For girls following Sarah Fuller's football path, 'now that door's just wide open'

7:30 AM

Sarah is a student at the University of North Texas, a short drive from the Ryan High School lobby.

Ally was waiting for her. She is nervous and excited and whispers to her soccer coach that she is so tall.

When a teammate showed her a video of Kolba kicking for Ryan High, she asked if she had seen the girl.

Since she became the first woman to score in a Power 5 football game a year ago, she has been tagged so many times on her social media account that it has been difficult to keep track.

When her teammate asked, she had not seen Kolba.

Her teammate said, " dude!" She lives down the street.

A growing number of girls are playing high school football.

After looking at the videos, he sent a message to Kolba through social media, telling her to reach out if she ever needed anything. When her phone buzzed, she saw the message and was working at the cash register.

"I was in disbelief," says Kolba. I was scared. I took a break and ran.

The living embodiment is a young woman who wanted to give football a try, now with the confidence and newfound determination to make it happen after watching Fuller do it.

Their paths to football are completely different, but the tie that ties them together is the same: finding the courage, strength and steel will to do something that requires far more than kicking a ball.

Sarah's football career was short-lived, but her impact has lasted for a long time.

She admits she may have been a little naive about how her life would change when she agreed to kick for the football team. The goalie on the soccer team never dreamed of playing football. She had never kicked a football until she was asked to try out.

Commodores had almost all of their specialists in sterilization because of COVID-19 protocols and needed a kicker to fill in or risk being kicked out of the game. The only player on the team who could kick was the holder. Without another football player to turn to, then-Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason called assistant soccer coach Ken Masuhr and asked if anyone could help.

Her mental toughness and strong leg made her come to mind. Her coaches were not naive about the onslaught that was about to happen.

She impressed the coaches at the tryout and got a spot on the team. In her first official day, she practiced with a full rush for the first time, and went through the usual special teams drills. She nailed it. "I felt like all the guys respected me at that point," he says.

She made her debut in a game. "I wish I could have recorded that conversation with my dad, he was like, 'I think this is going to be a big deal,'" says Fuller. I was like, really? Everyone is saying that. I think it is. I don't know. It got bigger.

The first woman to appear in a Power 5 game was kicked off by Fuller. Mason said that the kick was executed exactly as she was told. She had no chance to score. The way everything worked out was good for him. She went to her boyfriend's apartment after picking up a pizza to celebrate.

She realized she didn't have the key when she arrived outside. She asked a couple if they could let her in as she balanced the pizza box and football gear. They looked at her.

They asked if the girl kicked.

"Yes," he said. Can you let me in the building?

They asked if you were just in Missouri.

I was. She said she just wants to eat pizza.

"That was the first time someone noticed me," he says.

She transferred to North Texas to finish her soccer career.

She was noticed in person for the first time. The stories and videos about her history-making turn had gone viral by the time she got back from Missouri. She was praised for stepping up to help the football team, but sexist, derogatory comments also filled her social media feed, and pundits debated everything from the merits of the squib kick to whether a woman even belonged on the field.

She tried to ignore them. She tried not to worry about what was to come and focused on what she had to do to get better.

There was a lot of anticipation inside the home when the Commodores played Tennessee. Ally thought she would like to play football. Ally, a lifelong soccer player, saw the camaraderie on the football team and decided she would start practicing kicking -- keeping it a secret from everyone.

"I felt like people would think I was a joke," she said.

Soon after, she uploaded the video to her social media accounts. She was told she should try out for the football team. She wasn't sure what to do at this point, as the season was coming to a close.

She watched her mother, Eileen, kick two extra points with her. The soccer player had signed to transfer to North Texas to finish her career. In a strange way, their paths would align.

"It definitely lit a spark because I didn't know any other females that were kicking," she said. It definitely helped me because I knew I wasn't alone. I can do it.

After seeing videos of her kicks on social media, Fuller reached out to Kolba. She is proud of her role in paving the way for female football players.

The North Texas soccer season ended in late November. They talked about their experiences for two hours. Even if she wanted to trade kicks in a friendly competition, she was out of practice because she hadn't kicked a football in a year.

The admiration was obvious.

She wanted to do it before anyone else did it. He says it. That's cool to me. That's great.

Jaden Oberkrom, a former All-American kicker at TCU who now works with kickers in Texas and Oklahoma, started working with Kolba after she decided to try out for the football team. Oberkrom said that Kolba had the leg strength. She had to improve her technique.

Dave Henigan, the Ryan football coach, had one answer when she asked if she could try out for the team: Absolutely.

"I know that it wasn't just, 'Oh, I want to dip my toe in this thing,'" Henigan said. "I wanted to do this and my mind was set." She had the right mindset. She had a good leg. She worked hard at it and made improvements that made it easy to say yes.

She made all nine of her extra point attempts as the backup kicker at Ryan High. The work ethic that Henigan describes is on display every day, and especially once soccer season begins. During the special teams practice period, Kolba starts out at football. She heads over to the adjacent field to practice with the soccer team. She is back at football, practicing field goals, onside kicks, and onside kicks on a smaller turf field with the help of either soccer or football teammates. She stays until the sun goes down.

Some of the guys were questioning why a girl was joining the team. I don't think it was about her gender. "It was about what she could bring to the team and that's what she did." says teammate Ethan Wood. Being able to stay after and work, like any of the other guys, was a big part of her success. She's a part of the team and I'm going to treat her like any other guy.

