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Sarah Fuller's historic appearance also felt in NFL – 'It was more than a kick'

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Sarah Fuller is not going to play in the NFL.

That didn’t mean the NFL, and the football industry that surrounds it, wasn’t watching as the Vanderbilt women’s soccer goalie became the first female to play in a major conference college game when she served as the Commodores’ placekicker on Saturday.

The NFL is played by men. Through its 100-plus-year history, it has also almost exclusively been coached by men, run by men and had almost every tentacle of its business dominated by men.

Vanderbilt's Sarah Fuller warms up prior to the game against Missouri.
Vanderbilt's Sarah Fuller warms up prior to the game against Missouri on Saturday. (Photo by Missouri Athletics/Collegiate Images/Getty Images)

Some women have broken through in recent years. And from the small but growing assistant coaching ranks, to league executives, agents, referees, marketers and so on, Sarah Fuller’s appearance in an SEC game symbolized something important.

“I loved it,” said Kelli Masters, who runs her own sports agency that represents numerous NFL players.

“It was just a very cool moment,” said Samantha Rapoport, the NFL’s senior director of diversity, equality and inclusion.

“It’s hard to put into words what her kick represented,” said Emily Zaler, an assistant strength and conditioning coach for the Denver Broncos. “It was more than a kick.”

Women breaking barriers in the NFL

The women who make up the steadily increasing, but still very small community that works in and around the NFL, appreciate anything that might inspire more women to consider a career in the sport, even if they can’t play in the games.

“Football,” Rapoport said, “is for everyone.”

Rapoport was hooked on the game growing up in Canada. Her father played at Montreal’s McGill University and was a huge Miami Dolphins fan. Soon, his athletic daughter was joining flag football, and later tackle leagues despite being just 5-foot-5.

“I just fell in love with it,” Rapoport said. “Every high school essay I wrote was about football. Every poem in English class was about football. I became obsessed. I still am.”

She isn’t alone. Surveys show as much as 47 percent of NFL fans are female. Yet unlike boys, they didn’t grow up thinking they could play, let alone coach or operate in any other part of the vast, multibillion-dollar industry.

At least until recently, a sport that is built on diversity — not just racial or socioeconomic, but in size, skills and specialty — had no place for half the population.

Zaler used to attend Arizona Cardinals games with her family and noticed there was rarely, if ever, a single female on the sideline. She figured that’s just how it was. As for playing, there were no leagues that welcomed her.

“I was the girl at recess playing football with the boys,” Zaler said. “To even work in football, it was hard to even picture that opportunity because it didn’t exist.”

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Zaler was an exceptional athlete. She played soccer for the universities of Oregon and Missouri, and in the process, she developed a passion for strength training. After her playing days, she earned a masters degree and gained experience through a series of jobs as a trainer. She did a stint at the University of California San Diego, then got a break working with the New York Knicks until COVID-19 shut down the league last March.

Stuck quarantined, she emailed all 32 NFL teams, many repeatedly, looking for a chance. Eventually, she came across Denver’s Bill Walsh Coaching Fellowship program that was designed to bring in diversity. She won a coveted summer spot and so impressed head coach Vic Fangio, strength and conditioning coach Loren Landow and team president John Elway, she was hired for the 2020 season as an assistant coach, one of less than a dozen women to hold such a position in league history.

It’s believed that Jen Welter became the first when Arizona named her an assistant coaching intern in 2015. By last February, Katie Sowers of the San Francisco 49ers was the first to coach in a Super Bowl.

Last Sunday, when Cleveland’s full-time tight ends coach was forced to miss a game due to paternity leave, the Browns named Callie Brownson as the interim, making her the first female position coach.

Zaler said she made sure to catch the highlights of Fuller’s kick on Saturday. She also appreciated the many Bronco players and staff members who brought it up to her over the weekend, hoping to share her pride in the accomplishment.

“They were all so positive,” Zaler said. “There is just so much support inside this organization. I don’t take one moment or one day for granted.”

She said she doesn’t spend much time thinking about her role in NFL history. There is rarely any down time in the life of an assistant after all, and she is determined to pay the Broncos back for giving her a chance.

“During the season, it’s head down and focus on the task at hand,” Zaler said. “There is also a responsibility for me and other women to do such a great job that we create opportunities for more women.”

Gerald McCoy’s camp gave Kelli Masters a shot and she nailed it

Even outside NFL facilities, there are many potential jobs that surround the league. Women broke into the media in the early 1970s. Public relations, marketing, legal and other jobs followed. Still, for many talented young women who watch the game, the concept of a career in football doesn’t register.

