For girls following Sarah Fuller’s football path, ‘now that door’s just wide open’

Robert Hundley

DENTON, Texas — Sarah Fuller walks toward the lobby at Ryan High School, a short drive from where she now plays college soccer, the University of North Texas.

Ally Kolba giddily waits for her. She is nervous and excited and, when she sees Fuller come in the door, she whispers to her soccer coach, “She is so tall!”

Fuller first found out about Kolba on the way back from a North Texas game early in the fall, when a teammate showed her a video of Kolba kicking for Ryan High and asked, “Have you seen this girl?”

In the year since Fuller made two extra points for Vanderbilt to become the first woman to score in a Power 5 football game, she has been tagged so many times on her social media account with videos showing girls kicking footballs across the country, it has been impossible to keep track.

So no, she had not seen Kolba when her teammate asked.

“Dude!” her teammate said. “She lives right down the street!”

Fuller looked up the videos, then sent a direct message to Kolba through social media, telling her to reach out if she ever needed anything. Kolba was working the cash register during her shift at Wal-Mart when her phone buzzed and she saw the message.

“I was in shock,” Kolba says. “I was freaking out. I took my break, and I took off running.”

If Fuller needed any more evidence that her decision to play football left a lasting impact, Kolba represents the living embodiment: A young woman who wanted to give football a try, now imbued with the confidence and newfound determination to make it happen after watching Fuller do it.

Though their paths to football are completely different, the tie that binds them is the same: finding the courage, strength and steel will to do something that requires far more than kicking a ball.

LOOKING BACK ON November 2020, Fuller admits she may have been a little naïve about how her life would change when she agreed to kick for the football team. Fuller, a goalie on the Vanderbilt soccer team at the time, never dreamed about playing football. In fact, she had never kicked a football until she was asked to try out.

Vanderbilt had nearly all its specialists in quarantine because of COVID-19 protocols and needed a kicker to fill in or risk forfeiting its game against Missouri. The only player on the team who could kick was the holder, and Vanderbilt needed him to hold. Without another football player to turn to, then-Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason called assistant soccer coach Ken Masuhr and asked whether anyone could help.

Fuller came to mind, not only because of her strong leg and 6-foot-2 frame but because of her mental toughness. Fuller may have been naïve about the onslaught that was about to happen, but her coaches were not.

She wore her soccer cleats to the tryout and impressed coaches enough to get a spot on the team. In her first official day participating, Fuller went through the usual special teams drills — including practicing with a full rush coming at her for the first time. She nailed it. “I felt all the guys respected me at that point,” Fuller says.

She made her debut Nov. 28 against the Tigers. “I wish I could have recorded that conversation with my dad where he was like, ‘I think this is going to be a big deal,'” Fuller says. “I was like, really? Everyone’s saying that. I guess it is. I don’t know. It just slowly got bigger.”

Fuller kicked off in the second half to become the first woman to appear in a Power 5 game. Mason said Fuller executed the squib kick exactly as she was told. She had no opportunities to score, as Vanderbilt lost 41-0. But Fuller felt good about the way everything worked out. Afterward, she picked up a pizza and went to her boyfriend’s apartment so they could celebrate.

But when she arrived outside the building, she realized she did not have the key. She saw a couple walking toward the door and asked, “Can you let me in?” as she balanced the pizza box and all her football gear. They stared at her.

“Are you the girl that just kicked?” they asked.

“Yeah,” Fuller said. “Can you let me in the building?”

“Weren’t you just in Missouri?” they asked.

“Yeah, I was. But now I just want to eat pizza,” she said.

“That,” Fuller says, “was the first time I got noticed by someone.”

The first time she got noticed in person. By the time Fuller got back from Missouri, stories and videos about her history-making turn had gone viral. Though she was widely applauded for stepping up to help the football team, sexist, derogatory comments also filled her social media feed, and pundits debated everything from the merits of the squib kick to whether a woman even belonged on the field.

Fuller did her best to ignore them. She focused on what she had to do to get better, trying not to stress about what was to come.

When Vanderbilt played Tennessee on Dec. 12, there was huge anticipation inside the Kolba home. Months earlier, Ally thought she would like to try out football. A lifelong soccer player, Ally saw the camaraderie on the football team and decided she would start practicing kicking — keeping it a secret from everyone, including her parents and coach.

“I felt like people would take me as a joke,” Kolba said.

But soon enough, she was able to boot a 40-yard field goal, posting the video on her social media accounts. People in school told her she should try out for the football team. At this point, the season was coming to a close, and she wasn’t sure what to do.

Then she watched Fuller kick two extra points with her mom, Eileen, from their home 700 miles away from Vanderbilt. Fuller already had signed to transfer to North Texas to finish her soccer career. In some strange, cosmic way, unknown to both of them, their paths would align.

“It definitely lit a spark because I didn’t know of any other females that were kicking,” Kolba said. “So knowing I wasn’t alone, that definitely helped a lot because there’s other people that do this, too. I can do it.”