She was welcomed into the team and didn't hear any negative comments. Her soccer coach, Kendall Pryor, has been a mentor and a coach to her as a football player. If she wanted to be a football assistant, he would hire her.

The middle school football team for their opponent gathered on the sideline and gave Kolba taps on her helmet after the warm ups.

The younger kids looking up to her is a game-changing event. The little boys are looking at you, and they're impressed. Good job!

When those kids try and kick the ball, most of the time, they wouldn't know how to stand it up, so I teach them how to do it. I would be hyping him up if I held it for them and they kicked it. At one game, a bunch of kids were talking about me, and one of them asked if I could get a fistbump. They all know my name. I want to be someone they look up to, especially little girls, and then they can be the future Ally.

Or the future Sarah.

It is not yet known how much of an impact she made with her history-making turn. The first woman to score in a collegiate game was Fuller. The number of girls playing high school football has increased over the last decade. The National Federation of State High School Associations reported 2,404 girls played football in the last year, almost double the number of girls who played in 2009.

There are results from across the country when you search for female high school football players. Not all kickers are. Girls playing football is more common than it was two decades ago.

The anecdotal evidence shows that what she did was more visible to parents and girls because of social media, which allowed her kicks to go viral, and because she did it at an SEC school.

There are more than one example. Four female kickers are a part of the football program at the high school in Moline, Ill. Hazen started out the same way as Fuller, signing to play soccer at Northern Iowa. Three years ago, Mike Morrissey had no kickers. Hazen was the best soccer player on the team, and he convinced her to try out.

She had no experience with football kicking. The more Hazen kicked, the more she liked it. She was a first-team all-conference and second-team All-Metro selection as a senior. She convinced her soccer teammate to kick. Kiersten Bailey, who transferred to the school this year, kicked on the team, as well as the junior team.

Hazen, Veto and Bailey all scored in one game this year, the first time three female kickers scored in one game in school history. There are no male kickers on the team. He said that it's not something we look at anymore. They are part of the team. You know, it makes no difference. The beauty of it is that.

Hazen had started her football career before she made her kick.

Hazen said she was excited to see someone do it at the next level because she felt like this was going to keep growing. Female football players are becoming more normalized because of my program. There is a school around us that has a female kicker. It's a good idea to let younger girls know that they can do it as well, like Sarah Fuller did.

The first girl to score points in an Iowa state football championship game was from Van Meter High School, as her two extra points and field goal made the difference in a 17-14 win. She may end up being a legacy for her because she never heard of Fuller when she tried out, but she may end up making state history and inspiring other girls along the way. Lindsay and Kolba both want to kick in college.

Even if it is anecdotal, Oberkrom sees a direct correlation between the interest girls are showing in Fuller and the interest boys are showing in her. In the last year, he has worked with three girls full-time, and 10 have come in to try it out, more than any other time before.

Oberkrom said that they all know who she is. She was an inspiration to them. A lot of girls want to try something different. There's a lot of girls with talent. A lot of people came out of their shell because of Sarah.

It takes a mental strength to stick with it. When they first join the team, it can be awkward. Lindsay was ignored at the beginning of a summer camp. Lindsay says that they got used to him.

They receive a lot of negative comments on social media, like "girls don't belong in football." Hazen was accused of pulling a publicity stunt. They will become instant targets for ridicule and mockery if they miss a kick or a kick and fail on a kick.

"The first time I kicked in a game, I knew I couldn't mess it up, because there would be video and it would go everywhere, and no one would take me seriously," he said. I want people to know that I'm here for genuine reasons.

"I tried to remove the mental aspect from it because there was so much weighing on it," he says. I hope we get to the point where we are treated like any player or kicker. We're not there yet, but we're going to get there.

The most challenging part was not the self-imposed pressure, but what she encountered on social media.

"It was overwhelming," she said. I could have said, 'No, I don't have to do this.' This is not something I like. I'm proud that I stuck through it because I knew there was more to come. The image of what was happening for women and men made it possible.

She turns to the other person. I'm glad I did that, now I'm hearing your story, and I'm like, 'I'm glad I did that.' You can step in and do it. I had a small moment and that's fine. I'm stepping aside and you can take my place.

"If it means that someone can come in after me, I'm willing to take all the negative things," he said.

"Exactly," he says. I felt that way too.

Someone can say something really mean to me. "So that means after I graduate, another young soccer player kicks after me." I'm all in if that means people will treat her better because they already let it out on me.

One step further is what Pryor is going to do.

She says that the door is just wide open. There's going to be an insane amount of girls that are going to play.

"It's complete undiscovered potential," he says. It's a whole group that you don't even consider that could be better. You haven't looked. That's exciting about it.

When she moved to North Texas, she knew her football days were over. Soccer is her first love. She is not sure if she will return to North Texas for another year.

She is the director of athlete relations for NOCAP Sports, a name, image and likeness platform, and continues to amplify women in sports through social media or other avenues. Kolba is a senior and has told her coaches and parents that she wants to go to college for kicking.

Her future is far from set, but she has been contacted by a few smaller schools to gauge her interest. Oberkrom helped put the idea in her head. "He saw me, and he wasn't like, 'Oh, she's just a girl,'" she said. He told me he could get me to play college football.

She is convinced that she was supposed to do it, like it was her purpose.

Football is not my sport. It's something that happened to me. It's nice that Ally really wants to do this. I want someone like her to step in and say, "Hey, this is my thing", which I think is awesome.

I think she's cooler than me.