Locals love homegrown hero's story, abilities

Friday, August 30, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 35
By Tom Wood

The line stretches across the indoor practice field and might have reached all the way to Natchez Trace. That’s how many Vanderbilt fans stood in the long line to get an autograph, a handshake, a hug or a photograph with senior running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn at the fan-friendly Dore Jam event.

Every player attended the two-hour meet-and-greet, but only the line for coach Derek Mason came close to matching the horde of fans who wanted to meet their favorite player.

And the ever-smiling Vaughn was happy to oblige.

“It’s a good thing. We’re trying to interact with the fans and get to know them on a personal level,” a smiling Vaughn shouts over the loud music as he signs a fan’s helmet. “Yeah, I love it. Just getting to know the fans and interact with them. I love it.”

The love was returned five-fold. This is the time of year when every team in the nation is undefeated and unbridled optimism is the only thing moving faster than Vaughn. Fans can’t wait to see Ke’Shawn in action.

“He’ll do well over the 1,000-yard mark this year. I think he’s going to do very well. He never gives up, he fights (for yardage),” says John Thomas, a fan of 45 years who was the first in line at Dore Jam for Vaughn’s autograph.

Indeed, Vaughn is expected to pick up right where he left off the 2018 campaign — one in which he produced both the second-best single-game and single-season rushing marks ever for a Commodores running back.

The Pearl-Cohn product, who played two seasons at Illinois before transferring back home to Vandy, ripped through Baylor’s defense for 243 yards in the 45-38 Texas Bowl loss last December, a number eclipsed only by the 321 yards that Frank Mordica posted against Air Force in 1978. Vaughn finished the season with 1,244 yards, trailing only the single-season record of 1,283 set by Ralph Webb in 2016.

“He’s just explosive. He’s fun to watch. You don’t see many players like that,” says Vandy fan Jonathan Henson of Muscle Shoals, Alabama. “If he stays healthy, I’m expecting him to break all sorts of records. I think he can get 1,500 yards rushing this year if he stays healthy.”

Brad Smith of Coopertown was beaming after Vaughn signed a poster for his 8-year-old son Blake, 8. Asked how long he’d been a Vandy fan, a broad smile crossed Brad’s face.

“My whole life. I’m 49-years-old and I’ve been a Vandy fan for 40 years,” he says. “Blake attended his first game when he was age 2. We come here every year.”

Blake, a fan of few words, says meeting Vaughn was “good.” And his favorite player? “All of them are,” he says with a smile matching his father’s.

It was a day of bonding between Vandy fans and players, but for some the family ties ran a little deeper. One in line to get Vaughn’s autograph was Natasha Clifton, wearing a “Vanderbilt Mom” shirt and gold lipstick. Her son is freshman defensive end Nate Clifton, a former Brentwood Academy star.

“I am so grateful that my son gets to play on this excellent team and gets to see a future NFL star, learn discipline and courage and all that,” she says. “I think (Vaughn’s) going to be excellent. He’s going to be great. Home-grown, came back and he’s going to shine bright.”

Like most others on hand, Thomas fully expects Vaughn’s NFL star to shine brightly for years. But first, they hope he carries Vandy to SEC glory.

“I expect him to be the best running back in the SEC. He’s pretty awesome,” says Tommy Gilbert of Mt. Juliet. “I was excited when he transferred here, and he’s going to be a future pro, so he’ll be playing on Sundays.”