FULLER AND KOLBA met in late November, after the North Texas soccer season ended. For two hours, they traded stories about their experiences. Fuller has not kicked a football since the Tennessee game last year, so even if she wanted to trade kicks in a friendly competition — Kolba playfully asked — she was totally out of practice.

But the mutual admiration was apparent.

“How cool is it that this is something she wanted to do before she saw anyone else doing it?” Fuller says. “That’s what’s cool to me. That’s awesome.”

After Kolba decided she wanted to try out for the football team, she started working with kicking coach Jaden Oberkrom, a former All-American kicker at TCU who now works with kickers in Texas and Oklahoma. Oberkrom said Kolba already had the leg strength. She just had to refine her technique.

But it did not take long for Kolba to learn, and when she asked Ryan football coach Dave Henigan whether she could try out for the team, he had one answer: Absolutely.

“I’m around her enough to know that it wasn’t just, ‘Oh, I want to dip my toe in this thing,'” Henigan said. “It was, ‘I want to do this, and my mind is set.’ She had the right mentality. You could see that she had a good enough leg. But the improvements that she made, because she worked hard at it, made it real easy to say, ‘Absolutely.'”

Kolba spent the 2021 season as the backup kicker at Ryan High and made all nine of her extra point attempts. The work ethic Henigan describes is on display every day, and most especially once practice begins for soccer season. Kolba starts out at football, during the special teams practice period. Then she heads over to an adjacent field to practice with the soccer team. Once that wraps, she is back at football, practicing field goals, kickoffs and onside kicks on a smaller turf field with the help of either soccer or football teammates. She stays until it’s well past sundown.

“At the beginning a few of the guys were like, ‘Why is a girl joining the team? But I don’t think it was about her gender. It was about what she could bring to the team,” says teammate Ethan Wood, who often stays after practice to help Kolba. “Her enthusiasm about it, being able to stay after and work, like any of the other guys, especially treating her equal, became a big part of her success. I don’t mind staying around to help her, because she’s a part of the team, and I’m going to treat her like any of the other guys.”

Kolba says she was welcomed into the team and did not hear any negative comments. Her soccer coach, Kendall Pryor, has been pivotal in helping Kolba as a football player — serving as both a coach and a mentor. Henigan says he would hire Pryor as a football assistant if she wanted to do it.

Pryor tries to make every football game, and recalled one in which the middle school football team for their opponent gathered on the sideline and gave Kolba taps on her helmet after warmups.

“The younger kids looking up to her is — that’s a whole game changer in itself,” Pryor said. “The little boys are looking at you, and they’re like, ‘That is so cool! Good job!'”

Kolba jumps in and says, “Those kids, whenever they try and kick, most of the time, they wouldn’t know how to stand the ball up, but I’d be like, ‘Here, I’ll show you,’ and I teach them how to stand it up. Or I hold it for them and they kick it, and I’d be hyping him up. At one game, there were a bunch of kids and they were talking about me, and asking, ‘Can I get a fist bump?’ They all know my name. I want to be someone they look up to, especially little girls, and they’ll be like, ‘I want to kick, too,’ and then they can be the future Ally.”

Or the future Sarah.

JUST HOW FAR and wide-ranging the impact Fuller made with her history-making turn is yet to be determined. Fuller was not the first woman to score in a collegiate game. Girls have played high school football in increasing numbers over the last decade. In 2019, the last year with available statistics, the National Federation of State High School Associations reported 2,404 girls played football, almost twice as many as 2009 (1,249).

Google search ‘female high school football players’ and results surface from across the country. Most are kickers, but not all. Clearly, girls playing football is not as rare as it was two decades ago.

But the anecdotal evidence suggests what Fuller did was far more visible to parents and girls, not only because she did it at an SEC school, but because social media allowed her kicks to go viral — increasing the accessibility to that moment in ways that did not exist when Katie Hnida became the first woman to score in an FBS game for New Mexico in 2003.

Kolba is only one example. At Moline High School in Moline, Ill., four female kickers are a part of the football program, three on the varsity and one on the junior varsity. Starting kicker Caroline Hazen, who has signed to play soccer at Northern Iowa, started out the same way as Fuller. Three years ago, coach Mike Morrissey had zero kickers in his program. Hazen was the best soccer player on the team, and he eventually convinced her to try out.

She was a sophomore with no football kicking experience. But Hazen worked at it, and the more she kicked, the more she enjoyed it. As a senior this past season, she earned first-team all-conference honors and second-team All-Metro honors. But along the way, she convinced her soccer teammate, Vivian Veto, to kick. Kiersten Bailey, who transferred to the school this year, kicked on the varsity team, too, and Charlise Martel was on the JV team.

Hazen, Veto and Bailey all scored in one game this year, the first time three female kickers scored in one game in school history. There are zero male kickers on the team, and Morrissey sees no issue with that. “It’s not even something where we look at it like that anymore,” he said. “These are our kickers, and they’re part of the team. It makes no difference, you know? And that’s the beauty of it.”

