The goaltender from Minnesota’s newest soccer franchise stood on the stadium concourse and lifted her blonde ponytail to reveal a tattoo on her nape, two overlapping black zigzag lines. It’s an ancient Viking rune that Sarah Fuller said means “where there’s a will, there’s a way”.
That motto has driven Fuller her entire life – through historic moments in soccer and football at Vanderbilt – and it now wears it as the face of the women-led, community-owned Minnesota Aurora.
“[Fuller is] just a huge presence on this team and I think she really completes us.”
A founding member of the amateur USL W League, the Aurora Fuller made their first player acquisition on Feb. 7 and used their national fame to generate immediate interest in Thursday’s opening game against Green Bay at TCO Stadium in Eagan.
The outdoor stadium is the same field the Minnesota Vikings practice on, with seating for up to 5,600 fans, and it’s already sold out for Aurora’s opening game.
“I’m very open about what I think about women’s sport, how I want us to achieve amazing things,” Fuller said. “I do what I set out to do, whether it’s playing soccer or running a marathon, I’m very passionate about the USL W League.”
Fuller, 22, is from Wylie, Texas, and his 6-2 frame and powerful right leg caught the attention of Division I football coaches.
As a starting goaltender for Vanderbilt in 2020, she helped the Commodores win the Southeastern Conference championship. Six days later, she became the first woman to play a field kicker for Vanderbilt in a Power Five football game. Two weeks later, she scored two extra points against Tennessee.
“Just to think that a team needed help and she had the tools, so she came on without expecting anything in return – just shows you what a teammate and what a person she is,” said Vanderbilt goalkeeping coach Kelly Keelan.
After earning four All-SEC academic honors in football, Fuller played as a grad transfer in North Texas last fall. And earlier this year, she ran the Boston Marathon.
“I’ve met so many amazing people just because I said yes to football or yes to a marathon,” Fuller said. “You never know what you’re capable of and I love the way my resume looks, I have to say.”
When Aurora takes the field, most fans will remember her name from her breakthrough soccer feats. It’s a path she’s proud of.
“I think there was something powerful about that picture of me with a football helmet and the braid coming out the back,” Fuller said. “You can go out with armor.”
She’s a fierce advocate for women’s sport, so the success reflected her key philosophy: “If you can see it, it can be you.”
When her football experience propelled her to global recognition overnight, she felt compelled to give every interview and attend every event to further promote women’s sport. But that burden quickly weighed on her as abusive messages flooded online, strangers found her parents’ phone numbers and stalkers followed her for autographs.
Enough time has passed that she can now fully concentrate on the things she enjoys.
“It’s exciting to see so many people getting excited when it’s a sport that I love and actually put my time and energy into,” Fuller said. “Don’t get me wrong, the football stuff is great. But it means a lot more than that.”
On the first day of practice, an overcast day at TCO Stadium, Fuller leaned against a post while 16-year-old Bayliss Flynn, the youngest player on the team, took a turn at the net. Fuller guided her new teammate: Take that angle. Charge this attacker.
An hour into the opening practice, Fuller had demonstrated her commanding presence with a smile.
“She’s definitely the team leader,” Flynn said. “She’s very bright, very warm, very welcoming. She greets us every morning when we come in. She is always the first to greet us. She’s just a huge presence on this team and I think she really completes us.”
After morning practice, Flynn races back to high school classes. Fuller is a college graduate. Part of what makes this team special, said head coach Nicole Lukic, is their ability to encourage mentorship at different stages of life.
“They actually have lockers right next to each other and on the very first morning, Sarah was the first player in the locker room,” Lukic said. “Bayliss dribbled in a moment later and it was like, ‘Hey Bayliss, you’re right next to me!’ And they just start talking.”
That was no coincidence. Aurora co-founder Matt Privratsky said Lukic made it clear during the search for the team’s head coach that Fuller was a player she would pursue on her first day on the job.
The Aurora had hopes of making a splash with this first signing. Fuller blew them out of the water.
“I think there was something powerful about that picture of me with a football helmet and the braid coming out the back. You can go out with armor.”
With Lukic and an all-female coaching staff, as well as the Aurora’s focus on providing the best possible equipment and facilities, Fuller was immediately impressed.
“I’ve always had male coaches,” Fuller said. “In my undergraduate degree I had a goalkeeping coach, which was great, but I’ve never had a full staff of female coaches. And it’s great because they understand us. They understand how we work and they’ve played themselves.”
Aurora’s moment is coming
Vanderbilt goaltending coach Keelan saw Fuller win the seed before leading the Commodores to the conference title. Fuller made eight saves and one assist that tournament run, all with the same lead felt by her new Minnesota teammates.
Despite all the success, Fuller had to fight her way back after four years with Vanderbilt with a broken foot, a stress fracture in her other foot and a back injury.
“Your passion has inspired others,” Keelan said. “She has the ability to encourage her teammates and to demand more of her teammates when needed, putting others and the team before herself.”
As for the next challenge after that, Fuller hasn’t decided yet. She would love to pursue a career in the NWSL – America’s top women’s professional soccer league – but her passion for promoting women’s sports could lead her to the business side of athletics. Maybe it’s both.
Right now, Fuller is focused on being the best footballer she can be and also helping her teammates get there.
“The fact that … this whole stadium is going to be full, I get so excited just thinking about it,” Fuller said. “Every time I go into training I have to imagine it because I know it’s going to be a bit intimidating to go out here but everyone will be here supporting us and I couldn’t have asked for a better environment. “