Ken Vaughn couldn’t hold his head up when he returned home to Toledo, Ohio, in the spring of 1987. Missing his freshman football season at Cincinnati because of poor grades was bad enough, but flunking out of school was a nightmare.
Pushed by his father to make the best of the situation, Vaughn wound up at Merced College in the Bay Area and then at Cal State Northridge, where he is on pace to become the school’s career leader in tackles.
With three games remaining, Vaughn needs 37 tackles to break Reggie Wauls’ record of 208, set in 1985-86.
And, if Vaughn can make six solo tackles against Southern Utah tonight at North Campus Stadium (7 p.m. start), he will erase Wauls’ career mark of 94. Vaughn, who, as did Wauls, plays inside linebacker, had planned to play before crowds of 80,000 and appear on national television.
He settled for gatherings of 3,000 and local radio broadcasts.
“I think about what I missed,” Vaughn said, wistfully. “I think about it all the time. A lot of people on our team could be big time. But you can’t fault anybody else but yourself. You gotta be strong and make the best of where you’re at.”
Street & Smith’s magazine rated Vaughn among the top four high school linebackers in the nation in 1985 and he received red-carpet treatment on recruiting trips to Alabama, Minnesota and Michigan State.
But when his college board scores fell below the Proposition 48 minimum, many schools backed off. Cincinnati, a lesser light in the Division I ranks, stuck by Vaughn.
However, Vaughn’s only semester in Cincinnati was lost in a blur of late nights and missed classes. The party ended when he was sent home. Shamed by his failure, particularly in contrast to the success of five of his buddies at Division I schools, Vaughn wouldn’t show his face.
“I didn’t want to go nowhere,” Vaughn said. “My best friend would come over to go out, but I wouldn’t go. I knew if I went out people would ask a lot of questions. They would know I didn’t make it.”
Eventually, Vaughn’s father Chico intervened, telling him that he must face his problems.
“I don’t know what you’re hiding for,” Ken recalled his father saying. “It is no one’s mistake but yours. Be a man and face it. Only one person can change it and that’s you.”
Vaughn also remembered the advice Lou Holtz offered him on his visit to Minnesota.
Suspecting academic trouble, Holtz, then the Gopher coach, told Vaughn that if he did not play major-college football it didn’t mean he could not go on to the National Football League.
“That stuck with me,” said Vaughn, who enrolled at Merced with the help of a Cincinnati assistant coach.
For Tony Lewis, Merced’s defensive coordinator, Vaughn’s arrival was a godsend. “He was a great player for us,” Lewis said. “He had the size and speed and an excellent knack for finding the ball.”
Vaughn was a second-team junior college All-American as a freshman, and he made the first team as a sophomore when he led the Blue Devils to a 9-2 record by making 140 tackles--28 fewer than his school-record total of the previous season.
And once again, big-time programs came calling--until they learned Vaughn had only one season of eligibility remaining.
Under Division I rules, from the moment of enrollment, an athlete has five years to complete four years of eligibility. But Vaughn had two years left by Division II standards, which allow an athlete to compete until he/she has been enrolled full time for 10 semesters.
After sitting out the 1989 season at Northridge under a now-defunct transfer rule, Vaughn made a team-high 83 tackles in 1990 and was a second-team All-Western Football Conference selection.
This season, he has a team-high 89 tackles, including 51 solo--21 more than any other Matador. Vaughn also has intercepted a pass and broken up four others.
At 6-foot-2, 227 pounds, Vaughn is 33 pounds lighter than he was last season. A dislocated toe limited his conditioning program and made weight loss difficult in 1990.
“He’s much more mobile this year and he lasts longer; he can go 100% all the time,” said Rick Gamboa, Northridge’s linebacker coach. “The changes in his body structure are due to his hard work.”
Vaughn’s preparation was put to the test against Cal State Fullerton on Sept. 21 when Vaughn endured 90-degree temperatures to rack up a career-high 20 tackles. Last Saturday, 10 of his 17 tackles against Cal Poly San Luis Obispo were unassisted, putting him within eight solo tackles of eclipsing Wauls’ single-season mark of 58.
Vaughn, who was unaware of his foray into the Northridge record book, is more comfortable discussing team goals and celebrating group victories such as the dramatic goal-line stands the CSUN defense made in its 28-16 loss to San Luis Obispo.
Over the summer, Vaughn lived and trained with several other defensive players and he pools his limited room and board money with defensive linemen Alo Sila, Frank Sila and Mike Zorn.
Finances are so tight that the foursome recently moved to a smaller apartment. Vaughn was able to lower his share of the rent to $170 per month, but he had to give up a stray dog he had adopted.
“Sometimes we have to go without eating,” Vaughn said. “It makes us stronger inside. If one person eats, everybody eats or no one eats.”
One of Northridge’s three captains, Vaughn is a quiet leader.
“He’s not a rah-rah type,” Northridge Coach Bob Burt said. “He’s just a good football player who demands a lot of respect.”
If Vaughn gains the respect of NFL scouts this spring, he might be calling his father for something other than a loan.
"(The NFL) is always on my mind,” Vaughn said. “If I get the chance, I want to do something with it. I’ve been dreaming about it all my life.”
If not, Vaughn still can hold his head high when he returns to Toledo.