In the world of sports, adversity is an inevitable opponent. Athletes will face many challenges that test their physical and mental strength.
For Sam Vaughan, the ultimate test came in the form of a devastating injury.
Vaughan is a junior offensive lineman for the RedHawks. The 6-foot-7, 297 pounder started at offensive tackle for the season opener against Kentucky in 2022. Within minutes of the opening drive, Vaughan went down with a torn ACL.
The whole offseason of hardwork and dedication with his teammates was stripped away from him in seconds, and he would go on to miss the remainder of the season.
This injury would be enough to break the spirits of many athletes, but not Vaughan. He wasted no time and started working toward his return.
Road to recovery
Sam's injury was a moment that would change the course of his career. The torn ACL required immediate reconstructive surgery and a long recovery process, with a typical healing period ranging from nine to 12 months.
“It was a little scary at first, not knowing when you will be able to play next,” Vaughan said.
James Patton, Miami’s offensive line coach, says losing a tremendous athlete like Sam impacted the RedHawks’ season immediately.
“It was maybe 20 plays into the game, and you lose your starting left tackle,” Patton said. “So yeah, it was pretty hard, and not just from the athletic standpoint, but losing his personality and character was a setback for our team.”
Overcoming such a serious injury was not just a physical challenge; it was a mental and emotional battle.
"Obviously, there's gonna be the mental hurdle you got to get over about retearing it, something going wrong, and when there is some popping not to worry," Vaughan said.
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Yet, Vaughan had a unique perspective on his recovery.
"You got to remember that it's just as good as your old ACL,” Vaughan said. “It's surgically repaired."
This mindset was crucial to make this return, because offensive linemen do the “trench work.” They often get rolled up on and take awkward hits throughout every game.
“You feel like RoboCop,” Vaughan said with a grin.
Regaining confidence with a little help
Every setback has its hard times, but Vaughan’s mindset stayed unbreakable, allowing him to make a full recovery in time for this season.
"I was fortunate enough the week before fall camp started this year to get cleared by doc and got thrown right into the fire, exactly what I wanted," he said.
Vaughan shared a few turning points that he had to go through to get comfortable on the field again. The fear of re-injury was ever-present, but ultimately the play of the 2023 season reignited his confidence.
"There's a few times in camp that come to mind,” he said. “Obviously the practice and the first time you plant your leg at a certain angle. Once you get the first play out of the way, you're just relieved and feel back to your old self.'"
Vaughan's recovery was not a solo endeavor. He was quick to acknowledge the incredible support he received.
"I couldn't have done any of it without the training staff and the people over at Mercy Health,” Vaughan said. “I mean, every day I had my family, my girlfriend and teammates on a daily basis keeping my spirits up.”
Reshaping his game
Returning to football after a year away was not without its adjustments.
"When you spend 12 months away from football, you sort of lose your instincts a little bit," Vaughan said. "You gotta play 110 miles an hour. No hesitation."
He has his own take on hesitation. He referred to it as "paralysis by analysis."
“He is just very driven, very motivated,” Patton said. “Sometimes in this game, you don't realize how much you miss until you're out. I know Sam all through the offseason approached every rehab workout, every training workout just so he could get back for that first play and he couldn't wait.”
One aspect that sets Sam apart is his commitment to his team's success. This year, he was moved to the guard position, after starting last year at offensive tackle.
"I'll do whatever it takes," Vaughan said. “All I want to do is get on that field and win a MAC championship ring with my boys.”