The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

Nashville native Ke’Shawn Vaughn making waves in Vanderbilt backfield

Claire Barnett
The Commodores defeat Nevada on Saturday, September 8, 2018. (Photo by Claire Barnett)

September 8th, 2018.

Just as the midday temperatures in Nashville reached the 90’s, the Vanderbilt Commodores took the scorching field in full pads and black uniforms.

The concourse was a carousel of food-smells and fans who only paused their wandering to mind the children throwing around a foam football. The sunburnt neighbors in the stands traded Vanderbilt Football questions between sips of diet cola. One of the most pressing of these questions had to be about Vanderbilt’s running game: what would their new-look run game be able to accomplish on the ground?

The answer to that question became crystal clear when Ke’Shawn Vaughn lined up in the backfield.

Years ago, the four-star running back left his native Nashville to play at Illinois for just two seasons before he decided it was time for a change. He transferred to Vanderbilt, making a return to his hometown, knowing that he would have to sit out the 2017 season to comply with NCAA rules.

On that scorching September day, without any time for fanfare, Vaughn got the hand-off and raced to the right-side to stay behind Vanderbilt’s blocking. As the space collapsed, Vaughn changed his course. He ran through open space on the left-hand side before juking a final defender on the goal-line.

After the play, the redshirt junior celebrated with Kalija Lipscomb, while observers struggled to grasp just how fast Vaughn had ran.

Hometown Kid

Vanderbilt plays Notre Dame on Saturday. September 15, 2018. (Photo by Hunter Long)

Born in Nashville on May 4, 1997, Ke’Shawn Vaughn remembers “just picking up” the game of football at a young age. Starting out in PeeWee ball as a five-year-old, Vaughn took snaps on the offensive line before he moved to running back at age 10.

In 2011, Vaughn enrolled in Pearl-Cohn High School, one of the most popular public schools in the city because of its focuses: preparing students for the entertainment industry, service to the north Nashville community, and its graduates.

Many years ago, before attending Vanderbilt and becoming the first African-American athlete to play in the SEC, Perry Wallace was a Pearl student. Pearl won Tennessee’s first integrated state championship with Wallace in 1966, a story that is featured prominently in his biography, Strong Inside, by fellow Vanderbilt grad Andrew Maraniss.

Vaughn impressed from day one in high school, earning a role as third-down back during his freshman year. In the final game of the 2011 season, however, Vaughn’s freshman year culminated in a broken his ankle.

The successful rehab of his injury impressed a Pearl assistant coach, who said in a documentary about Vaughn that “once you get a kid to start working on their own, you know they’re going to be something special. [On the field] you really don’t know how good they are until you go back and watch film.”

The Flash and the Dash

Photo by Hunter Long

His speed is more impressive when watching film because it necessitates fast thinking, a strength Vaughn acknowledges is characteristic of his game.

“I like to wait back and see the play unfold,” he said. “At Pearl, they let me find my style.”

After Vaughn pranced into the end-zone against Nevada, the fog horns blew, and yet another distinctive part of his game was revealed itself in genuine expressions of fun. A high-flying chest bump, a flex of his bicep towards the student section—these are more spontaneous and subtle than most celebrations, appearing as a natural extension of the play.

Vaughn embodies Coach Mason’s image of “RTI”: Relentless, Tough, and Intelligent, but lest Nashville forget, even a Vanderbilt team that dresses in suits for promotional photos can still let loose a little.

While Vaughn is not outspoken in conversation, the football attitude manifests itself in his alter-ego, the “Red Mamba.” A play on Kobe Bryant’s nickname with Pearl-Cohn’s color red, the nickname became so widespread by his junior year of high school that even the high school sports database MaxPreps had him listed as Ke’Shawn “The Red Mamba” Vaughn.

Vanderbilt junior Jesse Turner, who played football for local prep Montgomery Bell Academy from 2012-2015, remembers Vaughn’s high school skills.

“[Vaughn] is an elusive back,” Turner said. “So he was difficult to stop every game.”

Pearl-Cohn came within minutes of spoiling MBA’s homecoming game in 2014, Vaughn’s senior year, thanks to his 201 yards on 29 carries. Vaughn received a slew of awards after that season, including Tennessee Mr. Football and the All-American team.

A Family Man

Vanderbilt plays Middle Tennessee State in Football on Saturday, September 1, 2018. (Photo by Hunter Long)

Before Vaughn graduated in the spring of 2015, Nashville filmmaker Cedric Caldwell collaborated with Pearl-Cohn to release a documentary titled, “The Ke’Shawn Vaughn Story.” In the video, as Vaughn looks back on his high school career, he cites a junior-year matchup against Station Camp high school as his best high school game: 343 yards and six touchdowns.

Caldwell, who also teaches at Pearl-Cohn, went to get breakfast at McDonalds the morning after the game. Much to his surprise, he found Vaughn working the drive-thru window.

When Caldwell asked what Vaughn was doing there, his student replied, “I work here to earn extra money for my family, to help my mother pay the bills.”

In addition to his exceptional talent, Vaughn displays ideal family values. He appreciates the close connections with his friends and family. His older brother, who sings gospel music, inspired Vaughn to start rapping. That meant a lot coming from a figure like his brother, so Vaughn’s passion for rapping culminated in a Music Production class at Pearl-Cohn.

Vaughn says his family played an important factor in his decision to commit to Illinois, because “they could drive up to the games in Champaign, but it was far enough for me to have my own college experience, too.”

His childhood friend and high school teammate, Cameron Watkin, had also chosen to play for the Illini. It was unusual for two top prospects from Nashville to go anywhere but the SEC power programs, but Vaughns circle was supportive.

“It’s always going to be Rocky Top orange,” one school administrator said in the video, “but I will cheer on Illinois when you [Vaughn] are up there.”

In 2015, Ke’Shawn had a stellar first season with the 5-7 Illini. The following year, however, was a tumultuous one in Champaign. Bill Cubit, an interim head coach in 2015, seemed slated to become full time. However, he was abruptly let go in the spring of 2016, which the team first learned of over Twitter.

The Illini would finish last place in the Big Ten West in 2016, and the majority of the team’s rushing plays featured freshman Reggie Corbin. Vaughn was encouraged to start anew, so he transferred to Vanderbilt in January of 2017. After his departure, the Illini went winless and, incidentally, Corbin’s touches also declined due to new arrivals.

Meanwhile, the sun was shining in Nashville once again. Head coach Derek Mason had a stormy 2014 season during Vaughn’s recruitment, but 2015 was an about face. New offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, now in his 4th season with the Commodores, helped parlay the talents of Ralph Webb into a bowl game. Vaughn said the run-heavy offense was a factor in his decision to transfer, which also reunited him with his former Pearl-Cohn teammate Joejuan Williams.

Just as Vaughn has patience for the play to unfold, his long wait to return to Nashville brings forth may silver linings, both personal and for the team as a whole.

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About the Contributors
Riley McCormick, Former Author
Claire Barnett, Former Multimedia Director
Hunter Long, Former Multimedia Director
Hunter Long (’21) is from Austin, TX and double majored in molecular biology and medicine, health and society. He is an avid lover of film photography, good music and all things coffee. He can be reached at [email protected].    

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