Vanderbilt place kicker Sarah Fuller warms up before the start of a game against Missouri on Saturday. Fuller became the first woman to play in a Power Five football game. L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

Maybe one of the most stirring whooshes forward in the entire American culture finds a nutshell in the Fuller family from the northeast suburbs of Dallas. Maybe just listening to the unboastful Fullers yields a gauge of how the past half-century has seen the American respect for the female athlete hatch, then wobble, then gallop.

Surely it’s there in the farcical-but-true story Brandon Fuller recalls from circa 1977 about his sister, Bev, 10 years older, who played forward on the Colorado High girls’ basketball team in Colorado City, Texas. Little Brandon would join his parents to watch her play, of course, and would witness the last traces of a long-gone patronization.

“And they played half-court basketball,” he said this momentous week. “I look back, and it seems really funny to me.”

Surely it runs through Windi Fuller’s recollections of her high school days in the late 1980s in Canton, Ohio, where she stopped playing basketball after her sophomore year, then later knew the cringes of wishing she had continued. Then again, the cues and encouragements girls hear and see didn’t shout from all around.

“I would say that at the school that I went to, it was accepted and encouraged but unique, still,” she said this momentous week. “I mean, I didn’t know of any female athletes other than maybe Nancy Lopez.”

And surely it’s there in the words of the proud Aunt Bev herself, who looked back from this momentous week and said she hadn’t learned until ninth grade to “dribble, shoot, everything,” and said of the half-court quirk that would end just after she graduated, “We didn’t even know any differently.”

Sarah Fuller gets a fist-bump from Missouri Coach Eliah Drinkwitz. L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

Well, the Fullers married each other after they met at Texas Tech, and they had daughters in 1999 and 2003, and two weekends ago they finished watching the firstborn, Sarah, as the stalwart goalkeeper on a Vanderbilt soccer team that flouted its No. 7 seeding, won the SEC tournament championship in Orange Beach, Ala., and went plunging into the Gulf of Mexico.

Then that Monday, with their nerves becalmed and their emotions moved, they drove back toward Texas. Then they reached Louisiana. Then a phone screen showed Sarah’s number beaming in from Nashville. Then they learned a Vanderbilt football team depleted by coronavirus protocols had asked whether Sarah might help out with the placekicking. Then they learned the obvious: She had said yes without an iota of the hesitation that might hound others.

Then holy mercy, the world was so well into the 21st century, and their daughter would become the first woman to appear on the participation chart of a Power Five football game.

“We were thrilled because she achieved every goal she hoped she was going to, playing college soccer,” Windi Fuller said, “and had no idea she was going to, a few days later, be a household name.”

“A week of stress and anxiety,” Brandon Fuller said, “and we thought we were going to be able to relax and go home.”

He laughed right then.

They long had valued sports. They hankered that their future children might feel similarly, partly because, as Brandon put it, “They do better in just learning how to handle life, learning how to handle the real world.” Even while in labor with Sarah in June 1999, Windi asked for updates on the ongoing Stanley Cup finals Game 6 between the Dallas Stars and Buffalo Sabres. (Dallas, 2-1. Three overtimes. Brett Hull. You know.) They welcomed Sarah 20 days before a crux of American women’s sports: the filled Rose Bowl for the Women’s World Cup final between the United States and China.

For Sarah’s first five years and the birth of daughter Katie, they worked the ranch of Brandon’s family in west Texas, raising cotton, handling cattle. Then they decided that if they moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, they might widen their daughters’ possibilities.

Pretty soon, a fork turned up in the athletic road, a story Sarah Fuller told merrily in a phone interview Sunday morning. They took Sarah to a basketball gathering at a church teeming with people and games, and the scope of it overwhelmed her. Told she could choose basketball or cheerleading, she briefly opted for the latter, but her father gently told her he might prefer watching her doing the playing.

