Jon Vaughn and the cost of being a Michigan Man — The Undefeated

When Dave Frakes got a call in March from his friend Jon Vaughn, a retired NFL running back/return specialist and University of Michigan star, asking if they could meet, he had no clue about the painful conversation to come.

Vaughn, 50, and Frakes, 58, had met a few months earlier and instantly hit it off, bonding over a mutual love of cigars, music, golf and fatherhood. The former Big Ten co-offensive player of the year had become a regular at Frakes’ cigar lounge in Frisco, Texas, using the establishment as an office and hangout. Soon, it would become a sanctuary.

Shortly before COVID-19 put the entire world on pause, Vaughn’s world was upended. Inside a private conference room at Industrial Cigar Co., Vaughn revealed why: Days earlier, a former college teammate texted him a link to a news article detailing a sexual abuse scandal at his alma mater. Dr. Robert Anderson, who had worked at Michigan for nearly four decades, had allegedly been abusing students since the late 1960s. The details jolted Vaughn, who started replaying his encounters with Anderson in his mind. That’s when it hit him. I’m a sexual abuse survivor.

“I’ve had to really come to terms that I was taken advantage of,” Vaughn said. “If you have something traumatic and you don’t deal with it — or if you didn’t know you went through trauma until 30 years later, it’s powerful. It was like, ‘Wow, how could this have happened to me?’ ”

So far this year, more than 70 plaintiffs, eventually including Vaughn, have filed lawsuits arguing that Michigan allowed Anderson to continue his sexual abuse for decades after the first students complained to campus authorities. The university has hired the Jones Day law firm to defend the school in court and another firm, WilmerHale, to conduct a “vigorous and independent” investigation into all allegations related to Anderson. Mediation is slated to begin in September.

Those close to Vaughn, his friends and older brother Britt Jr. have witnessed the emotional shift since the reckoning he never asked for. Insomnia runs in tandem with panic attacks. A man known for looking people directly in their eyes when speaking now occasionally loses focus in conversation, almost as if he’s watching another movie.

Jon Vaughn (center) verbally committed to Michigan during a January 1988 recruiting visit to campus. “I felt that dream [of attending Michigan],” Vaughn said, “was bigger than anything that I had dreamt thus far in my life.”

Rick Stewart/Allsport

Vaughn’s predicament is an entry point into a larger conversation about the culture of football — pain is weakness — and how much the conversation around sexual assault has changed in the 30 years since he played his last college game.

On that cold morning in March, Vaughn revealed one uncomfortable detail after another to Frakes. How it started, how he compartmentalized the experiences and why ignorance was a gift for nearly 30 years until it suddenly became a curse.

“I have to ask you this because I trust you,” Frakes recalled Vaughn asking. “Do I come forward with this?”

His loyalty to Michigan ran deep. Being a “Michigan Man” is a significant piece of his identity. But now it was a devil that sat on his shoulder.

“Do you wanna tell this story on your deathbed or do you wanna tell this story right now?” Frakes remembers asking his friend. “If you don’t say anything, is that something you can live with?”

Vaughn responded: “I don’t think I can.”

Vaughn was raised in Florissant, Missouri, near St. Louis. On the surface, he had an ideal Black family. His mother, Irene, was a beloved schoolteacher who taught for 42 years in the roughest school districts, and his father, Britt Sr., worked for the United Auto Workers (who’d later, after being fired, became a janitor and ran an unlicensed tax business).

But there was a darker side. “My father, at one time, was a collector for the Detroit Black Mafia,” Vaughn said. He was also free with his fists at home, according to his son, who said he took his fair share of punches to the chest and face.

When he was younger, Vaughn said, he never saw his father hit his mother, though he’d hear furniture moving in their bedroom immediately following arguments. But the night of Britt Jr.’s senior prom, Vaughn recalls his parents returning home and his mother’s head was bleeding. His parents had gotten into an argument so bad that his mother jumped out of a moving car. Vaughn went to retrieve a bat and had every intention of swinging it.

“That was the first time I stood up to my dad. I was like, you’re not hitting my mom. Now my mom gets in between us and I end up taking the car,” Vaughn said. “I was gone for like, two days.”

Vaughn recalls the coaching staff standing in front of the room of high school seniors and their families during their visit and making a series of promises: that they would be taken care of at Michigan. That he’d be part of a storied legacy of great men. That he’d receive a top-notch education. That he’d be protected.

