Kelly Kleine holds the title of manager in the Vikings front office. Her area of focus is player personnel, college scouting and draft operations. She is surrounded by men in her profession.
Kleine understands better than most the historical significance of what transpired inside her sport over the weekend.
“It gives me chills just thinking about it,” she said Monday.
Vanderbilt kicker Sarah Fuller became the first woman to play in a Power Five college football game.
Cleveland Browns Chief of Staff Callie Brownson became the first woman to coach a position in an NFL game when she filled in Sunday for tight ends coach Drew Petzing, who was with his wife for the birth of their child.
Those advancements came two weeks after the Miami Marlins made Kim Ng the first woman general manager in major North American men’s sports.
That glass ceiling in sports “is getting shattered,” Kleine said.
“It needed to happen, and it needs to happen in every sport,” she said. “And just in every aspect of business. People are realizing that it doesn’t matter your gender, your race, your sexuality. None of that should have to matter.”
And yet Fuller’s story sparked predictable pushback from the Neanderthal world, as if her kicking a football somehow constitutes a crime against humanity.
Critics called it a gimmick, a publicity stunt, as they mocked Fuller’s lone kickoff, which brought a remarkable bit of irony. Those sneering at her attempt to play a “man’s game” didn’t even recognize that Fuller’s squib kick was by design. They just figured she flubbed it because she’s a woman.
For the life of me, I can’t understand why some people — and they are not hard to find — felt so personally offended by Vanderbilt asking Fuller to kick. The team was in a bind because of COVID-19, the coach asked Fuller to help out and she accepted.
And girls all over this country were inspired.
People are mad about that?
Football has slowly opened its door to women in various roles — front office, coaching, scouting, officiating. The antiquated retort is that women don’t play football so they can’t possibly know the game. That is pure hogwash.
Babies don’t come out of the womb knowing how to operate the space shuttle or equipped to perform brain surgery. They learn how to do those things through hard work. Understanding football isn’t limited to one gender.
Kleine considers Brownson a friend and said people would be blown away if they knew her impact on Cleveland’s organization. She got an opportunity and is proving her bosses right.
“If they’re ready at age 35 or whatever it is,” Kleine said, “just give them a chance. It shouldn’t matter that they are female.”
Fuller handled becoming a national story with grace and conviction. What she represents provides a lesson worth reflecting upon. To have courage to try something that seems foreign, to put yourself out there, to not be afraid to fail.
Here is one small example of why her kickoff matters:
A friend of mine was watching a Big 12 game at his home in Chicago when he saw a tweet about Fuller. His wife and 11-year-old daughter were in the room. He mentioned that Vanderbilt had a girl who might make history by kicking in the game. His daughter “immediately freaked out” and asked to change the channel to the Vanderbilt game.
When Fuller ran onto the field for the second-half kickoff, his daughter pulled out her phone to record the TV broadcast of that moment.
How many girls around the country experienced that same excitement?
If Fuller inspires them to try harder in sports or school or to pursue something that might seem unattainable, then her one squib kick is more valuable than what she accomplished playing for the Vanderbilt soccer team.
One of my closest high school friends has a daughter named Suzanna who is a kicker on her high school football team in Tennessee. She watched highlights of Fuller’s kickoff and felt thrilled.
“It was super cool and really inspiring to see someone actually do that,” Suzanna told me in a phone conversation.
She’s right. What happened in football this weekend was super cool.
These women deserve our cheers.