“Before the game, I was a very stubborn child, and I still am, but I was crying in the bathroom and didn’t want to go out there,” Sarah said. Her mother described her as “petrified” and said, “I vividly remember that, being in the bathroom.” Sarah: “My mom said, ‘I will come sit with you on the bench.’ I scored the first basket and said, ‘Mom, I’m good.'” Windi: “It’s like something clicked in her brain. She’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can do this.'”

From there, it went volleyball, golf, soccer. Sarah quit soccer, Katie began soccer, Sarah got competitive and resumed soccer. “Soccer stuck,” Sarah said. And from there on into the teen years, “That was our daily experience, was who was going to take which kid to which practice,” Windi said. They even developed a meeting place after both parents’ workdays, for the handoff from one car to the other: the RaceTrac gas station on the George W. Bush Expressway.

One of the phenomena of the last half-century took hold: the parents nervously exhibiting their personalities from the stands of the games of daughters as they always had with sons. “It’s vastly different,” Windi Fuller said of the fathers of two generations. “Brandon’s very hands-on. While my dad came to my games, Brandon took her to every practice. It was our life.”

Windi Fuller referred to Brandon as “generally quiet” at the games and “not a yeller” and said, “He knows that he’s not the coach, and that’s the coach’s job.” Meanwhile, Sarah boomed kicks and feared nothing. The football coaches often half-kidded they might need her. The track coaches called sometimes to ask her to step in on the high jump. Possibilities abounded, as did established female role models out there and famous such as Sydney Leroux, Julie Ertz, Alex Morgan, Ashlyn Harris. Even as she became an award-winning player while at Wylie High, the Fullers sat alone at games to avoid hearing the odd damn-that-goalkeeper comment.

They had no idea, the comments they would see someday, once their daughter veered suddenly from the football toward the American football. Many wowed them, of course: Mia Hamm, Russell Wilson, David Price, LeBron James, Billie Jean King, Tim Howard. “I think when you get athletes like that responding to it, which I would say it’s almost 100 percent positive like that, they’re people who have been in a situation like that,” Brandon Fuller said. “They understand the struggles that athletes go through.”

Then there were the others. “Immediately I told her: ‘Don’t read the comments,'” Windi Fuller said. “‘There’s nothing good that will come from that. This is not a healthy place to be.'” In a manner Brandon Fuller finds amusing, his two older sisters, Bev and Kimberly, rummaged in there to mount defense.

Their daughter already had surmounted a lot with injuries in college, and they already reached that SEC moment of which Brandon said, “I mean, it was, I get a little choked up thinking about it, because it was pretty emotional, just realizing all the hard work had come to fruition.” Then after reaching every Vanderbilt soccer game but one this season, they found themselves in a party of six – including Windi’s parents, Sarah’s boyfriend and Sarah’s dear friend – flying from Love Field in Dallas to Kansas City, Missouri, to reach Columbia, Missouri, where Sarah Fuller would squib as directed on the second-half opening kickoff.

She never fretted about potentially getting hit: “I’m used to it. I’ve gotten kicked all over the place. I’ve gotten knocked down.” If a return man neared her, her coaches said, “‘Yeah, you’re just going to slide-tackle them.'” She struggled donning the pads and the shirt and the gear, but then she looked around and realized her male teammates still fought that beast as well, and besides, “When I got it on, I was like, ‘This looks awesome.'”

For the other inbound Fullers, nerves quaked again. Said Brandon, “I don’t think we said a whole lot when we went there.” Said Windi: “I was also incredibly anxious, too. Once we kind of started getting a feel for what this meant, I felt a tremendous amount of pressure. Sarah was all right. But I felt it for her, I think.”

Then they saw her before the game, saw her ease and felt relieved. Then they saw her after the game, of which Sarah said: “My mom’s so funny. She’s like, ‘I met Tim Tebow.’ She loves Tim Tebow.”

Then the next week Bev Jordan, the aunt, thought back to those half-court days and took on a tone of marveling when she said: “Yes, there has been a big change between then and now. In so many ways.”

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