Presence Creates Possibility

by Janzen Harding

When I first saw the video clip of Sarah Fuller running onto the field to make a squib kick in Vanderbilt’s matchup against Missouri, I felt a surge of emotions: excitement, curiosity, anticipation, inspiration. And if representation can be considered an emotion, I felt that, too.

On November 28 2020, Sarah Fuller became the first woman to play in a Power 5 football game. Two weeks later, she kicked a field goal for the Commodores, becoming the first woman to score in a Power 5 football game. In the course of two weeks, Sarah Fuller had made her mark on football history.

Before her football debut, Sarah Fuller had just helped lead the Vanderbilt Women’s Soccer team to SEC championship victory as their starting goalie. Shortly after the championship, Vanderbilt’s football program reached out, asking if she would step in and kick for the football team. Fuller agreed and donned a helmet with the words “Play Like a Girl” inscribed on it. Perhaps she anticipated that her participation in a predominately male sport would garner media attention, but the impact that her performance made has spread deeper than she could have imagined.

Actress America Ferrara once said, “Presence creates possibility.” When Fuller suited up and played in a Power 5 college game, her presence on the team created a possibility that I was not even aware of. Of course, girls can play football: I grew up playing football with my neighbors and played flag football in collegiate intramurals and after college in an adult league. I’ve seen girls football leagues and an increasing number of female athletic trainers or team managers on collegiate sidelines. Ability was never the question—possibility was—and Fuller created a whole new dimension of female possibility. Her presence on the field was a visual representation of a woman whose ability transcended the sex barrier that often precludes women from participating in widely watched sports, like a power 5 football game.

When Fuller stepped onto the field, every girl who was watching saw something more than a kick; they saw a future.

If you search #playlikeagirl you will find dozens of videos and photos posted by proud parents who are seeing their young daughters kicking field goals in living rooms, climbing into football gear and helmets, garbed in the kind of confidence gained from the realization of unlimited possibilities. For some, the inspiration might drive them to pursue a sport they love. Others, like myself, are inspired to be bold in chasing after opportunities, ploughing past naysayers, and leaning into the confidence in knowing that we are good enough for the stages we earn our way onto. 

Fuller’s participation (furthermore, her success) changed the game for girls. The game she changed is not football—she hardly had enough time to do that. Fuller changed the game that girls play, where girls listen to the rule that they are not allowed, where they give up a sport because it is not meant for them (or they are not meant for it), where they let social standards dictate their participation instead of letting their skills or talents speak for themselves.

I had never seen a woman represent her university wearing a full football uniform. What other ways exist where girls and women can put their talents and passions to practice to represent their university that have hereto been discouraged or invisible? What other arenas have women been absent from that could benefit from their participation? How much inspiration have younger girls lost out on because they saw no representation?

Girls love sports. In a way, Fuller gave girls permission to continue to love sports.

As a female coach and educator, my takeaway from watching Sarah Fuller is to take a play from her book and be as visible and representative as I can. She encouraged me to continue pursuing things that I love, regardless of barriers, naysayers, or perception, and this extends beyond sports.

I am emboldened to chase after the things I am passionate about, and my goal is to live that out in order to give permission for my students and athletes to do the same: the permission to be who you are and to boldly dream big.