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Michael Vaughn is running to keep his seat in the Maryland House of Delegates. The personal bio on Vaughn’s official campaign helps explain why he deserves one: Representing the Prince George’s County–based 24th District, which includes portions of Landover, he’s racked up a slew of community service and political accomplishments, like being named deputy majority whip and co-chairing the Task Force on the Minority Business Enterprise Program.
There’s also a compelling nugget about his athletic background: “Michael Vaughn played professional football for the Dallas Cowboys for 3 years.”
That’s the sort of resume line that can really set a candidate apart, especially in a district that includes FedExField, home of the Washington Redskins.
If only it were true.
“We have no record of him playing for the Dallas Cowboys,” says Jancy Briles, spokeswoman for the Cowboys. Briles says she also checked an NFL database, and learned “they don’t have a Michael Vaughn listed as ever playing in the NFL, either.”
During my own look-sees into the Dallas Cowboys history, including inspections of every roster from the late-1970s and early-1980s, I was unable to find any reference to Vaughn, whose bio lists his birth year as 1957.
I did find seven guys surnamed Vaughn who have played in the NFL, from Bill Vaughn, a fullback who spent the 1926 season with the Buffalo Rangers, to Vickiel Vaughn, a defensive back who was taken by the San Francisco 49ers in the seventh round of the 2007 NFL draft. (From this clique, local fans might best remember Clarence Vaughn, who played with the Redskins from 1987-1992.)
But, alas, no “Michael Vaughn.”
There’s a paper trail showing the candidate was a fine football player as a young man. A Washington Post clip from November 4, 1979, about the Southern University/Howard football game, describes how “wingback Michael Vaughn of Landover” caught a 40-yard touchdown pass to end the scoring in visiting Southern’s 30-0 rout.
But that trail stops cold after college.
The athletic department at Southern, Vaughn’s alma mater, keeps what it calls “a composite list” of alums that have “lended their services” to pro ball clubs. The school’s 2009 football media guide has 87 names of former players who made it to “the National Football League (NFL), Canadian Football League (CFL), the United States Football League (USFL) and the Arena Football League (AFL).” Guys like Gillis Wilson of the Georgia Force and Elvis Joseph of the Edmonton Eskimos make the cut.
But no Michael Vaughn of the Dallas Cowboys.
When contacted to verify the NFL claims made on his campaign site, Vaughn initially defends the football claims made in the bio. “I was signed by the Dallas Cowboys as a free agent in 1980,” he says.
Vaughn quickly adds that he’s a member of the NFL Players Alumni Association. But that group’s membership requirements do not include actually playing for an NFL team.
After I tell him I couldn’t find any record of a Michael Vaughn ever being with the Cowboys, Vaughn says, “I was with the team for five months. I didn’t get in a game. That’s why there’s no stats, no record.”
The Cowboys say they don’t have any records of who practiced with the team in 1980; only folks who made a game roster. That caveat might provide some wiggle room for a guy who claimed he had been with a team for five months and didn’t get in a game. But the wording on Vaughn’s website is only appropriate for somebody who had a real career. An above-average career, you might even say: A 2002 report in The New York Times put the average length of an NFL receiver’s career at only 2.81 years.
When I read Vaughn the exact phrasing from his campaign bio—“played professional football for the Dallas Cowboys for 3 years”—he says, “No, that’s not true.”
Vaughn says he can’t explain how the erroneous info made it to his campaign website. “I did not put that out there,” he says. “I have a Webmaster. I have no idea where they got that. I don’t want inaccurate information out there. If you look, there’s other incorrect information on the site.”
I came across Vaughn’s alleged NFL career last week, while fact checking a story about Dan Snyder’s cigar bar at FedExField. Vaughn had co-sponsored a bill that would have given the establishment, called the Montecristo Club, an exemption from state anti-smoking laws, and I had looked into his background trying to find an explanation why a lawmaker would do Snyder a favor like that. The bill sponsorship made sense when I saw the NFL experience listed on Vaughn’s resume, but I removed that from my cigar bar story when I couldn’t verify that he had actually been with the Dallas Cowboys for a day, let alone three seasons.
