Vaughn Meatoga wanted to quit. Now he’s a star.
DURING an early August practice, Vaughn Meatoga perched on one knee and watched.
Under a blistering morning sun, Vaughn looked on as his the teammates participated in a 7 on 7 scrimmage. He stayed steady, most of his 295 pounds resting on his powerful right leg. His face, stoic in its attentiveness, showed no emotion. His eyes moved with the play, taking in the action on the field.
Entering his fifth season at the University of Hawai‘i, Vaughn hasn’t spent much time on the sidelines watching the action. Since 2007, Vaughn has risen through the ranks to become one of the best defensive tackles in the country. Meatoga started his sophomore year, captained his junior year and this year his sights are set on another WAC title and possibly a shot the NFL.
“He’s one of the best tackles in the country,” Hawai‘i head coach Greg McMackin said. “He’s got great quickness. He’s ferocious. I could sit here all day and talk positives about him.”
As Vaughn rested at practice, taking a rare breather while watching the team he now captains, it’s hard to believe that the anchor of Hawai‘i’s defensive line almost gave up the game.
IT’S been four years since Vaughn nearly quit football. The death of his mother, Lynette, caused the freshman to want to end his promising career before it ever really began. But, Vaughn, the 6-foot-2 defensive star
with a body built for the game found, inspiration within his own home and returned to the field to accomplish his ultimate goal of providing for his family.
In 2007, the Rainbow Warriors had a season for the ages. With an aerial assault led by star quarterback Colt Brennan, Hawai‘i cruised to a perfect regular-season record and received an invitation to play in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day in New Orleans. During the season, Vaughn was a redshirt who saw playing time on the second-string defensive line in practice. He showed many of the skills that would later define him as a player. But as his teammates prepared to face the Georgia Bulldogs, tragedy struck the Meatoga family.
On Dec. 18, Lynette lost her battle with breast cancer. The cancer — once in remission — had resurfaced, striking quickly and violently.
Lynette’s passing left the Meatoga family devastated. Vaughn skipped the trip to New Orleans and returned to Kaua‘i. It was during this time that Vaughn thought his football career was over.
“She had been at every one of my games from seventh grade through my senior year of high school,” Vaughn said of his mom. “When she passed, I thought I wouldn’t play anymore. I wanted to quit.”
Vaughn wanted to stay home and help his father, Kenny, take care of his younger brother, Kaleo, and sister, Kelly. It had always been Vaughn’s goal to help provide for his family, and as he saw it, he couldn’t be in Honolulu playing football while his family struggled.
But Vaughn found inspiration in his father. His dad picked up a second job, put his head down and fought through the pain.
“Watching him work made me want to suck it up,” Vaughn said. “I saw him bite his lip and fight.”
Kenny worked hard to keep the family afloat, but at the same time he knew Vaughn couldn’t give up the opportunity to play college ball. He told Vaughn to consider what his goals were and to not let tragedy affect the long-term outcome of those plans.
Vaughn vowed to return to school, using inspiration from his father and his mother to make it through. During Lynette’s battle, she was the strongest fighter of them all. She refused to let her condition hamper the goals or plans of the family. She always showed up. She never complained.
“His mom was a big inspiration, even through the cancer,” Kenny said. “She never let the other kids see how bad it was until it came to a point where she couldn’t hide it anymore. She was strong for us, and I think that’s where Vaughn gets a lot of it.”
FOUR years after Lynette’s passing, Vaughn is on the verge of realizing his goals. He’s transformed himself from a prospective freshman to an all-out defensive force for the Warriors. He’s currently coming off a standout season where he started all 14 games for the Warriors. His junior campaign featured Vaughn garnering 32 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and 2.5 tackles in the backfield. He was also named to the All-WAC Academic team for the third consecutive season.
But for all of the good that Vaughn does on the field, his biggest contributions for the Warriors are off it. Vaughn will be a captain once again this season because of the leadership abilities he shows with the team. Vaughn takes time to give tips to the younger players on the team, especially his fellow Kauaians, Siasau Matagiese and Sean Shigematsu.
Both Matagiese and Shigematsu said Vaughn has played an intricate role in their development as football players. As a defensive lineman, Metegiese learns from Vaughn first hand. He can mimic what Vaughn does and has a great resource in his senior teammate if he ever needs it.
For Shigematsu, an offensive lineman, he learns from Vaughn in a more upfront way — by going up against him in practice.
“I always make sure to take pointers from Vaughn because he definitely knows what he’s doing,” Shigematsu said. “He’s always more than willing to give me tips.”
While Vaughn may be more than happy to give out advice, it doesn’t mean that it will help against a player of his caliber.
Shigematsu has the pleasant task of trying to stop Meatoga in practice — something comparable to trying to wrangle a bull with bare hands.
“He’s a guy that never takes a play off. He just gets in your face. He’s mentally smart and he’s got the physical set to go with it,” Shigematsu said. “He’s got really quick hands and is fast off the ball. You have to try and get on him quick.”
The NFL Vaughn’s ultimate goal. Making it to the league would not only give him the financial ability to support his family, but it would provide Vaughn the satisfaction of reaching the highest level of the game he loves.
Heading into the 2012 season, Vaughn has gained the attention of pro scouts around the country. CBS Sports currently lists Vaughn as the 29th best defensive tackle in the country. In a similar list, NFLproscout.com lists Vaughn 25th out of 178 DTs.
Vaughn can bolster his draft status with another solid senior season, and with the possibility of the NFL on the horizon, Kenny believes his son will achieve his goal.
“I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he makes it,” Kenny said. “It means a lot to him personally. It would be accomplishing all of his goals.”
Kenny has seen firsthand how dedicated Vaughn is to improvement. On a trip he made to Honolulu a couple of years ago, Kenny stayed with Vaughn at his house following a Saturday game. For a Sunday activity, instead of hitting the beach or the town, Kenny remembers Vaughn taking him to a video session.
“He snuck me into the trainers’ room with him the day after the game,” Kenny said. “He made me come in there with him on a Sunday morning and watch hours of game tape of what he was doing wrong. He just puts so much preparation into every game he plays.”
This coming December, when the anniversary of his mom’s death approaches, Vaughn hopes to be in the midst of another successful season. He’s shown over the last four seasons how to rise from the ashes to have his life goals within his grasp. Whether he makes the NFL or not, he’s well on his way to achieving his dreams. His father is proud of him and knows Lynette would have been too.
“She would be telling everybody on the Island…She would be so proud of him,” Kenny said. “She is proud of him. I know it.”