Standing on the stadium concourse, the goalkeeper for Minnesota’s newest soccer franchise lifted her blonde ponytail to reveal a tattoo on the back of her neck, two overlapping black zigzags. 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 whole life – through history-making moments in soccer and football at Vanderbilt – and it’s carrying her now as the face of the women-led, community owned Minnesota Aurora.
“[Fuller is] just a big presence on this team, and I think she really completes us. ”
A founding member of the USL W League amateur, the Aurora made Fuller its first player acquisition on Feb. 7, capitalizing on her national fame to build immediate interest heading toward Thursday’s inaugural game against Green Bay at TCO Stadium in Eagan.
The outdoor stadium is the same field where the Minnesota Vikings practice, with room for up to 5,600 fans, and it’s already sold out for Aurora’s opener.
“I’m very upfront with how I feel about women’s sports, how I want us to achieve amazing things,” Fuller said. “I kind of do what I set my mind to, whether it’s playing football or running a marathon, being in the USL W League, I’m very passionate about that.”
Fuller, 22, is a Wylie, Texas native, whose 6-2 frame and powerful right leg drew the attention of Division I soccer coaches.
As the starting goalkeeper for Vanderbilt in 2020, she helped the Commodores win the Southeastern Conference championship. Six days later, she became the first woman to play in a Power Five football game, as a placekicker for Vanderbilt. Two weeks after that, she kicked two extra points against Tennessee.
“Just the thought that a team needed help and she had the tools, so she stepped up not expecting anything in return – just shows you what kind of teammate and person she is,” said Vanderbilt goalkeeper coach Kelly Keelan.
After receiving All-SEC academic honors four times in soccer, Fuller starred last fall at North Texas as a graduate transfer. 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 just never know what you’re capable of, and I love how my resumé looks, I gotta say.”
When Aurora takes the pitch, most fans will remember her name from her groundbreaking football performances. It’s a trail she’s proud to have blazed.
“I think there was something kind of powerful about that image of me with a football helmet and the braid coming out the back,” Fuller said. “You can go out with armor on.”
She’s a vocal advocate for women’s sports, so the accomplishment reflected her key philosophy: “If you can see it, you can be it.”
When her football experience thrust her into global recognition overnight, she felt obligated to do every interview and attend every event to continue to promote women’s sports. But that burden quickly weighed on her as abusive messages flooded in online, strangers found her parents’ phone numbers and stalkers followed her for autographs.
Enough time has passed that she can now focus fully on the things she enjoys again.
“It’s exciting to see this many people excited over this when it’s a sport I love and actually put my time and energy into,” Fuller said. “Don’t get me wrong, the football stuff is awesome. But this means a lot more.”
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 team, took her turn in net. Fuller guided her new teammate: Take this angle. Charge that attacker.
An hour into the inaugural practice, Fuller had established her towering presence with a smile.
“She’s definitely the team leader,” Flynn said. “She’s very bright, very warm, very welcoming. She says hi to us every morning when we walk in. She’s always the first one to greet us. She’s just a big presence on this team, and I think she really completes us.”
After morning practices, Flynn races back to high school classes. Fuller is a college graduate. Part of what makes this team special, head coach Nicole Lukic said, is its ability to foster mentorship through 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 trickled in shortly after that, and it was right away, ‘Hey Bayliss, you’re right next to me!’ And they just start talking. “
This wasn’t happenstance. Aurora’s co-founder Matt Privratsky said Lukic made it clear, even during the team’s head coaching search, that Fuller was a player she’d pursue on her first day of the job.
The Aurora had hopes to make a splash with that first signing. Fuller blew them out of the water.
“I think there was something kind of powerful about that image of me with a football helmet and the braid coming out the back. You can go out with armor on. ”
With Lukic and an all-women coaching staff, along with the Aurora’s focus on providing the best equipment and facilities possible, Fuller was impressed right back.
“I’ve always had male coaches,” Fuller said. “In my undergrad, I had a female goalkeeper coach, which was amazing, but I’ve never had an entire staff of female coaches. And it’s great because they understand us. They understand how we operate, and they have played themselves.”
Aurora’s moment arrives
Keelan, Vanderbilt’s goalkeeper coach, saw Fuller win the starting job before leading the Commodores to the conference title. Fuller notched eight saves and an assist in that tournament run, all with the same leadership her new teammates have felt in Minnesota.
Through all the success, Fuller had to battle back from a broken foot, a stress fracture in her other foot and a back injury in four years at Vanderbilt.
“Her passion inspired others,” Keelan said. “She has the ability to encourage her teammates and demand more from her teammates when necessary, putting others and the team first before herself.”
As for the next challenge after this, Fuller hasn’t decided. She would love a career in the NWSL – the top American women’s professional soccer league – but her passion for advancing women’s sports might lead her to the business side of athletics. Maybe it’s both.
For now, Fuller is focused on being the best soccer player she can be and helping her teammates get there, too.
“The fact that… this whole stadium is going to be full, I just get so excited thinking about it,” Fuller said. “Every time I go into practice, I have to visualize it because I know it’s going to be a little intimidating walking out here, but everybody’s going to be here supporting us, and I couldn’t have asked for a better environment.”