Though Hazen had already started her football career before Fuller made her kick, she still described Fuller as inspiring.

“I just remember feeling nervous for her because I know she was on such a big stage, but I was so excited to see somebody do it at the next level because it just made me feel like this is going to keep growing,” Hazen said. “I think female football players are becoming more normalized already, just because I see it within my own program. I’ve heard about a school around us that has a female kicker. So just opening it up to younger girls who need to see people like Sarah Fuller doing it at this big level and realize, ‘I’m just like her, I can do that, too.’

Across the Illinois border in Iowa, Katie Lindsay at Van Meter High School became the first girl to score points in an Iowa state football championship game, as her two extra points and 27-yard field goal made the difference in a 17-14 win. Though she had never heard of Fuller when she decided to try out, making state history and inspiring other girls along the way may end up being a legacy for her, too. Now Lindsay wants to try and kick in college, something Kolba wants to do as well.

Oberkrom sees a direct correlation between Fuller and growing interest from girls, even if it is anecdotal. In the last year, he has worked with three girls full-time, and 10 have come in to try it out, more than any other time previously.

“They all know who she is,” Oberkrom said. “You could tell she was an inspiration to them. I think a lot of girls out there have the desire to try it and do something different. Plus, there’s a lot of girls out there with talent. Sarah just kind of made a lot of people come out of their shell and actually pursue it.”

It does take a mental fortitude to stick with it. There often is an awkwardness when they first join the team. Lindsay describes being ignored at the outset of one summer camp she attended. “Then they got used to me,” Lindsay says.

Like Fuller, Kolba and Hazen said they receive negativity and vitriol on social media, including comments like, “Girls don’t belong in football.” Some accused Hazen of pulling a “publicity stunt.” On top of all that is the pressure to perform, knowing if they miss a kick or fail on a kickoff, they will become instant targets for scorn and ridicule.

“The very first time I kicked in a game, I knew I couldn’t mess up, because there would be video and it would go everywhere, and no one would take me seriously,” Kolba said. “I really want people to understand I’m here genuinely and not for the publicity.”

“I tried to take that mental aspect out of it because there was so much weighing on it,” Fuller says in response. “I hope we get to the point where we’re just treated like any kicker or any player. We’re not there yet, but we’re going to get there.”

Fuller says the most challenging part was not the self-imposed pressure, but what she encountered on social media.

“It was so overwhelming,” Fuller said. “I could have cracked and said, ‘No, I don’t have to do this. This is not my thing.’ I’m honestly proud I stuck through it, not just because of me, but the fact that I knew that there was more on the line. It was more the image of what was happening for women and men, and so everybody could see that this was possible.”

She turns to Kolba. “Obviously, now I’m hearing your story and I’m like, ‘I’m glad I did that.’ Now, you can step in and genuinely do it. I had my little moment and that’s fine. I’m kind of stepping aside and you can step in, if you want to.”

“I’m willing to take all the negativity if it means that somebody can come in after me,” Kolba said.

“Exactly,” Fuller says. “I felt that way, too.”

“Shoot, somebody can say something really mean to me,” Kolba says. “But that means after I graduate, let’s say possibly another young soccer player comes in and kicks after me. If that means people will treat her better, because they’ve already let it out on me, I’m all in.”

Pryor goes one step further.

“I think now that door’s just wide open,” she says. “There’s going to be this insane amount of girls that are just like, ‘OK, I’m going to go play.'”

“It’s complete untapped potential,” Fuller says. “It’s a whole group that you have not even considered that might be better in some cases. You haven’t even looked. So that’s what’s exciting about it.”

Fuller knew when she transferred to North Texas her football playing days would be over, and she is totally fine with that. Soccer was her first love, and remains so. She is undecided about whether to return to North Texas for one more year.

Recently, she signed on as the director of athlete relations for NOCAP Sports, a name, image and likeness platform, and continues to amplify women in sports through social media or other avenues. As for Kolba, she is a senior and has told her coaches and parents she seriously wants to pursue kicking in college.

A few smaller schools have reached out to gauge her interest, including Kansas Wesleyan and Sam Houston State, but her future is far from set beyond wanting to try it out. She credits Oberkrom for helping put the idea in her head. “He saw me and he wasn’t like, ‘Oh, she’s just a girl,'” Kolba said. “I told him I wanted to try and play college football, and he told me he could get me there.”

Fuller smiles, convinced more than ever that kicking for Vanderbilt is something she was “supposed to do, like it was my purpose.”

“Football’s not my sport. It’s something that kind of happened to me,” Fuller said. “So it’s nice that this is something Ally genuinely loves and wants to do. And that’s what I want, someone like her stepping in and being like, ‘Hey, this is my thing,’ which I think is so awesome.

“I think she’s cooler than me, honestly.”

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