On Saturday, at the height of the pandemic, university football walked away together, but the morning of the last weekend started differently.
At breakfast I told my two daughters that Sarah Fuller had the opportunity to make history in Vanderbilt. I didn’t have to explain why. His eyes widened.
Between the bites of her French toast, my nine-year-old daughter began to sing: I want to see HERstory!
So am I.
Another year, another time in another house, I would sit on the couch with my father on Saturday to watch soccer, desperately demanding to put on a T-shirt and shoulder pads and play quarterback like the players I saw on TV.
Fault! The file name is not specified. Sarah Fuller is expected to replace Vanderbilt when the Commodores take Georgia on Saturday. Missouri Athletics/Collegial Pictures/Getty Pictures
Of course, I knew I’d never get that chance, and I didn’t need anyone to tell me why. The boys were playing soccer. Not the girls. Those were the rules. But that didn’t stop me from practicing spirals with my dad in the garden so I could be Dan Marino in the local vans where the boys always let me play quarterback. I may not have a future in the NFL, but no one told me to give up football.
I focused all my efforts on becoming a sports writer and I told everyone who asked me that I would be like this when I grew up. When I came to the University of Florida in the mid-1990s, several women started breaking down barriers in football and I wanted to learn more about them. They did what I had always dreamed of doing and I had to know what it was like not to be the first woman to score an extra point, but to actually be on the football team.
When I told the story of Liz Histon, the first woman to play a varsity game at NAIA Willamette University in 1997, I learned that the then Florida coach Steve Spurrier had given several female soccer players the opportunity to play for the Gators. Now I had to talk to Spierierre. It was early December and he’s going to New York soon to compete for the Heisman Trophy. I called his house, and his wife said he was still at the office.
So I went to the soccer stadium to find him. Of course, his car was parked outside the door. I went up the stairs to the coach’s office. In the entrance hall it was dark and quiet, except for the light that came out of Spurriere under the door.
Journalists weren’t usually allowed in the football office without an invitation, so I couldn’t know how Spurrier would react if I knocked on the door. My mind upset the possibilities when I was standing there frozen. I’ve come this far, I thought. There’s no need to play it safe.
I knocked and prepared myself to make him scream. Instead, he opened the door and looked at me in a quiz. I told him why I’m here. He invited me into his office and told me to sit down. I could have lied and said I was completely calm and ready for this moment, but I was a 20-year-old student and I never thought he would talk to me. Now that I was sitting there when he showed me his pictures with Danny Cube and other memories in his office, my heart was beating so loud I was sure he could hear it from his desk. Then he asked me what I needed. I told him what I found out. He smiled.
Surfer told me we walked the streets a couple of times. If it’s a game we’re playing, we’ll let them go and get one. So why don’t you let the abusive woman go out and hit one?
Maybe Spurrier remembers that conversation when nine months later, during a training session with the team, I asked him to bet on a column I wanted to write. He accepted willingly and then coached me, as I had to bet, because other players in the special team gave me a dirty look. Spurrier told me to ignore them, and also told the equipment manager not to resume my awful puns until they stopped running. To maximize the farm! He liked to say.
The athlete clearly wanted to send a message to his players, who averaged a terrible 32 meters per kick, and he used an athlete without football experience. But it wasn’t just Surrier who was part of the experiment. For an hour I took part in soccer training and it was one of the coolest moments of my professional life. I had a little moment where I could tell the world Yes, I was at the practice today.
When I recently called Spurrier for an article about Florida’s current star quarterback, Kyle Trask, he asked me if you’ve been panting lately? Apparently, he hasn’t forgotten either.
Over the years, women like Kathy Hnida and April Goss and Ashley Martin have had the opportunity to play in Division 1 with many high school girls. I encouraged them all. Because they’re me. A girl who just wanted to play soccer.
Fault! The file name is not specified. ESPN reporter Andrea Adelson supervised the passing with her father as a child and played quarterback in the surrounding vans. Thanks to Andrea Adelson.
So, when things went well on Saturday, I thought of everything. Although the women started playing earlier, when Fuller took the field in the second half of the game, a group of cheerleaders accompanied me for the first time – children aged 12 and 9 – cheering and shouting, waiting for the story to make history.
As sports reporters we are told not to get sick in the newsroom, never to show emotions, always to remain objective. But when Fuller hit the ball, my eyes went up quite unexpectedly and I let the power of that simple moment take me away temporarily. What Fuller has achieved now has a very different meaning to me than that of the mother of two daughters who are already talking about taking the world into their own hands with their strong spirit and courage.
I remembered that my father sat with him on the couch while my daughters sat with me. He told me that I can definitely write about football, that I can do what I want and that I can’t let anyone else tell me. I looked at the television screen and Fuller – the way she behaved, the way she went through her university and her team, and ignored the flood of criticism from a girl who dared to do what is called a man’s job.
I was looking at my two daughters.
Mom, are you crying? My eldest daughter asked me that.
Maybe Fuller will get another chance to score in one of Vanderbilt’s last two games. Maybe there’ll be another woman scoring a goal in a Power 5 game. Maybe it’s just another line in the history book. What happened last Saturday will not fundamentally change the game of football. No one can expect that.
But what Fuller did was give girls like me a moment to see for themselves: They can do whatever they want.