanks to her redshirt at Vanderbilt and an extra year of eligibility from the pandemic. Fuller has no plans to kick for the Mean Green, just like she had no plans to kick for Vanderbilt, as her passion remains in soccer. But if they need help, she’s happy to pitch in.
North Texas athletic director Wren Baker called Fuller “an inspiration to everyone who follows sports,” as he relished showing his two daughters, Addisyn and Reagan, the video of Fuller’s kick. “We will utilize her platform at UNT to continue to share her story,” Baker said.
That platform has now grown to where kids are looking up to Fuller, just like she looked up to the USWNT. Fuller’s emergence as a role model is something Hamm calls a “wonderful responsibility” that comes with the accomplishment.
“The best advice I could give her is to be herself,” Hamm said. “The message is much better received when it’s authentic. I think that’s one of the reasons why you see so many people drawn to her. Listening to her speak after the game, just being able to articulate feelings and emotions, she did such a wonderful job at that.”
Fuller loved during pre-COVID times when there’d be a dozen young girls waiting after Vanderbilt soccer games for selfies and autographs. Her stage has grown to where that number has grown exponentially, and she’s hoping that her football moment can help draw more attention to women’s collegiate athletics.
And as she has inspired her heroes and become one herself, Fuller is ready to make a difference with the entire arc of her career. “I’m passionate about my story and all that I’ve been through,” she said, “and I have a good message for those who may be struggling, not just in sports, but with obstacles in life.”
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