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Sport: She Kicked For Vanderbilt, and Then Things Got Hard

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After dealing with depression, Sarah Fuller, who moonlighted as a kicker for Vanderbilt had to take a break from sports. Now, she has become an advocate for better mental health resources at colleges.

Sarah Fuller had no concrete plan to die. But that didn’t stop her from thinking about the possibility often.

This spring, amid a spate of Division I college athlete suicides, the former Vanderbilt soccer goalkeeper and football kicker says she very easily could’ve been among them. In particular, the March death of Katie Meyer, a fellow goalkeeper who starred for Stanford, scared her into getting help. O.K., she thought, I need to change something about my mental health.

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Back on Lexapro and after roughly half a semester this spring off from soccer, which Fuller is still playing while in grad school at North Texas, she’s feeling better this summer. Much better. She’s no longer wishing that she’d tear her ACL and get to miss practice—or worse.

Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images © Provided by Sports Illustrated Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

“This is kind of dark, but I cross the street now and I’m like, Oh! I don’t want to get hit by a car.” She laughs, reflecting back on the big improvement from her mindset this spring. “That’s not funny, but like, that’s where I was at.”

A year and a half ago, she played two football games for Vandy, which made her the first woman to compete in a Power 5 matchup. Now, she’s just wrapped up a stint goalkeeping for USL W League runner-up Aurora FC, a new preprofessional, unpaid soccer team. (Aurora lost 2–1 in the championship match to Tormenta FC on Saturday.) Her last semester of what feels like a lifetime of NCAA eligibility will be this fall, as she works toward a master’s in sports entertainment management.

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While Fuller sorted everything out for herself, she was quiet about her dark feelings and her break. But she’s speaking up now—about football, soccer and everything else—because she knows other athletes need to hear that mental health struggles are common. She doesn’t want to see any more Katie Meyers.

Fuller kicked for Vanderbilt in two games during the 2020 college football season. Denny Medley/USA TODAY Sports © Provided by Sports Illustrated Fuller kicked for Vanderbilt in two games during the 2020 college football season. Denny Medley/USA TODAY Sports

Football was never on Fuller’s radar. She watched it, sure, as a casual Cowboys fan, and in college got interested in the local Titans. But playing? Her teammates had been watching Vandy football: “Someone missed a field goal—or maybe they made it—but I was like, ‘I feel like I can do that.’” She was joking, but she was about to get her chance for real.

Assistant soccer coach Ken Masuhr called Fuller the morning following her team’s upset SEC tournament win over top-seeded Arkansas in November 2020. She dialed him back, vaguely worried she was in trouble, and learned that Masuhr had heard from the football team that it needed a kicker, due to COVID-19 and contact-tracing issues. Apparently, no one on the football team was willing or able to step in. “They didn’t want to forfeit, so the next best thing is our soccer team,” Fuller says. She thinks Masuhr came to her first because of an impressive assist she kicked from midfield during the SEC tournament. “It also helps that I’m like 6'1", 220 pounds,” she quips.

She Kicked For Vanderbilt, and Then Things Got Hard

  She Kicked For Vanderbilt, and Then Things Got Hard After dealing with depression, Sarah Fuller, who moonlighted as a kicker for Vanderbilt had to take a break from sports. Now, she has become an advocate for better mental health resources at colleges. Sarah Fuller had no concrete plan to die. But that didn’t stop her from thinking about the possibility often.This spring, amid a spate of Division I college athlete suicides, the former Vanderbilt soccer goalkeeper and football kicker says she very easily could’ve been among them. In particular, the March death of Katie Meyer, a fellow goalkeeper who starred for Stanford, scared her into getting help. O.K.

Fuller wanted to call her parents and check in about her decision and the prospect of missing Thanksgiving at home in Texas, but Masuhr needed an answer on the spot. She said yes, gathered her soccer equipment from her boyfriend Scott Banker’s apartment and showed up on the field for the tryout. (She and Banker had met on Hinge just the month before. Their first date was at Topgolf, and he describes her play as “hard to watch.”)

“The opportunity sounded exciting, but there wasn’t anything more to it,” Fuller says. “I didn’t even fathom the idea of what was going to come from all this.”

After Sarah hung up with her parents, the magnitude of what was happening dawned on Windi and Brandon Fuller. “It probably took us a couple of minutes, but we kind of looked at each other like, Oh my goodness, this is going to be life-changing,” Windi says. Sarah was more naive, as she describes it, thinking the kicking would be no big deal. At the tryout, she successfully kicked 12 or 13 of 15 field goals, which she says surprised the coaches, long snapper and holder present. She won the job.

