James Vaughters’ long NFL journey included getting cut eight times

Bears linebacker James Vaughters, a proud member of the AJC’s Super 11 in 2010, is a case study in perseverance.

The former Tucker High standout linebacker and YouTube sensation will return home, wearing No. 93 for the Bears (2-0) to face the Falcons (0-2) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

After Vaughters finished his career at Stanford in 2015 he wasn’t drafted by an NFL team.

He was cut eight times by four NFL teams and one Canadian Football League team before making his NFL debut with the Bears on Nov. 3, 2019. You understand why he shed tears of joy on the sideline that day in Philadelphia during the national anthem.

Vaughters, who turned 27 in June, had stints with the Packers, Patriots, San Diego Chargers and the Calgary Stampeders before his breakthrough with the Bears.

“When you’re young you hear the words perseverance, manhood, scholarship and uplift, but then as you get older you start applying those things to life itself,” Vaughters said. "You just start to realize the experiences are so far beyond the words that you even have a hard time using the words to describe it.

“It gets to be so many different emotions, so many different feelings, so many different acts of perseverance that you’ve had the opportunity and had to make the decision to execute that you somehow kind of lose cite of the words themselves.”

The four words are cardinal principles of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, and they helped Vaughters through the peaks and valleys of trying to make it in the NFL.

“That’s why I’m so blessed that I went through pledging Omega Psi Phi in college,” Vaughter said. “I was 19 years old when I crossed. You learn those words at 19 years old, that’s almost eight years ago now. It means just so much more to me now, just in the act of living and the act of living those principles, than it is just to think about the words.”

Vaughters, who’s 6-foot-1 and 256 pounds, played in the CFL for the Calgary Stampeders in 2017 and 2018, helping them win the Grey Cup in his second season.

Vaughters, who was a four-star recruit, never gave up his dream.

“I did it for the guys that came in after us at Tucker,” Vaughters said. "Guys that came after me at Stanford. They all have a dream of playing pro sports and all have a dream of doing things the right way and getting an opportunity based on what they’ve done.

“It’s a big blessing for me to be able to finally experience that even though it didn’t come at the time that I expected it to or in the way that I expected it to. It means even more in this situation.”

Vaughters played 35 of the defensive snaps (45%) in the Bears' 27-23 season-opening win over the Detroit Lions. He also played 12 snaps on special teams.

In the 17-13 win over the Giants, he played 24 defensive snaps (37%) and eight special-teams snaps.

“The first thing that jumps out when you are playing linebacker is the ability, especially for him to be an outside linebacker is in the run game, how are you doing on the edge-setting and in the run game to be physical while playing in those kind of matchups,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “James certainly has that. The other value that he adds, obviously you like linebackers and (defensive backs) to have the ability to play on special teams. The first thing that jumps out to me was his strength.”

Vaughters is making plays for the Bears, too.

“I like the way that he’s grown for us the last couple of years,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said. “I just know that our defensive coaches really appreciate the knowledge that he has in this defense and the way he plays.”

He had three tackles against Lions and four against the Giants.

“I thought even in Week 1 you saw him really come around that edge and make a big tackle on a nice play off the edge,” Nagy said. “Last week, he filled a nice role for our defense. There is a big comfort there and trust from our coaches with James, and I appreciate that.”

Before Zion Williamson was a YouTube dunking sensation, there was Vaughters' YouTube highlight tape from his sophomore season. It was viewed over 8,300 times by June 2009.

With a 4.0 GPA, Vaughters had 35 – 26 written and nine oral – big-time college scholarship offers before narrowing his list to Alabama, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Ohio State and Stanford.

He said that playing at Tucker, a state powerhouse, which won the state title his sophomore year, helped him with his transition to Stanford.

“I always give a lot of credit to my high school experience as far as getting a taste of what it feels like to be recognized as a top player and recognized as someone to expect big things from, someone who has a lot of potential,” Vaughters said. “Also, just playing in high school with a very disciplined regimen as far as lifting in the morning.”

He started as a freshman and had a solid career at Stanford. He wasn’t invited to the NFL scouting combine, but after a strong Pro Day he was projected to be drafted between the fourth and seventh rounds.

“When you look at Vaughters, Day 3,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said in March 2015. “But I know how high (the Stanford coaches were) on him. I know what a solid player he had been in their scheme for a number of years. He had some really solid games this year. I think on Day 3 he’ll be a guy who can come in and help you on special teams right away.”

After he wasn’t drafted, Vaughters wasn’t ready to give up his football dream.

“I just had to decide that I wasn’t going to be denied no matter how small the chances, no matter where the game took me physically, emotional, mentally, all of that stuff,” Vaughters said. “I was going to see it through.”

