I don’t make a habit out of watching college football. But when I tell you I made a commitment to not missing a snap of the Vanderbilt- Missouri game, I am not over exaggerating. And I am also not over exaggerating when I tell you I had goosebumps the entire time (and almost got emotional once or twice). Sarah Fuller has made history, and in the process has potentially set in motion the next wave of football culture.
On Saturday afternoon, Sarah Fuller became the first woman to ever play in a Power 5 football game when she kicked off the second half for the Vanderbilt Commodores. This just days after the senior backstopped the women’s soccer team to an SEC title.
While Fuller was in Miami competing for the title, multiple Commodores special teams players were put on the COVID-19 reserve list. Instead of settling for whatever player on the team had the confidence to step up and kick, head coach Derek Mason turned to the Vanderbilt soccer teams to try and get the best person for the role. The rest is now history.
Fuller donned “Play Like a Girl” on the back of her helmet and caused droves of young girls everywhere to tune into the game. For anyone that said featuring women in sports on TV would cause numbers to go down should consider the brand new audience that cared about college football because of Fuller’s participation.
Her only action came on the second half kickoff as the Commodores were completely stifled by the Tigers defence. The kick was drawn up as a pooch, something men on Twitter fail to comprehend. And Fuller executed it perfectly, giving Mizzou no shot at a return.
What it Means to Me
I never thought I would find myself on the verge of tears at a college football game, but there I was every time the camera landed on Fuller and another element of her story and her historic participation was being shared.
I think back to being in high school and making the flag football team for the first time. I played defence that year, but moved to quarterback for my final three years. We were never all that good, but from the very first day I took the field as a 14 year old, I knew I had found my home.
From that point on, any chance I had to throw the ball, I jumped at. Whether it was in P.E. class, if one landed at my feet at lunch, or before class (throwback to throwing the football into a light panel in our eighth grade hallway) and I would be lying if I said I didn’t try to make sure at least one guy was watching every single time.
Why? I felt (and the world told me) that only guys could play football and nobody would look twice at a female football player. So I thought if I could get them to see how good I was, they would ignore the fact that I was a girl. At the time “playing like a girl” was not something to be proud of. So thank you Sarah, for proving once and for all that we should be proud to play like girls.
I remember the first time I felt proud of the fact that I was a girl who could play football. It was in my grade 11 elective, advanced Phys Ed (read: gym class for competitive people). A few weeks into the school year we went outside to play Ultimate Football and all I could think was “Finally, I can show them I belong here.”
So I did. I threw bombs and caught one particularly impressive touchdown (that left one of my most impressive bruises ever) and I turned heads. I can’t quite put into words the feeling of pride that rose in me at having them see me for what I was: a girl with an arm. In that class, my gender was inextricably linked to whatever skill I showed. I would always be a girl first in that class, so I had to be okay with playing like a girl, and trying to change what that meant.
What Comes Next
To say that this is only about football would be greatly unjust. What Fuller did is tell girls everywhere that it’s okay to #PlayLikeAGirl. What this means to each individual young woman in the sport is unique to each of them, and I can’t speak for them, but I know that for all of us this game has the potential to be the start of the next chapter of the game.
We are undoubtedly leaps and bounds away from women being able to get this same chance in the NFL, but Fuller’s role in this SEC title is a crucial next step in advancing football equity. She follows in the footsteps of Dr. Jen Welter, who was the first woman to suit up professionally when she played for the Texas Revolution in the Champions Indoor Football league.
Welter then went on to become the first female NFL coach when she took her role with the Arizona Cardinals as a linebacker coach. Welter paved the way for the NFL history that was made this year when Callie Brownson, Jennifer King, and Sarah Thomas were the first women to be on each sideline and be an official.
With the Commodores having Fuller play, they wrote the next chapter in football history, setting an example that shows girls they belong in every phase of the game, and have the ability to take part at every level. The stage is set for the next wave of football culture; where skill precedes gender as a defining factor in who gets a shot to suit up, where teams will hopefully feel empowered by Vanderbilt’s decision to be part of the shift of football culture.
In the meantime, please go out and #PlayLikeAGirl…it’s time to make them take note.