Sarah Fuller's Historic Kickoff for Vanderbilt a Bright Spot in Odd CFB Season

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterNovember 28, 2020

Vanderbilt place kicker Sarah Fuller warms up before the start of an NCAA college football game against Missouri Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)
L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

Like everything else in 2020, the moment didn't go as planned. It took time and patience. Specifically, it took a full half of anxious, lopsided football for the breakthrough to come, though it eventually did. 

When Sarah Fuller finally trotted out onto Faurot Field at the start of the second half of Saturday's matchup between Vanderbilt and Missouri, with PLAY LIKE A GIRL etched on the back and bottom of her gold helmet, with a blowout in motion, nothing else seemed to matter.  

Not the score, nor the quality of the kick itself. Not the cancellations and postponements that have afflicted the sport this season and specifically this week. Not the coronavirus pandemic, if only for an instant. 

In that moment, on the day college football announced its 100th postponed or canceled football game of the season because of COVID-19, the pandemic finally gave us something to appreciate. 

When Fuller uncorked a successful squib kick to start the second half, she became the first female football player to ever appear in a Power Five and SEC football game.

"I think it's amazing and incredible. But I'm also trying to separate that because I know this is a job I need to do, and I want to help the team out, and I want to do the best that I can," Fuller told Chad Bishop of the school website earlier in the week. "Placing that historical aspect aside just helps me focus in on what I need to do. I don't want to let them down in any way." 

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L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

Just a week ago, Fuller's athletic focus was on Vanderbilt soccer. In fact, the Commodores' senior goalkeeper helped lead the program to an SEC Championship—its first title since 1994.  

As the euphoria of the moment set in, another opportunity appeared. With COVID testing and contact tracing greatly impacting Vanderbilt football's special teams unit, she was approached about kicking for the football team against Missouri. 

She eagerly accepted. And Saturday, she was the only kicker Vanderbilt had available. 

"It's an honor they called on me to be able to do this and help them out," she added.  

From the start of the broadcast, she was the focus, and understandably so. The camera regularly found her, waiting for her time on the sideline while wearing No. 32—the same jersey number she wore in soccer. It found her family as well, sitting in the stands and wearing masks with PLAY LIKE A GIRL on one side and her jersey number on the other.

For a game that was never really close, it was surprisingly tense. The question surrounding when her debut would take place—with Vanderbilt getting the ball to start the game—persisted. 

When the Commodores crossed midfield in the first half, the moment grew closer. But each time they inched toward to the red zone, they seemed to go backward. A lackluster, points-less first half delayed Fuller's debut to the second-half kickoff.

Shortly before the second half began, with Missouri leading 21-0, the limited crowd in Columbia, Missouri, erupted as she took the field. Her only kick was a low line drive toward the right side of the field near the sideline—a designed squib kick that was executed perfectly. A Missouri player corralled the ball near the 35-yard line and fell to the ground.  

"I was really calm," Fuller said on the broadcast after the game. "The SEC Championship was more stressful, if I'm being honest. I was really excited to step onto the field and do my thing."

Unfortunately, Vanderbilt was never in a position to let Fuller try a field goal, extra point or another kickoff for the rest of the game. Missouri dominated, shutting out the Commodores 41-0. 

Despite the lopsided nature of the contest, this was still an important moment. And while some thought this was some sort of way for a winless program to garner positive PR, Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason quickly dispelled that notion in his postgame interview. 

"I'm not about making statements," Mason said. "This was out of necessity. This was the most viable option. She could have very easily said no." 

This was the product of a year that has been in constant disarray. A year that has pushed college football to the brink. And on a Saturday when postponements and cancellations loomed large—with a growing wave of uncertainty surrounding the rest of the season—this was a welcomed bit of history to emerge from the madness.

L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

It was only a kick. Maybe seven or eight seconds of a 60-minute game that never was within reach. But the impact cannot possibly be tied to a scoreboard or a stopwatch.

This was so much more than that. And as Fuller finished an interview on the field, looking completely comfortable in a sport she picked up six days prior, she perfectly summed up what it meant. 

"I want to tell all the girls out there you can do anything you set your mind to," she said. "You really can. If you have that mentality all the way through, you can do big things."

Next Saturday, Vanderbilt is scheduled to play Georgia. With uncertainty surrounding the Commodores special teams and the contact-tracing timeline, Mason was asked whether Fuller could once again be in uniform next weekend.  

"That's really of her choosing," Mason said. "If she wants to kick and she's available, we would love to have her."

Perhaps Fuller will get another moment. Perhaps even more than one this time. In the coming days, the viability of another appearance will become clear. 

Or, maybe this was it: a single kickoff in a game that was over shortly after it began. And if this was it, what a moment it was.