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Radio City Music Hall hosted the nation's swankiest job fair in April. The annual two-day event, better known as the NFL draft, shaped the career fortunes of 255 well-fed young men. The best among them, certain of their hiring, traveled to New York for the occasion, smiling wide at the promise of a contract with more zeroes than pi. Most of the rest watched the seven-round circus on ESPN, whose analysts parsed 40-yard dash times with the gravity of Nixon resigning from office.
Vickiel Vaughn, on the other hand, tuned out. He neither expected a team to pick him in the early rounds nor cared to waste his weekend staring fish-eyed at the TV. In truth, he realized his name might go unspoken on the music hall's stage: Despite his solid play as a four-year safety with the Arkansas Razorbacks, pro scouts, skeptical of his agility and quickness, rated him a marginal prospect.
So Vaughn devoted his energy that weekend to what he considers a higher calling. A counselor for a Christian outreach group in Fayetteville, home to the University of Arkansas, he drove to a ranch in Oklahoma to help conduct a youth faith camp. He talked about the Bible with high school students and led prayer meetings with younger children, urging them to sow God's grace.
After the camp ended on Sunday, Vaughn headed to Plano, Texas, the Dallas suburb where his parents live. With the draft deep into its final round, he still lacked an NFL employer, a cold fact he learned only when his father called. He accepted that he would start his football career, if there were to be one, as a free agent, auditioning for a roster spot without the benefit of a contract; several teams had contacted his agent to invite Vaughn to training camp.
Snapping shut his cell phone, he pushed on through southeastern Oklahoma and into northern Texas, past small towns and scrubland. The low-hanging sun glinted off the Ford Expedition his father bought him for college, its "Razorback red" exterior matching the school's cardinal-colored jerseys. Crooning along to the R&B grooves on Jamie Foxx's Unpredictable, he stopped mid-song when his phone chirped again.
The caller, a team official with the San Francisco 49ers, bore good news: Minutes earlier, the club had selected Vaughn with its seventh-round choice. The man welcomed him to the franchise; the draft pick smiled. He would enter training camp not as a free agent but as the second-to-last player taken overall. To a cynic, that distinction would seem as minute as his chances of making the squad. To Vaughn, the Lord had blessed him.
He dialed his parents. They had already seen the report on TV, and when his father answered, Vickiel could hear his mother yelling "Thank you, Jesus!" in the background. Ezekiel Vaughn, who played college football in the late '70s and received tryout offers from NFL teams, praised his son, then alluded to the work ahead.
"We got past one point," he told Vickiel. "Now comes the next one."
Arriving at their house, Vaughn swapped hugs and laughs with his parents before hopping online to research the Niners. He read that his new team, in finishing 4-12 last year, fielded the NFL's lowest-ranked defense and allowed the second-most passing yards in league history. For fans, those numbers stir memories of a secondary that cringed at thrown balls as if they were IEDs. For a safety picked 254th in the draft, the stats inspire hope that he can go pro.
Hills the color of straw lie in the distance beyond the Niners' training complex in Santa Clara, the rolling slopes evoking a Cezanne landscape. Closer to the facility, save for a smattering of shade trees and the sweet scent of fresh-cut grass, the environs turn less pastoral. Train tracks and a power station border the three practice fields, lending an industrial severity accented by jets squalling to and from San Jose's airport.
In early August, a subtler contrast emerges before the 2,000 fans sitting on the silver bleachers lining one field. During a passing drill, Vaughn shadows tight end Vernon Davis, another rookie. The sixth overall pick in the draft, Davis owns a $23 million contract that crowns him the league's highest-paid player at his position. Beat reporters cover every shake of his dreadlocks, his No. 85 jersey dots the stands. Barring his death and perhaps even then he will make the team.
Meanwhile, Vaughn received a $1.64 million deal, the smallest given to San Francisco's nine draft choices this year. Nobody talks of him as the team's future, and though fans still wear jerseys of bygone stiffs like Steve Bono, none sports No. 40. He will need a great preseason and perhaps divine intervention to escape the roster ax.
Bank accounts and hype aside, however, during their brief on-field duel, Vaughn proves the equal of Davis, who combines quarter-horse speed with the body of Atlas. When Davis sprints upfield and cuts toward the sideline, Vaughn stays close enough to trim the tight end's dreads. The saran-wrap coverage forces quarterback Trent Dilfer to search for another receiver, a cycle that repeats on the next play. Ronnie Lott would approve.