Sarah Fuller, With a Kickoff, Becomes First Woman to Play Football in Power 5 Game

Sarah Fuller became the first woman to play during a regular-season game in one of college football’s Power 5 conferences by booting a kickoff on Saturday for Vanderbilt to start the second half against Missouri.

Fuller, a senior and the starting goalkeeper for Vanderbilt’s women’s soccer team, was tapped to play football this week after every member of the Commodores’ kicking squad was forced to stop practicing when at least one of them came into contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus.

Fuller wore the No. 32 — the same number as the one she uses on her soccer jersey — and a helmet with the phrase “Play Like a Girl.”

Fuller helped Vanderbilt clinch its first Southeastern Conference women’s soccer title since 1994 with a with a 3-1 victory over Arkansas last Sunday. She was planning on heading home to Wylie, Texas, for the Thanksgiving holiday when her soccer coach called her with the opportunity to kick this weekend, she told the school. Her parents watched the game Saturday from the stands as her kickoff traveled to the Missouri 35-yard line.

“I was just really calm,” she said about making the kick. “The SEC championship was more stressful.”

She added: “Honestly it’s just so exciting that I could represent for all the little girls out there that they can play football or any sport, really.”

Vanderbilt football Coach Derek Mason said on Nashville’s 102.5 The Game on Wednesday that he was impressed with how Fuller made the quick transition from soccer to football after the SEC tournament. “Talking to Sarah, she’s a champ. No pun intended,” he said.

Fuller is not the first woman to play college football in Division I: Katie Hnida was the first woman to score in a Division I game as a place-kicker for New Mexico in August 2003, and April Goss scored while playing for Kent State in 2015. Becca Longo became the first woman to receive a N.C.A.A. football scholarship to a Division II school when she signed to Adams State as a kicker in 2017 (she never kicked for the school because of injury, transferring to the Gila River Hawks of the Hohokam Junior College Athletic Conference in 2019).

Vanderbilt was blown out by Missouri, 41-0, and Fuller did not have an opportunity to attempt a field goal. Vanderbilt is 0-8 this season.

Fuller’s hasty addition to the team was one example of many of how much the virus has affected college football this season. The Commodores were originally supposed to play the University of Tennessee, but that game was postponed to accommodate for several postponements elsewhere in the SEC as teams struggle to contain the virus. Other conferences, like the Big Ten and Mountain West, have simply canceled games amid outbreaks, while the Ivy League halted fall and winter sports this year altogether.

“Contact tracing continues to be the biggest contributing factor to game interruptions,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said in a news release about the schedule on Monday. “We will continue to manage the remaining weeks of the football schedule to allow for as many games to be played as possible.”

The virus has surged across the country in the past few weeks. In Tennessee, where Vanderbilt is located, hospital leaders published an open letter to residents on Wednesday urging them to limit gatherings and wear masks. The letter, signed by Dr. Wright Pinson, the chief health system officer at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said that over the past month, hospitals in Middle Tennessee have seen a 72 percent increase in Covid-19 patients and that they only expect more increases in weeks to come.

“If this trend continues, our hospital systems could soon be overwhelmed, and that would compromise the ability to serve all patients, not just those with Covid-19,” the doctors said in the letter.

Football players and female athletes alike offered Fuller words of encouragement posted to social media, including Billie Jean King, Dak Prescott and Nick Folk, a New England Patriots kicker.

“Be as confident as you can, don’t worry about anything,” Folk said in a video posted to Twitter by the Patriots.

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