This isn’t the first time I’d encountered an inaccurate athletic remembrance. The weirdest came when At-Large D.C. Councilmember Michael Brown told me in 2008, while I was writing about a high school football all-star game which Brown had helped put together, that he was named “All Met” in basketball in the early 1980s while playing for Mackin Catholic High School. The prestige of that designation, controlled by The Washington Post, has been watered down a bit over the decades. But in Brown’s day, being named All-Met in basketball was the Oscar, the Nobel, and the Pulitzer of local prep athletics. I couldn’t find any record that Brown was ever actually named All-Met, so I edited his claim out of my 2008 story.
I went back to Brown this week to ask about his athletic background, and he repeated the All-Met claim.
“It would have been my senior season, 1982-83,” he says. “I’ve tried to find [a newspaper clipping], but I haven’t had the chance to go down to The Washington Post and get it. I’d have it up in a frame.”
I have trouble doubting that Brown, at 45, believes he made an All-Met basketball team as a kid. But The Washington Post says otherwise. Camille Powell, who edits the paper’s high school sports coverage, double-checked for me: “I looked through the copies of the 1980–85 All-Met teams again,” she reported back via e-mail, “and I don’t see any mention of Michael/Mike Brown and Mackin, not even in the all-league lists.” (Future Duke great Johnny Dawkins and future Boston College star Dominic Pressley, both also from Mackin, showed up on those All-Met teams.)
The most comical bogus athletic resume I’ve encountered came from James Amps III, a motivational speaker. Amps had written a letter to the editor of Washington City Paper after I’d written a story about the phoniness of Remember the Titans, the 2000 Denzel Washington film about the 1971 T.C. Williams football team. I’d pointed out that the real life Herman Boone was making scads of money on the public speaking circuit by replacing his actual bio with the life story of the Denzel Washington character. Amps blasted me for insinuating that movie was phony.
Turns out Amps was phonier than the film: He had launched his own speaking career after the movie came out by identifying himself in promotional materials as a “an All-American Football and Track star at T.C. Williams High School and an Original Titan under Coach Herman Boone.” Amps did in fact attend T.C. Williams, but the rest is malarkey. “James Amps was a running back on the T.C. Williams team in the late 1970s, not 1971, and he scored one touchdown his senior year,” says longtime T.C. Williams statistician and Alexandria sports historian Greg Paspatis. “He wasn’t an ‘Original Titan’ or anything like an All-American in football or any sport. He didn’t get any honors from anywhere.”
“I was just trying to get my speaking thing started,” Amps explained to me a few years ago when I asked why he created a fictional bio. Yet he’s still claiming in his promotional materials to be an all-American athlete and “Original Titan.”
Athletic phony baloneys never get as much press as military blusterers, but there is some overlap. The most publicized recent example of the latter sort of puffery came with Connecticut Attorney General and U.S. Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal’s insinuations that he served in Vietnam. Actually, his military career peaked as a Marine Corps reservist—sort of the practice squad of the Marines—who had avoided the draft through deferments. But the media’s investigation into Blumenthal’s military bio also debunked a claim made in a 2000 Slate profile that he’d been the captain of the Harvard swim team.
Henry Allen, the longtime Post writer and decorated veteran who got bounced after throwing punches in the newsroom, theorized that men like Blumenthal make up unreal histories because they come up short “not in the eyes of the world, but in [their] own eyes.”
In a 1999 story in the Los Angeles Times about the “imposter syndrome,” clinical psychologist Loren Pankratz observed that sufferers have one similarity: [An] internal need to impress themselves and a feeling of power that they can pull it off.”
Football isn’t war, and the NFL draft avoided Vaughn, not vice versa. But however it is that a fictional Dallas Cowboys career ended up on the P.G. politico’s resume, it’s understandable if at this point in his life Vaughn still wishes his football career had longer legs.
In a radio interview just days before he was released by the Redskins, Colt Brennan admitted being envious of players who made it on the field while he watched. “You just realize how jealous you are because at least those guys can say they played in the NFL,” he says. “I have yet to be able to say I played in an actual game.”
Get back to us in 30 years, Colt.