After three consecutive years of injuries, Sarah Fuller was just hoping to piece together her first full season for Vanderbilt University women’s soccer team in 2020.
On 28 November she did a bit more than that when, as a last-minute replacement due to a Covid-19 outbreak, the 21-year-old goalkeeper became the first female athlete to play in the Power 5, the highest level of college football. Fuller and her soccer team had clinched their season with a conference title just six days earlier when she took the field for the halftime kickoff for the men’s football team with a helmet bearing the words “Play like a girl”.
Fuller’s kickoff didn’t win the game. It didn’t even turn the tide for the Commodores, who lost the game against Missouri 41-0. Fuller didn’t get the opportunity to punt or score a field goal. She did take the initiative to address her new team at halftime, though, something she’d often done in her role as a soccer captain.
“These past few weeks have been incredible,” Fuller told the Guardian this week. “The energy on the team has been amazing. A few of my teammates’ little sisters play flag football, and they’ve asked me to send videos to them, saying they’re inspired.”
Missouri’s coach, Eli Drinkwitz, was impressed. “Any time a barrier is broken, it should be commended,” he said after the game. “For her to have the courage to come out and be a part of a football team – that is going to be a barrier broken. That’s awesome. I shared with her that I have four daughters of my own and that made me very proud to be on the football field with her, and congratulate her and wish her the best.”
After the game, Fuller told reporters her teamtalk felt natural. “I just went in there and I said exactly what I was thinking. I was like, ‘We need to be cheering each other on. This is how you win games. This is how you get better is by calling each other out for stuff, and I’m going to call you guys out. We need to be supporting one another. We need to be lifting each other up. That’s what a team’s about,’” Fuller said. “I think this team has struggled, and that’s been part of it.
Fuller clearly acquitted herself well: she’s been asked to suit up again on Saturday for the Commodores against rival Tennessee.
Between acquainting herself with her new team – who she says were supportive straight away – and studying for finals over the last two weeks, Fuller has also maneuvered instant celebrity. Fuller’s unexpected turn as a trailblazer has garnered her national appearances on Good Morning America and CNN, and drawn praise from the likes of LeBron James and Megan Rapinoe. It helps that the 6ft 1in Texan isn’t a stranger to sticking out of a crowd. Literally.
From elementary through junior high school, Fuller was the tallest student in her class – boy or girl. Yet, while other kids might have wilted at being different, Fuller embraced her size. Fuller’s father, a project manager for a construction company, stands at 6ft 2in; while her mother, a teacher, is a lanky 5ft 10in. Both of Fuller’s grandfathers are 6ft 5in.
“My parents always hyped me up about [being tall],” Fuller said. “Everyone always told me how tall and athletic I was [in a positive way.] I was very confident about it. I still am today. I’ll go out and play sports or I’ll put on a dress and heels and be 6ft 5in.”
Fuller always stood in the back row during class pictures, but she was also one of the first kids picked for games. She played kickball, making the red rubber ball soar so far, even the boys’ mouths dropped.
Fuller’s height – and the confidence she had in it – naturally led her to sports like basketball and volleyball, but indoor soccer leagues, many of them co-ed, were a constant for her.
“I tried golf at one point, but that didn’t work out because I was too noisy and loud,” said Fuller. “Clearly, I stuck with a sport where I could yell about people.”
Originally, Fuller played in attack for her soccer team and was a top scorer. The first time she was putt in goal, Fuller thought it was a punishment.
“I thought they thought I must not be doing well enough,” said Fuller. If not for her younger sister, Katie, who continued to play, Fuller might not have given soccer another try.
“I was jealous of my sister, who was having so much fun with it, that I decided to get back in there.” When the situation arose again for Fuller to go in goal, she agreed to try it.
“It wasn’t my favorite position, but I said I’d do it,” said Fuller. A season later, Fuller and her team were in the championships – and impressively, the new goalkeeper had saved every single penalty sent her way.
“Once I learned how to dive correctly, how to hold the ball properly, I really started to enjoy the challenge of it,” Fuller said. “I started spending hours kicking balls.”
Fuller captained her high school and elite club teams, sometimes making assists from midfield. It’s clear why Vanderbilt’s football team came calling: she could kick the ball 60 yards while she was still at high school.
If it had not been for a broken foot, a slipped disk, and a hairline fracture, Fuller’s Vanderbilt run in soccer might have proven more fruitful, but the unflappable Fuller is getting a second life on the football field. She graduates in May with an undergraduate degree in medicine, health and society and will attend the University of North Texas for her master’s degree, where she’ll also be eligible to compete in soccer for two more years. With the SEC title, Vanderbilt’s soccer team has also won an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Fuller also has dreams to play in the National Women’s Soccer League.
Fuller’s soccer teammates call her “Full-time,” a genial ribbing to remind her that she didn’t get to compete until this crazy, unpredictable, history-making season. She says her football teammates simply call her, “Champ.”