On Saturday, November 28, 2020, Sarah Fuller made history by becoming the first woman to ever play in a Power 5 football game. As a woman in sports, I know how difficult it can be to get your foot in the door and even then, to get the same respect the guys do. Watching Sarah Fuller break barriers this weekend was inspiring for all of us, but we also know it has been a long time coming.
Kathy Klope vanTonder, or Kathy Klope before she was married, was a trailblazer beyond her time, and the University of Louisville is part of that history. During this groundbreaking time, Cardinal Sports Zone would love for you to get more familiar with the first woman to ever make and dress for a Division 1A football team. Please enjoy…
CSZ KG – What brought you to the University of Louisville?
KKV – I came to Louisville on a soccer scholarship. I wanted to play division 1 and needed a school that had engineering. Not many schools had both back then. Women’s soccer really took off in colleges after 1993, so I had limited opportunities for the major I wanted and to play Div 1 soccer. My choices came down to the Univ. of Cincinnati and Louisville and I could get my Master’s degree in engineering in 5 years at Louisville. (They also offered a little more money. Back then they only gave half scholarships for women’s sports (except women’s basketball and volleyball)).
CSZ KG – How did you begin getting in contact with the football team and what was that initial conversation like?
KKV – Back then most sports lifted weights over at the Old Cardinal Stadium football complex. The only other place to lift was in the basement at the Student Center. That was typically for basketball and volleyball though. So, I was already over at the football stadium several times a week doing my soccer conditioning and was familiar with the strength coaches (Coach Ganong) and some of the staff (trainers, managers, and football administrators). I had mentioned that I wanted to try out to one of the administrators and they got me in touch with Coach Cooper. When I met with Coach Cooper, you could tell he was a little apprehensive at first. He asked me if I had ever kicked a football (which I had) and to show him in his office how I would approach the football if kicking a field goal. When he saw that I knew what I was talking about, he called the Athletic Director (then it was Bill Olsen) and asked if he was ok with Coach Cooper giving me a tryout.
CSZ KG – What was the first day of practice like? Were you intimidated or welcomed with open arms?
KKV – I was definitely a bit nervous on the first day of practice because it was a tryout for me. Everyone was very nice! The news had already been alerted to me trying out so it put a little more pressure on me with people watching at a distance. There were strong wind gusts that day (news stories about my tryout said it was 30 mph winds). I made 12 of 14 extra-point attempts. I kicked well from the center of the field, but missed a few from the hash marks.
CSZ KG – Did you have any friends/family that tried to talk you out of it?
KKV – I have always been an avid sports fan and so my family was not surprised when I told them I was trying out. They were nervous for me, but knew they couldn’t talk me out of it. When I had/have my mind on something, I do it to the fullest.
CSZ KG – What was it like to watch Sarah Fuller on Saturday?
KKV – When I heard Sarah might get a chance to play on Sat, I changed my plans to make sure I was watching that game. I cried when she got her chance to kick-off the second half. It brought back so many memories and for her to get in was so awesome! I still wish I had gotten just one chance.
CSZ KG – From the perspective of someone who had also suited up, did you ever think you would actually get to see a woman play in a Power 5 football game?
KKV – Yes, I actually thought we would see a woman in a power 5 conference game sooner than this. I was the first to make and dress for a Division 1A football team 25 years ago and Katie Hnida was the first to play and score in a game in 2003 so I thought it might happen a bit sooner. (Sarah Fuller wasn’t even born yet when I played lol)
I know many girls kick in high school now and that is becoming more normal so I figured making the next step would come sooner than this. There are leagues now that have women’s football (I played when I lived in North Carolina for the Triad Angels and Carolina Cougars of the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA))
CSZ KG – Do you have any words of advice for girls (of any age) who have been told no?
KKV – I would tell girls to keep at it. If it is something you really want to do and you believe in yourself then keep at it…….keep working and keep trying! We can’t give in too easily. We have to keep working at something when we know it is possible.
CSZ KG – Any chance CSZ readers could look forward to seeing a book from you one day, detailing all of the experiences (good and bad) you had?
KKV – I have been trying to write a book for many years. I work full time as an Engineer/Project Manager, am a mom to an active, busy 15-year-old and a wife, daughter, Aunt, etc so it has been hard to sit and put all my stories and thoughts together. Someone (very smart) told me to keep a journal every day throughout my experience. I did that so I have everything written down, but just need to get it organized and put together. I have so many funny and interesting stories to tell. So many tears, so many joys, so many emotions went into playing football with the boys. For instance………they only had two locker rooms at Old Cardinal Stadium, so I had to change in a wooden shed-like structure in the equipment room on game days. It was the only other thing in the building that was big enough to change in and had a lock. I still had to walk through our locker room to get to the field (special teams always go on the field to warm up first) and was in the locker room at halftime and after the game to get to my “shed.”
“I have always said that I am sad that I did not get a chance to play in a game, but it was still one of the best experiences of my life. I am thrilled that Sarah got her chance!” – Kathy Klope vanTonder