By Thomas Sellers Jr.
Sometimes reaching a dream has its share of setbacks.
But determination and support can allow a person to reach his or her goal and even transform the moment into the ideal birthday gift. As graduating senior Colton Vaughn stood in the Tipton-Rosemark Academy lobby on May 9, his friends and family song “Happy Birthday” to him.
The song came moments after Vaughn signed his letter of intent to be a preferred walk-on for UT-Martin Football.
“I remember as a little kid playing football at ECS,” Vaughn recalled. “One day I would play college football, and now that it’s here, it’s not even words to describe it. I’m just so happy and excited that God has blessed me to play this sport.”
The sport Vaughn grew up loving and dedicated his body to appeared to betray him during the preseason before his final campaign for the TRA Rebels.
“He has worked over the four years in his career,” Vaughn’s high school coach Dodd Gengenbach recalled. “For his senior year to go out like that with a knee injury and not be able to compete and play, I know he was concerned about that dream coming true to be able to play at the next level.
“I’m very thrilled for him and I know his family is very happy for him,” he added. “He’s got an opportunity at UT-Martin. If he works as hard as he does in the weight room and does the right things, he’s going to have an opportunity to make some noise up there.”
There through the recruiting journey and the road back to the field were Colton’s parents Lalania and Cary Vaughn.
“A lot of prayer,” Lalania said was the start of her son’s recovery. “I was trying to reinsure to him that God was not through with him. If there’s something He needed him to do, He would open the door.
“He went through a lot of discouragement thinking, ‘Is it over?’’ she continued. “But as Mom, it was just praying for him that if it’s God’s will, He’ll open the door for him. And He did.”
Meanwhile Dad was also there to encourage his son to transform the injury into a blessing. Cary was a football standout at TRA in the late 1980s. After he graduated in 1989, he played at Lambuth University.
“Colton is more of a gifted athlete than I ever was,” Cary said. “Coming off a year to where we had an injury right before the first game, he had a torn meniscus. He has never been hurt. That was a hurdle and obstacle we had to overcome and really navigate through to get an opportunity to play at the next level. To not have a senior season, it’s not only a blessing but a great opportunity for him.”
Lalania said the offer from the Skyhawks and Head Coach Jason Simpson made her son’s dream become a reality.
“Very special, bittersweet,” she acknowledged. “I’m excited he’s moving on to great things at UT-Martin. Colton has really been working toward this since the third grade. He been playing tackle football since the third grade. I’ve loved watching him play the sport.
“He’s passionate about it,” Lalania continued. “We’ve been passionate about supporting him in the sport. This is many years of being dedicated and discipline about the program. We’re glad to see if finally pay off for him.”
While rehabbing from his knee injury, Colton increased his squat to 550 pounds and bench to 325.
“What I saw in him was the effort in the weight room was really something that stood out with him,” Gengenbach said. “Even after the injury, he got himself back in there dedicated to that aspect. He understood it was important. The maturity with that came along and he realized the discipline in the weight room I can give myself an opportunity. The rehab stuff, he did a great job of that trying to come back.”
Colton also produced an impressive resume’ on the football field from his junior season with more than 80 tackles. He saw time running the ball and was a leader in the locker room.
When he was forced to the sideline for his senior year, Colton increased his leadership role after a moment of sadness.
“Mostly going through my mind my senior year, ‘It’s over. I’m done,’” Colton acknowledged. I thought, ‘What is the next step here?’ I woke up one day and said, ‘The team still needs me.’ I went out there and still support the team being a cheerleader and coaching them up. I said at the end of the day it’s not over until I want it to be over.”
His teammates returned the support helping Colton complete his rehab while getting stronger. Gengenbach said he became a student of the game and increased his football IQ.
“As for my legacy, hopefully I was a leader on the football field and a good player,” Colton said. “Hopefully kids looked up to me as a role model with my personality. Remember as a good person.”
Lalania, as the Fine Arts director at TRA, had a chance to watch her create his legacy on the campus daily. She said the next chapter at Martin will help his mature to another level.
“I’m praying that he not only grows as an athlete or player of the game at this next level, but as a young man he develops even greater character,” she said. “He’s coming through it from a different angle that some who had no injury.
“He’s getting another opportunity to play on a team,” Lalania added. “Missing his senior year, I know it was hard. Being a part of a team again, I’m praying God will use this to just continue to shape the man.”
Cary said Colton was not only a strong football player, but a solid student who plans to pursue a degree in Accounting Finance. For Dad, Martin will be a gift to Colton that will allow him to be a gift for the world.
“Foremost I want him to obtain a great education,” he said. “Secondly, athletics is really a tool for life. Their are a lot of life lessons in playing football. Through discipline, through training , through tenacity, not only can Colton sharpen his saw as a football athlete.
“He can also sharpen his saw as a leader and hopefully as a contributor,” Cary concluded. “We want Colton to be a contributor and not a consumer of life.”