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The result was immediate girl-bossification: One headline read, “Sarah Fuller, potential Vanderbilt kicker, is the pandemic Thanksgiving hero we need,” capturing much of the country’s sentiment. In the press, she was also adorned with labels like “trailblazing,” “history-making” and “girl kicker.”

On Nov. 28, 2020, Fuller suited up for the 0–7 Commodores alongside her new teammates—who had taken to calling her “champ”—on the road against Missouri with “just the normal amount of nerves,” she says. Fuller had gotten the go-ahead from the NCAA to play just an hour before the team’s bus pulled out from Vandy.

She wasn’t exactly jazzed about the kickoff—the possibility of field goals or PATs felt more exciting—but she executed her squib kick perfectly; it was downed on the Tigers’ 35-yard line. (On the need for the squib, Fuller explains, “I kick like a soccer player. I had four days to learn.”)

“We tried to go with the most natural kicks in her arsenal, tried not to, you know, over-coach her, but let her do and understand what felt comfortable to her,” Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said after the team’s 41–0 loss. “And that’s what we went with, and I thought she punched it exactly where she needed to punch it.”

  She Kicked For Vanderbilt, and Then Things Got Hard © Provided by Sports Illustrated

The next week, Fuller’s services were needed again; the regular kicker was back, but special teams coach Devin Fitzsimmons (now with the Arizona Cardinals) elected to have him do any kicks above 25 yards, but kept Fuller on the roster for close-range kicks because she was more accurate from those distances.

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In that matchup against Tennessee, she became the first woman to score in a Power 5 game, notching two extra points in a 42–17 Commodores loss. Windi was in the stands trembling before her daughter’s first attempt, late in the first quarter. “She didn’t have a choice but to score that point,” Windi says, reflecting the pressure Sarah felt, too. Meanwhile, her daughter was on the field thinking about SpongeBob to calm her own nerves.

“Because women are so judged when they step into a man’s role, there’s this expectation that you have to perform or else you’re kind of going to be that target forever,” Fuller says. “Like, ‘Did you see Sarah? She sucked. Nobody else can do this.’” She also says that she forced herself to try to be more “mentally tough”—a common trope in sports that Fuller, despite her resiliency, has made a point to reject—while playing in a traditionally male space.

Fuller was thrilled to be competing. “How fun to go out there and play a new sport, especially as an athlete, to go out there and try new things,” she says. Even so, the negative sides of the game wore on her over time. There was the frustration of playing for a losing team. She gave a passionate halftime speech to the guys during the Mizzou game, urging them to have each other’s backs and fight to score.

Then there were the sexist comments online. Fuller told her friends and family not to weigh in on her behalf, but they just watched as people railed about women’s need to stay in their place. People stalked her looking for autographs. She got a death threat, via a Facebook DM to Banker. Her parents called for extra police patrol around their Texas home after getting lots of mail; they still don’t know how their address got out. Banker collected the upbeat mentions of Fuller online to share with his girlfriend and tried to hide all the rest, but eventually, her story got too big: She was bound to see the negative feedback herself, too. But it didn’t bother her much at the time.

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There’s also the pressure to make the most of her NIL potential now that it’s legal, both for the cash (Fuller, repped by Wasserman, supports herself while in grad school) and the branding. “I remember people saying, ‘Oh, I just saw [Katie Meyer] on Instagram, and she just looked so happy.’ I’m like, I was doing the same thing. … You have to maintain posts to keep up an appearance in order to get these NIL deals.” She currently has deals with companies including Altra Running Shoes, H&R Block, NOCAP Sports (a portal for students to find NIL deals) and Tempo (a home gym).

Through it all, as Fuller’s football brand was growing, she loved the positive attention: Zooming into an inauguration event to introduce Vice President Kamala Harris, appearing at the ESPYs, receiving signed jerseys from NFL players, stepping in for Dolly Parton as the Titans’ 12th man. She was reaching heights far beyond everything she had achieved in soccer, the sport she’d made her life’s work.

