On Saturday, a designed squib kick became historic.
That was thanks to Vanderbilt’s Sarah Fuller, making her the first woman to play in a Division I college football game since 2015 — in a Power 5 conference no less. Just six days prior, Fuller took home an SEC championship trophy as the Commodores’ women’s soccer team’s goalkeeper.
Fuller’s moment in Vanderbilt’s game against Missouri may have been fleeting, but its impact was colossal, reaching the eyes and ears of millions across the country.
Back in Ann Arbor, it reminded Michigan women’s soccer freshman goalkeeper Stephanie Sparkowski of her own experiences as a kicker in men’s football.
“The summer before my senior year I got approached by the special teams coach and he thought that I could be a serious option (for kicker),” Sparkowski said. “Over the summer we worked a lot. I trained a lot to get my technique down, and then my senior year, we made it happen and I was the kicker for my football team.”
Sparkowski, like Fuller, was sought out for her tremendous power behind her goal kicks. Unlike Fuller, Sparkowski had more than just one kickoff. In the seven games she played her senior year, Sparkowski kicked-off 31 times and drilled it through the uprights 22 times, going a perfect 21-for-21 on extra points and 1-for-2 on field goals.
Still, she had doubters.
“Whenever you kind of do something that maybe people aren't used to seeing, there's definitely going to be some critique on you,” Sparkowski said. “And leading up to the season I was very nervous about my first game because if I didn't perform as well in my first game as I thought I could, I knew that there could be some backlash against letting a female kicker play on the football team.”
For Fuller, those types of people came in droves.
The short squib kick — called by Fuller’s coaches — presented itself as the perfect opportunity for people looking to tear her down to claim that she couldn’t do more than what they saw.
“You know the criticism's there,” Sparkowski said.”You know it's coming but you also just have to kind of ignore it and let them say what they want because when it comes down to it, you can only focus on doing everything to the best of your ability, and she helped her team, which was the important part.”
“And everyone that has something not very positive to say, they just need to take a step back and kind of really think about why they're bashing her when she did her job just like they told her to.”
Sparkowski herself knows from experience the purpose of different types of kickoffs, even if the Twitter trolls and misogynists don’t.
She also knows the adjustments and training that goes into switching from kicking a soccer ball to a football. A different approach, different foot placement, straighter and higher follow through and a shorter run up are all things that a soccer player needs to adapt to before being a football place-kicker.
Fuller, with years of soccer experience and muscle memory sufficient enough to play Division I, had to relearn her kicking process in under a week. Sparkowski had an entire summer to do it and still attested to the difficulties of the change.
Despite that, given the opportunity, Sparkowski feels confident she would be able to follow in Fuller’s footsteps.
“If I was given the opportunity, I would absolutely jump at it,” Sparkowski said. “ … I mean, obviously I'd probably want to start training some more, but I think if I was given the opportunity, I'd be able to do it.”
Now, after Fuller’s historical moment on Saturday, that might just be possible for Sparkowski and countless others like her. For now, at least, those 30 yards off a squib provided some inspiration.
“I absolutely think that Sarah has come out as a really great role model for young girls especially, and honestly just anyone in general who might have any slight doubt about something that they can possibly do,” Sparkowski said. “ … I think she proved that if you put your mind to anything, you can achieve anything.”
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