Vaughters, who stayed with his parents, Jonathan and Vanessa, in Stone Mountain between his training camp and exhibition-season stints, didn’t take the rejection personally.

“You accumulate a list of things that you’ve done where you ran into rejection,” Vaughters said. “This is my six professional (exhibition) season, four NFL (exhibition) seasons and two CFL (exhibition) seasons and I’d never gone through an NFL (exhibition) season without getting cut. I got cut at the end of my first CFL (exhibition) season.”

It was six years before Vaughters got his shot to play. On that day against the Eagles, he played four snaps from scrimmage, nine on special teams and made a tackle.

“I feel like I’ve been a better player,” Vaughters said. “A better person and sometimes we get caught up in the tangibles. Especially as football players, when you’re out there fighting for trophies, fighting for accolades, All-America-this, Pac-12 championship-that. You get caught up in the tangible things, oh maybe I’m not even good anymore if I’m not getting the tangible recognition.”

Vaughters had to forget that he was a YouTube star, state champion, four-star recruit and former Pac 12 starter in order to keep trying to move forward.

“Once, I started to focus more on my process and focus more on growing mentally, physically and spiritually every day, every week, every month, every year, I was able to get where I wanted to be,” Vaughters said. "It doesn’t feel like it’s been thrust upon you the same way.

“It feels like something that you have no doubt in your mind that you’ve earned.”

Vaughters, who earned his degree in political science from Stanford, is the third of four children. He has an older sister Jahnisa, an older brother Johnathan and younger sister Ryan.

He credited his mother with helping with his nutrition and how to take care of his body and his father for helping him emotionally, mentally and for coaching him on how to handle the rejection.

“They say it takes a village, and if I hadn’t had the support that I had from my family, just them letting me stay with them in between gigs,” Vaughters said. “I feel like, without that support I don’t know if it easy for me to go up to the CFL, to transition back down, all of that stuff. So, I’m just thankful that I was given the kind of support that I’ve been given and thankful that I’m able to do something with it.”

Combined ShapeCaption
Tucker High School's James Vaughters (center) is a mini-celebrity on YouTube. The 15-year-old junior is not the next American Idol, just one of the nation's most promising college football prospects for 2011. College scouts and fans have flocked to view highlights from Vaughters' sophomore season around 8,300 times over the past four months. -- Michael Carvell, AJC

Credit: John Spink

Tucker High School's James Vaughters (center) is a mini-celebrity on YouTube. The 15-year-old junior is not the next American Idol, just one of the nation's most promising college football prospects for 2011. College scouts and fans have flocked to view highlights from Vaughters' sophomore season around 8,300 times over the past four months. -- Michael Carvell, AJC

Credit: John Spink

Combined ShapeCaption
Tucker High School's James Vaughters (center) is a mini-celebrity on YouTube. The 15-year-old junior is not the next American Idol, just one of the nation's most promising college football prospects for 2011. College scouts and fans have flocked to view highlights from Vaughters' sophomore season around 8,300 times over the past four months. -- Michael Carvell, AJC

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

Combined ShapeCaption
Stanford players, including James Vaughters (9), run with the Stanford Axe after defeating California 38-17 on Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Stanford players, including James Vaughters (9), run with the Stanford Axe after defeating California 38-17 on Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Combined ShapeCaption
Stanford players, including James Vaughters (9), run with the Stanford Axe after defeating California 38-17 on Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Combined ShapeCaption
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound linebacker has landed 17 early scholarship offers, including Georgia and Georgia Tech. The first school to offer Vaughters, Stanford, did so after evaluating the 6-minute, 21-second YouTube video. -- Michael Carvell, AJC

Credit: John Spink

The 6-foot-2, 215-pound linebacker has landed 17 early scholarship offers, including Georgia and Georgia Tech. The first school to offer Vaughters, Stanford, did so after evaluating the 6-minute, 21-second YouTube video. -- Michael Carvell, AJC

Credit: John Spink

Combined ShapeCaption
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound linebacker has landed 17 early scholarship offers, including Georgia and Georgia Tech. The first school to offer Vaughters, Stanford, did so after evaluating the 6-minute, 21-second YouTube video. -- Michael Carvell, AJC

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

Combined ShapeCaption
Tucker LB James Vaughters will pack for the longest trip of any 2010 AJC Super 11 player. Vaughters takes his considerable talents west to Stanford.

Credit: Jason Getz / jgetz@ajc.com

Tucker LB James Vaughters will pack for the longest trip of any 2010 AJC Super 11 player. Vaughters takes his considerable talents west to Stanford.

Credit: Jason Getz / jgetz@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Tucker LB James Vaughters will pack for the longest trip of any 2010 AJC Super 11 player. Vaughters takes his considerable talents west to Stanford.

Credit: Jason Getz / jgetz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / jgetz@ajc.com

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