There’s no question this is a landmark year—one that, for a myriad of reasons, will be viewed in the years to come as a major inflection point in our respective lifetimes. For instance, this upcoming college football Saturday will be must-see television when Vanderbilt University and the first-ever female player on a Power Five conference team take on the 11th ranked Georgia Bulldogs. Should you tune in to see Sarah Fuller lining up for kickoff, know that she won’t be making history—she did that last week.
I recognized what a monumental milestone it was when my 11-year-old daughter, Maddie, bounced around our living room with excitement about my favorite sport. Not once had she ever talked endlessly about a specific football game until this particular one being played in Columbia, Missouri, featuring a winless Vanderbilt team. The contest dominated every national headline because for the first time ever, a female student-athlete put on the helmet and shoulder pads to compete in the NCAA’s highest division and arguably the sport’s toughest conference. Sarah Fuller is now the name my daughter will never forget and for good reason—when she trotted onto the field as starting kicker for the second half of her team’s blowout loss to the Missouri Tigers, she executed a squib kick and shattered a ceiling. On Tuesday she was named SEC football co-player of the Week.
Each of us has at least one moment that changes our lives and inspires us to think beyond our wildest dreams. Each of us has a role model or a person significant enough to us that we stop whatever we’re doing, and observe what they do in marquee moments. In this instance, Fuller was not afraid to step up while everyone was watching. She embraced the moment and reveled in the opportunity it brought for her to be a role model. Fuller has handled the attention with great poise and composure. In every media appearance since this past Saturday’s game, she’s reinforced her intentions of being a role-model for little girls everywhere more so than being in the history books for all-time.
Just last month, Fuller’s prowess on the soccer pitch, as starting goalkeeper, helped Vanderbilt secure the Southeastern Conference Championship. And while the 21-year-old who stands 6’2’’ and has been seen kicking soccer balls from nearly goal post to goal post, was making plans to join her family for Thanksgiving, she answered a call to join a football team who was in dire need of kicking help. She jumped at the chance to move—not just into the media guide and future sports trivia questions, but into a platform where she could give young girls another woman to look up to.
Sure, the football snobs might thumb their noses at a low 30-yard squib kick in a lopsided game, but that kick gave goosebumps to my entire household—and I know we’re not alone in savoring the groundbreaking moment. I still vividly remember the first fist pump that preceded an eruption of cheers at Augusta National in 1997 when Tiger Woods became the first Black golfer to win a Major tournament. I remember two years after that when a 17-year-old Serena Williams hoisted the U.S. Open trophy as the first Black woman to win a tennis Grand Slam title since the late 1950s. I’m sure you recall just six years ago, a teenager named Mo’ne Davis became the first girl to win and pitch a shutout in Williamsport, PA, at the Little League Baseball World Series. Just last college basketball season, Sabrina Ionescu became the first player, male or female, to eclipse at least 2,000 points, 1,000 assists, and 1,000 rebounds in a college career.
From Althea Gibson and Billy Jean King to Nancy Liebermann and Becky Hammon, milestones and recognizable landmarks are created every year. The great ones I’ve studied also use those breakthrough moments as a way to embrace being a role model and inspire others to work harder and see grander goals and dreams.
In the days following Fuller’s barrier-breaking game, she told reporters, “I’ll stay around as long as they want me, ‘til they, like, kick me off.”
Victories, awards, and getting her name in lights could’ve been an easy motive for Fuller. But it’s clear she’s kicking for a much greater purpose… Girls everywhere are paying attention. Just ask my Maddie—who throws a tighter spiral than many boys I know, and watches tv episodes of “Bella and the Bulldogs” religiously. Fuller didn’t intend to make history—she just tried to inspire others. And in the process of wanting to be a role model, she easily made history.