That would be the women’s soccer team.
“I think it’s just incredible that I am able to do this,” Sarah Fuller said hours later in the postgame video news conference with reporters. “And all I want to do is be a good influence to the young girls out there because there were times I struggled in sports, but I am so thankful I stuck with it, and it’s given me so many opportunities.”
The Vanderbilt senior and native of Wylie, Tex., had become the fourth woman to play in a major college football game but the first to appear in the Power Five, the sport’s tiptop tier. When she kicked off to open the second half of a 41-0 loss to Missouri, she followed upon three other kickers — Ashley Martin of Jacksonville State in 2001, Katie Hnida of New Mexico in 2002 and April Goss of Kent State in 2015 — and even volunteered to give a halftime pep talk.
That was something, given the whole idea had begun only Monday.
Then, she packed in Nashville to go home to Texas. It sounded like merry packing, given her soccer team had just won the conference tournament in Orange Beach, Ala., as the No. 7 seed, toppling No. 1 Arkansas in the title game and then romping into the Gulf of Mexico. An assistant soccer coach, Ken Masuhr, called her.
Did she have a minute?
“And he was like, ‘Yeah, they need a kicker,’ ” she said. “I was like: ‘All right, I’ll be there in an hour. I’ll be there within the hour.’ ”
She long since had been a candidate for such. As her high school coach, Chris Bezner, told the Athletic this week, the football coaches at Wylie High used to say they might need her in a pinch. So she practiced with Vanderbilt, making a field goal as long as 38 yards, one year after trying out some kicks with a soccer teammate and a soccer ball and hitting from around 55.
The predictable social media ruckus ensued, and quarterback Mike Wright defended. “Trust me when I say no one on the team is offended, nor upset,” he tweeted Friday, closing with, “And the people who believe this is an issue . . . look in the mirror and you’ll see the actual problem.”
Before the game, Missouri Coach Eliah Drinkwitz found Fuller and said, “I’m a dad of four daughters, and they’re watching, and this is incredible that you’re doing this.” Once the game ended, Wright said, “I can 100 percent ensure that Sarah was accepted with open arms. Like I said in the tweet, and I just want to make sure that everybody knows that I meant every single word by that tweet, we were excited that Sarah joined the team. Most people don’t know, but Sarah gave a speech during halftime. I mean, you can take a leader out of their sport, but at the end of the day she’s still a leader.”
Vanderbilt trailed 21-0 by then. It had neither reached field goal range nor come close to needing an extra point. It had punted five times and ended another possession with a failed fourth-and-one try from the Missouri 44-yard line. But as the outsider who might spot something the mainstays miss, she said, “I just wanted more energy on the sidelines,” because the sidelines had boosted the soccer team and “because that’s the only way I’ve seen it work.”
So as someone with a beaming smile and booming personality, she asked whether she could speak. “I tend to be more aggressive and straightforward,” she said, “and so I feel like my speeches and everything weirdly fit better with our football team, more so than with our soccer team. But I was glad to step up, use my goalkeeper voice in the locker room for once.”
Wright insisted it did help. Then the teams took the field for the second half of this otherwise forgettable game, and Vanderbilt was set to kick off. “Look, I’m not about making statements,” Mason said later. “This was out of necessity,” out of an “ability access to students and tryouts [that] was almost nil, you know, in terms of who was available” amid the pandemic. He said he had scoured the roster for those with kicking experience, considered a backup quarterback, another skill-position guy, and found “nobody who had had probably as much experience in practice or just the natural capability or more natural than Sarah.”
She waited, held up her left hand per football custom and went into the kick. She squibbed it to the right, where Missouri downed it at its 35-yard line — not the typical college kick but precisely per instruction. “That was designed for her,” Mason said, “because that’s what she’s used to striking. . . . We tried to go with the most natural kicks in her arsenal, tried not to, you know, over-coach her, but let her do and understand what felt comfortable to her. And that’s what we went with, and I thought she punched it exactly where she needed to punch it.”
He concluded: “She wasn’t trying to, you know, set some landmark event. She was just trying to help, really, where she could.”
In the fourth quarter, Vanderbilt reached the Missouri 32-yard line, the farthest it would go, and missed out on a fourth and four as Mason was “just trying to establish some type of rhythm” with his offense. For an 0-8 team struggling in America’s foremost conference, that bid for establishment continues next week at No. 9 Georgia, with Fuller’s role uncertain as of Saturday night.
“I would love to get out there and score a field goal. I’d love to get out there and [kick] an extra point and everything,” she said. “I would be happy if they will have me. I love the team. They are amazing; the entire staff has been so incredible in this transition, and I could not ask for a better team behind me to get me prepared. Honestly, I’m having so much fun and I want to learn more about how to kick and how to do things better because I think I really can refine it and get better from here.”