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Opinion | And Play Like a Girl She Did

NASHVILLE — When Sarah Fuller stepped onto the field at the University of Missouri on Nov. 28, she wasn’t wearing the jersey she normally wears as a goalkeeper for Vanderbilt University’s women’s soccer team. On that Saturday after Thanksgiving, she was wearing full pads and a Commodores football jersey. Her helmet was emblazoned with the words “Play Like a Girl.”

When Ms. Fuller kicked off for the Commodores at the beginning of the game’s second half, she also kicked through a glass ceiling, becoming the first woman to play in a Power 5 football game. (Other women have played college football, though none at the elite level of the Power 5 conferences, which include the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten Conference, Big 12 Conference, Pac-12 Conference, and Southeastern Conference.)

This wasn’t the culmination of a young woman’s lifelong goal, and it wasn’t a publicity stunt by a team in the midst of a humiliating season. Coronavirus quarantines had left Vanderbilt without a kicker, and Ms. Fuller, a 21-year-old senior from Wylie, Texas, was the team’s best hope. The Commodores hadn’t won a single football game all season, while Vanderbilt Women’s Soccer had just won the Southeastern Conference Division 1 championship, its first title since 1994. And Ms. Fuller was a powerful kicker for the championship team.

Though she’d been practicing with the football team for less than a week, she knew exactly what she was doing: “Let’s make history,” she tweeted before the game.

Derek Mason, then the Commodores’ head coach, said in a postgame news conference that he didn’t tap Ms. Fuller for a date with history: “Listen, I’m not about making statements,” he said. “This was out of necessity.” (Vanderbilt fired Mr. Mason the following day for reasons unrelated to the decision to play Ms. Fuller.)

Necessity. That team needed Sarah Fuller much the way the United States of America needed Rosie the Riveter during World War II.

For days after the game, I found myself thinking again and again of Ms. Fuller, of the confidence in her smile as she held a football helmet emblazoned with a message that was personal for her. (“Play Like a Girl” is a reference to a nonprofit she supports that promotes sports and STEM opportunities for girls.) I thought of the faith the Commodores had put in her — not because a woman had never played college football at that level before, but because Vanderbilt desperately needed a kicker, and Sarah Fuller can kick the holy hell out of a ball.

I thought about the time I tried out for my high school’s football team, about how when I reported for practice, the coach kept shaking his head and saying: “Are you serious? Are you serious?” over and over again until he finally told me where I could pick up my pads.

The author during her football days.Credit…From Margaret Renkl

As it happens, I wasn’t serious, at least not about joining the football team. It was February 1978, not quite six years after Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 was signed into law. The legislation forbade institutions receiving federal funds — virtually all public schools and universities — from discriminating on the basis of gender. I was an aspiring writer, not an aspiring athlete, and I wanted to make everyone believe I was serious about football so I could write a story about it for the school paper. Title IX meant I could play football if I wanted to. Was Alabama ready for a girl football player?

All I can say is thank God Twitter didn’t exist 42 years ago because Alabama was definitely not ready for a girl football player.

I told Ms. Fuller that story on a Zoom call this week and asked if she had experienced the same disbelief as a young woman growing up in the South. Her response was measured. “I would like to say the narrative’s changed a little bit,” she said. “I’d like to say that, and then again there’s people on social media that are like, ‘You’re not supposed to be out there’ and all this stuff. But there’s so much more positive around it now. There’s so many more people pressing and being like: ‘No, this needs to be the norm. This needs to be what we should expect from now on.’”

Ms. Fuller is not bothered by the blowback on social media: “The negative is just a waste of my time,” she said. “I have worked hard to get where I am, and I was in the right spot at the right time to be called up on the football team, and I’ve been working really hard to perform for them. So at the end of the day I don’t care what the negative is.”

Blowback, I am thankful to report, isn’t all Ms. Fuller has gotten. The other Vanderbilt players welcomed her to the team, according to quarterback Mike Wright. “I can 100 percent ensure that Sarah was accepted with open arms,” he told reporters after the game.

Support has also poured in from other athletes and from women in all manner of fields who know something about competing in a man’s world: “Thank you, Sarah, for helping to prove that women and girls belong on every playing field — quite literally,” Hillary Clinton tweeted. In addition to receiving congratulations from every corner of the country, Ms. Fuller was also named an SEC Special Teams Player of the Week and was nominated for the Capital One Orange Bowl-FWAA Courage Award.

If this were a made-for-TV movie, Sarah Fuller would have led the winless Commodores to an unlikely victory. In real life, Missouri shut out Vandy with a final score of 41-0. And in real life Ms. Fuller’s second-half kickoff was her only kick of the game — the Commodores never got into field-goal range. But there’s one part of this imaginary TV script that Ms. Fuller seems to have played with a natural gift: the passionate half-time speech. “I was like, ‘We need to be cheering each other on,’” she told ESPN’s Courtney Cronin. “We need to be lifting each other up. That’s what a team’s about.”

As Mr. Wright noted, “I mean, you can take a leader out of their sport, but at the end of the day she’s still a leader.”

This is the glory of Title IX and all other federal civil rights legislation, especially in parts of the country — here in the American South, for example — where barriers are so often slow to fall. Such laws don’t merely open opportunities for the people whose rights have traditionally been ignored or openly denied. They also help to create a society where hard work and natural gifts can benefit us all. A football team needed Sarah Fuller. Thanks to Title IX, Sarah Fuller had the training and the skills and the pure, heart-lifting confidence to step up.

Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the book “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”

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