If not for Smoky Hill High School, Chase Vaughn wouldn’t be a Denver Bronco.
The Aurora school is close to Vaughn’s heart for a lot of reasons. His mother and sister graduated from there. His grandparents still live in the Mission Viejo subdivision just a few blocks away.
And the school is also where Vaughn first believed he could make it to the National Football League. He’s on the cusp of reaching that dream, as he’s in his second stint under contract with the hometown Broncos with a chance to make the final roster for the 2015-16 season as a linebacker/defensive end. Now standing 6-foot-2 and weighing in at 260 pounds, Vaughn is a long way from the time when he walked the Smoky Hill hallways in the mid-2000s as a 6-foot, 180-pound junior with a goal of playing professional basketball until friends Aaron Pineda and Josh Madry encouraged him try to football.
The rest is recent local history, as Vaughn quickly found out he could play the game and began to work furiously to reach his goals. He pushed Pineda’s car across the Smoky parking lot to build strength and woke himself up every two hours at night to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and battle his friends in pizza buffet eating so he could add on weight. Smoky Hill struggled as a team in the rugged Centennial League against the likes of Mullen and Cherry Creek, but Vaughn showed the type of ability that got him a chance to play two years at Adams State and then move on to star at Division II Colorado State-Pueblo, where he helped bolster a program that just won a D-II national championship.
Vaughn persevered through the ups-and-downs of playing in a variety of smaller professional football leagues — the United Football League, Indoor Football League, Canadian Football League and Arena Football League — before he got a shot with the Broncos in 2014.
Waived late in training camp last season, Vaughn re-signed with the team on a futures contract and is determined not to let his second chance slip. He wakes up before his alarm goes off every morning so he has no chance of being late, he pays rapt attention in team meetings and takes everything about the game seriously.
We caught up with Vaughn on the first day of his mini summer vacation — the time between the end of the Broncos’ Organized Team Activities and the beginning of training camp in late July and early August — out in front of the place where it all started, Smoky Hill.
QUESTION: You had hoop dreams when you first got to Smoky Hill. How did you make the switch to football?
ANSWER: “I always thought I was going to play in the NBA, but then I stopped growing and you can’t play forward at 6-2. I was at a place where I’d always been in athletics and needed something else, so my friends convinced me to try football. They said ‘We lose every game, but we have a great time,’ so I tried it. I didn’t know what position I wanted to play…one day Coach (Steve) Carroll said you have long legs, so we’re going to put you at defensive end. I said OK, but honestly I didn’t even know what a defensive end was. I didn’t even know how to put the pads in my pants, I knew almost nothing about football. We went out for an exhibition game up at ThunderRidge and they just threw me in there. On the very first play, an offensive lineman came to block me and on instinct I just swam him and laid out the running back. Everyone was like ‘What just happened?’ and I was like, ‘What just happened?’ I went on to have like two sacks, eight tackles and a forced fumble in that game. I remember sitting on the bus coming back to school and thinking, ‘I can do this, I can make something out of this.’ From that point on, I thought I could go to the NFL. Something clicked, and I hit it hard. I was 180 pounds then, but I got in the gym and by senior year I was 205. That was a lot of weight to put on, but it was all muscle because I had never lifted hard before. I knew I had steps, I needed to get a scholarship, needed to be an All-American, needed to break records and help my team win. Step by step, I just started checking things off my list. It all started that junior year with that one game.”
Q: What’s a favorite athletic memory from your time at Smoky Hill?
A: “Athletically, it was getting destroyed by other teams in football. We went 1-9 my senior year, but regardless of whether we were getting destroyed, it was playing football with a bunch of kids I grew up with. Kids I went to Laredo (Middle School) and Independence (Elementary) with. It was still a good time, even when we were down 50-0. The one win we had was against RidgeView Academy, a 3A school, and we were all so tired because we were out there the whole time, but that was a good feeling. There were a lot of great memories with football.”
Q: Your football career has been filled with trials and challenges, so what keeps you going?
A: “Basically it’s taken a lot of blind faith. I tell people that it’s almost like there is a voice in the back of my head that tells me ‘Just keep going, it’s going to happen. You have to be ready for when it happens, as long as you are still playing, it’s going to happen.’ I went and traveled and played with the UFL in Vegas and whenever a season would end, I’d always come back to Aurora. Then I’d go out somewhere else, I went and played in Canada, then came back to Aurora. It took a lot of blind faith. I tell people the great athletes are stubborn, too. If you believe in something with all your heart, it doesn’t matter how many people tell you ‘no.’ I’m going to keep telling you ‘yes’ until you listen to me. Faith, persistence and being very stubborn…I’ve had a lot of people in my family that had to be realists and say ‘OK, Chase, you’ve been going at this four or five years, it may be time to get a real job or go back to school.’ It’s tough hearing that, because, yeah, they are right in a typical instance, but I know what I’m capable of. I’ve never been cut because of ability, it’s always been a numbers thing or the league went bankrupt, like the UFL. It’s always been some freak thing, so I could just never live with myself if I gave up. I needed to keep going until somebody sees me and, thankfully, the Broncos did.”
Q: As a local guy, what does it mean to pull on a Denver Broncos uniform?
A: “It’s insane. Obviously I grew up here, so I know how crazy the fans are for the Broncos, and I know what the city was like when Elway and them won back-to-back. Now, I put on that jersey, and I’m part of that craziness. That’s really special, I wouldn’t want that any other way. I’m so happy it worked out like that and I can still be here with my friends and family and the people I shared the field with can come and watch me practice. That’s a cool feeling. It just happens to be Denver, but I would go anywhere. I need to keep this dream going.”
Q: What’s it like being in a locker room with so many star players?
A: “Last year, I was more starstruck coming in. I was telling somebody in a radio interview that it took me like three weeks to get up enough courage to say “hi” to Peyton Manning. But this year, I feel like I belong more. Last year, I thought I had to catch up with everybody, but now I feel like I’m here, and I can just focus on being good. I’m in the meeting room every day with Von Miller and D-Ware (DeMarcus Ware) and it’s not star struck. Now I have that person to learn from. I see where they are at, and they tell me I can get there and they take me under their wing. That locker room is loaded. It’s crazy.”
Q: Describe to somebody who has never played football what it’s like to sack a quarterback.
A: “It’s one of the hardest things to do in sports, especially as the levels go up; the quarterbacks get the ball out quick and the O-linemen get better. It’s a game of inches and a game of seconds, where if you get there a half-second off, you’re too late. Once you finally get there, it’s like the equivalent of a robbing a home run in baseball or blocking a game-winning shot in basketball. The crowds’ eyes are wide up like it’s about to be a pass and then it’s like ‘Nope, shut that down.’ It’s a very hard thing to do and great pass rushers get like 10 sacks a season, so that’s not a lot. It’s like the feeling of robbing somebody of their glory. I’ve scored touchdowns before, but honestly sacks feel better. It’s a good feeling messing up their whole plan and what they had in store for that play.”
Q: You’ve talked to several high school football teams and motivated quite a few kids, did anybody do that for you when you were high school?
A: “Honestly I didn’t have anybody like that when I was in high school, I wish I did. I remember looking up a guy, Aaron Robbins, who graduated in 2003 who I had heard about from locker room stories. I knew he’d been with the Pittsburgh Steelers and was an All-Star in Arena Football and I remember looking up to him up as somebody who had done it before, so there was no reason why I couldn’t. I first met him at the 24Hour Fitness off Quincy and Parker. He had a Smoky shirt on and introduced himself. I didn’t have anybody come and specifically tell me those things and that I could make it from Aurora, but looking him up verified that I could.”