“I grew up in Oklahoma,” Kelli Masters, the agent, said. “Life revolves around football. High school football. College football. I loved the pageantry and excitement, but I really appreciated the dedication it took to be a football player.

“I just never thought I’d be more than a fan,” she said.

Masters was working as a lawyer in Oklahoma City when she was hired to help the charity foundation of former Sooner (and briefly NFL) quarterback Josh Heupel (now the head coach at UCF). The Heupel family mentioned in passing that they wished she had been an agent who pitched her talent, work ethic and honesty to them when Josh was coming out of college.

An agent? An idea was sparked. Soon, she was in a ballroom at Ritz Carlton Hotel in Washington, D.C., to take the three-hour certification test.

There were about 300 men there. And one Kelli Masters. It was 2005.

Kelli Masters, pictured with Texas A&M's Keaton Sutherland who signed with the Bengals, runs her own sports agency.
Kelli Masters, pictured with Texas A&M's Keaton Sutherland who signed with the Bengals, runs her own sports agency. (Photo courtesy of KMM)

There were female agents at that point — in 2001, for example, Kristen Kuliga negotiated Doug Flutie’s $30.3 million contract with the San Diego Chargers. At the time, Kuliga was reportedly dismissively referred to as “Doug’s girl” by other agents. Flutie countered that he liked an agent who wasn’t trying to act like Jerry Maguire.

They were rare. That’s why Masters wasn’t surprised when, “I heard the whispers, ‘What is that girl doing here?’”

Whatever. She’d grown up playing pickup basketball with boys, was just the third woman hired at her law firm and regularly entered courtrooms as the only female, “other than the court reporter.”

Besides, it’s not like you had to star in the NFL to be an agent. Most of the guys looked like they hadn’t played “since the sixth grade,” she said. If at all. Then a few began asking about the basic procedures of the test — something she’d already repeatedly read up on.

“Did these guys even study?” she thought. “What qualifies them to even be here?”

Generally, at least half the test takers fail. Masters didn’t. She was certified, and while her first few years were an uphill climb of networking and client recruitment, she knew that was common in a tough business. She just wanted a fair shot.

By 2010, she earned a meeting with Oklahoma star defensive lineman Gerald McCoy and his family. Every agent in the country wanted to sign McCoy.

“I started, as I always did, by defending my ability to represent them despite my gender,” Masters said. “And Gerald McCoy Sr. stopped me. He said, ‘I want to tell you right now, the fact you are a woman has no bearing on our decision. We want the best representation for my son.’”

A few months later, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers picked McCoy third overall and Masters became the first woman to represent a top-five NFL draft pick.

Slowly the female agents ranks grew. They are now at nearly every major agency, many becoming forces in the business.

Nicole Lynn reps a dozen players, including 2019 No. 3 overall pick Quinnen Williams. In 2018, Kim Maile set the bar when her client, Saquon Barkley, was picked No. 2 overall by the New York Giants. Eventually, a woman will represent the top pick.

More important, Masters said, she doesn’t have to defend herself any longer.

“These days when I meet with possible clients, gender doesn’t come up,” Masters said.

Fuller is ‘validation for so many women’

To Rapoport, that’s the kind of progress she works every day to achieve. In 2003, she secured an NFL internship in part because along with her resumé, she sent to New York a picture of herself from a women’s tackle league and a football with a message written on it.

“What other quarterback could accurately deliver a football 386 miles?”

She got the internship. Later, she oversaw an engagement program with USA Football designed to get more girls playing. By 2016, she was back at the NFL where she works to encourage and promote diverse applicants for jobs across the league.

“The goal is to flood the pipeline with qualified candidates,” Rapoport said. “We scour the country looking for females who are working, mainly college football, who don’t know anybody in the NFL who can connect them with opportunities.”

Rapoport said she rarely watches college games, but on Saturday, she tuned in for all of Missouri-Vanderbilt. Sarah Fuller, this soccer goalie who accepted an emergency call from the COVID-depleted football team to kick, was too good to miss.

She spent three hours texting with other women inside the NFL, women she played with and other old friends that the game has given her. They only wish Vandy got into field-goal range.

Still, a woman playing SEC football? And just one day before the first female NFL position coach would work a sideline for the Browns?

“It was validation for so many women,” Rapoport said.

And the impact of that one kickoff may not be felt for years, she believes. She and the others can only imagine what the sight of Fuller would have meant when they were girls.

“The more they see it,” Zaler said, “the more they believe.”

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