Sarah Fuller is a legitimate champion.
She doesn’t need a participation trophy, and neither do any of the other thousands of top female collegiate athletes in this country.
Fuller, the senior starting goalkeeper on Vanderbilt’s SEC Tournament-winning soccer team, became the first woman to play in a Power 5 college football game Saturday afternoon. That, in and of itself, is a tremendous accomplishment and is a moment to be celebrated.
Two days later, she was named the SEC’s co-Special Teams Player of the Week. Her contribution to the winless Commodores’ 41-0 loss at Missouri: One not-so-great kickoff. I understand where the SEC is coming from, but I have a real problem with the conference giving Fuller this award. It’s patronizing. I want to see a woman be named Special Teams Player of the Week because she earned it, either by kicking five field goals in a single game or by booting a tension-filled game-winning kick. Not like this.
To review, Fuller made her football debut after Vanderbilt ran out of kickers due to COVID-19. Like most SEC schools, Vanderbilt doesn’t have a men’s soccer program, so the women’s soccer team was a natural go-to recruiting zone.
With soccer season having just ended, Fuller’s availability was wide open.
Adorned with a “Play Like a Girl” sticker on her helmet, Fuller executed a serviceable squib-kick on her one-and-only play. For that, she was honored alongside Florida’s Kadarius Toney, who had a 50-yard punt return for a touchdown Saturday.
Fuller isn’t the first woman to play college football. That barrier was broken years ago. But this is major college football. That’s the whole reason why Fuller playing is a big deal. So let’s treat it as such.
I want to see equality. If you’re going to play on the same field as the men, you should be held to the same standard when the conference doles out its end-of-week awards. I believe there are women in this country who are fully capable of being named Special Teams Player of the Week in a major college football conference on their merit.
Why am I so sure of it? Because 16 years ago I watched a teenage girl named Heidi Garrett from Riverside, Calif.-based Martin Luther King High School blast a 48-yard fourth-quarter field goal, with room to spare, to seal a win. She had the ability to play college football, but she pursued a soccer career instead at UC Riverside.
There are any number of women in this country who could be a college football kicker. They don’t have any incentive to do it, because they are getting scholarships to play college soccer. There are only 130 Football Bowl Subdivision programs in the United States, but there are 333 NCAA Division I women’s soccer programs.
On top of that, it is a well-known fact that many college football coaches are loath to “waste” one of their many scholarships on a placekicker. Most famously, Indianapolis Colts kicker Rodrigo Blankenship threatened to leave the University of Georgia after his freshman season before he finally got a full-ride.
Women aren’t dumb. They go where there’s opportunity.
Sarah Fuller deserves all the credit in the world for breaking through barriers. Life is about making the most of our chances when we get them, no matter how we get them. She is taking full advantage of her big break, and let’s honor her for that.
“I’ll stay around as long as they want me, till they kick me off,” Fuller boldly said Sunday. Vanderbilt plays at Georgia this weekend.
Let’s all hope she gets another crack at it and wins that Special Teams’ award for real.