Fuller has spent the last year goalkeeping for both the University of North Texas, where she is in grad school, and Aurora FC, a preprofessional women’s soccer team. Terri Cole/Minnesota Aurora © Provided by Sports Illustrated Fuller has spent the last year goalkeeping for both the University of North Texas, where she is in grad school, and Aurora FC, a preprofessional women’s soccer team. Terri Cole/Minnesota Aurora

At North Texas, Fuller sees a sport psychologist regularly. As she was struggling in the spring, her instinct was to see him less, not more, so she cut her sessions back to every other week. He eventually caught on and wanted to see her twice a week. The source of Fuller’s unhappiness took her a while to pinpoint, but for her close circle, the problem was obvious: For the first time in her life, soccer was not sparking joy.

“There’s a bit of repetitiveness of how soccer goes,” Fuller says. “I remember telling my therapist I just felt like I was on this hamster wheel. And then it just resets every year. You just have to do the same thing. You keep having to fight for a spot.” She was burnt out.

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On top of the soccer doldrums, she believes that, at least on a subconscious level, the stress she endured from her fame as part of the football team was finally catching up with her. With her thoughts of self-harm and suicide swelling, she scheduled an emergency session with him to discuss what she could do. The two agreed that Fuller would take off from soccer for at least one week. She ended up staying away from spring break through the rest of the semester.

“When you’re at that low of a point, the things that you love, that excite you, that you have a passion for, tend to be sometimes the most draining,” Fuller says. Adds Sarah Jaquez Okerstrom, one of Fuller’s best friends from childhood: “It’s just go, go, go, go, go. And I think that’s when it kind of hit her.”

The break was hardly a rest, at least physically. She spent part of it training for the Boston Marathon, where she was one of eight women this April to run on an honorary team for the city’s Athletic Association. They were meant to represent the eight women who finished the race in 1972, as part of the first official women’s division. She crossed the finish line with Banker in 5:50.59.

“Obviously, I will go and try to achieve anything,” Fuller says. “Except run another marathon. I’m not doing that. I’m more of a one-and-done.”

The break left Fuller rejuvenated and ready to enjoy soccer again. Before wrapping up her soccer eligibility at North Texas, Fuller spent the summer in Minnesota, goalkeeping for and captaining Aurora FC, a majority women-owned, community-led team.

Her leadership, including in the mental health realm, was crucial for the team’s younger players. “She’s unabashedly committed to speaking out,” Aurora goalkeeper coach Cassie Ulrich says. “She opened up and talked about some of the struggles she was experiencing in her career. … I think it’s important to have people who are able to readily share and talk about their experience.”

At Aurora, Fuller was the happiest she’s ever been playing soccer. She loved the all-women environment, which made for a close-knit team culture. She also felt she was playing her best soccer as the playoffs wore on, even saving a penalty kick as Aurora, which has sold out crowds on the same field where the NFL’s Vikings practice, breezed through the playoffs. The team’s supporters group often chanted her name.

“I’ve taken this opportunity at Aurora to take a better step forward with soccer and have a better relationship with it and just find the joy in being around my teammates.” It’s working. The break. The Lexapro. The reaching out to friends and family for support. “Everything’s honestly a 180 from where I was at,” she says.

Fuller wants to see others get access to the help she has benefited from through her school. She praises the North Texas staff and says the NCAA should mandate more resources for students at all member institutions, which sometimes have one mental health professional serving hundreds of athletes. It’s vital for college athletes to have access to adequate resources within their athletic departments to destigmatize seeking help and offer professionals who are used to working with their specific concerns.

Another famous goalkeeper who has recently spoken out about mental illness, USWNT legend Briana Scurry, calls Fuller’s advocacy “an inspiration.” She adds: “We are not robots. We don’t just play the sport. We are people playing the sport and we have things that happen to us that we feel with our platform we can shed light on. And she understands that and she’s done a fantastic job with it.”

The NWSL may be in Fuller’s future. She is still deciding whether to enter the draft, which will likely take place in December. (The league’s goalkeeper competition is stiff, but someone with Fuller’s promise and name recognition could have a shot at breaking through.) She acknowledges, though, “You get old and your body starts to hurt all the time, and you’re like, How long do I wanna feel this way for?” So instead, she may take on the business side of sports as an agent or eventually a team owner (she’d love to see Aurora join the NWSL).

For now, as Fuller sorts out everything else, she knows one thing: that she needs to speak up on behalf of her peers and their mental health.

“I don’t even want that to be an option for student-athletes, to think of suicide,” she says. “You’re much better taking a step back and pressing pause.”

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Saints rookie Trevor Penning kicked out of camp after third fight .
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