Their mother had but one rule for Vaughn and his brother, older by 14 months. They could do whatever they wanted as long as they didn’t fight with each other. As a result, Britt Jr. and Vaughn grew up not only close in age, but with a reliance on one another. (The brothers are now co-CEOs of their hospitality company, OneTwoThreeFour.)

“When I talk about heroes in my life, Britt is my hero and he’s always been my hero,” Vaughn said. “I’ve never looked up to athletes or entertainers. I always looked up to my big brother.”

Vaughn excelled in nearly any sport he participated in at McCluer North High School. Many of his track and field exploits still live in the Missouri state high school record books, including his 200-meter dash time of 21.28 seconds, which stood as the state’s best until 2002. But it’s football where Vaughn really stood out, in part because it was a necessary escape when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer his senior year, while his brother had left to attend the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

“That’s when the love [of football] came … seeing that that was an opportunity to get out of St. Louis,” Vaughn said. “Being able to not only further my education, but then play college football instilled a fire in me that this could be the next phase of my life. And I just gave it all I could.”

Vaughn was a Gatorade All-American track star and all-state free safety his senior year in high school. Inevitably, a who’s who of college football royalty were vying for his services. Lou Holtz and Notre Dame wanted him, as did Barry Switzer at Oklahoma and Terry Donahue at UCLA.

All these schools envisioned Vaughn roaming their secondary, but Michigan’s offensive line coach Les Miles talked to him about switching to running back. Miles, who’d later win the 2007 BCS National Championship as head coach at LSU, worked on the staff of head coach Bo Schembechler.

So far this year, more than 100 plaintiffs, eventually including Jon Vaughn (seen here with the New England Patriots), have filed lawsuits arguing that Michigan allowed Dr. Robert Anderson to continue his sexual abuse for decades after the first students complained to campus authorities.

Sporting News via Getty Images

At 18 years old, Vaughn saw that playing for Schembechler, the winningest coach in school history (who died in 2006), at one of the most storied programs in American sports, could potentially open doors for the rest of his life.

Vaughn verbally committed to Michigan during a January 1988 recruiting visit to campus. Weeks earlier, the Wolverines had defeated Alabama in the Hall of Fame Bowl 28-24 and Vaughn’s recruiting class featured future Heisman winner Desmond Howard and pro quarterback Elvis Grbac.

Vaughn recalls the coaching staff standing in front of the room of high school seniors and their families during their visit and making a series of promises: that they would be taken care of at Michigan. That he’d be part of a storied legacy of great men. That he’d receive a top-notch education. That he’d be protected.

“I felt that dream [of attending Michigan],” Vaughn said, “was bigger than anything that I had dreamt thus far in my life.

“I never heard the words ‘I love you’ from my parents. Now, did I know my mother loved me? Absolutely,” he said. “But that’s why sports created this brotherhood. This ‘I love you’ bond. Football was filling holes in my life.”

Vaughn was leaving St. Louis to start fresh. But lying in wait was a monster the likes of which he could’ve never predicted.

Vaughn first saw Anderson in the summer of 1988 for what he’d figured would be a routine physical. He’d been through this process several times in high school.

Initially, he was right. Anderson greeted him and began all the normal checkpoints. Height, weight, blood pressure, heartbeat. Vision awareness, head, ears and throat tests. Then he was told to drop his shorts.

Dr. Robert Anderson worked at the University of Michigan in a variety of roles from 1967 through 2003, including as a team physician in the athletic department. He died in 2008.

Bentley Historical Library/University of Michigan

“[Anderson] did a testicular exam,” Vaughn said, “as well as a rectal exam.”

The University of Michigan police department conducted an investigation into Anderson’s actions. When asked by investigators if it would have been considered acceptable during the 1970s to conduct a prostate exam on a college athlete, the University of Wisconsin’s former team doctor Greg Landry said, “Absolutely not.”

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in a 2005 study that 16% of males were sexually abused by the age of 18 — and males who did experience such trauma were far less likely to disclose what happened than females. In Vaughn’s case, it wasn’t out of shame. He was uncomfortable and confused, but he didn’t recognize it as abuse. Just like with anything in his life at that moment, from class to football, all Vaughn cared about was passing. If he passed, he could stay at Michigan and not go back to Florissant.

“I just thought that this is what was par for the course for an exam at Michigan to play on their football team,” said Vaughn. “That’s how it was stated to me. It was a sense of relief that the first step in the journey of becoming a Michigan Man was over.”

Vaughn’s experience was but one chapter in a pattern of alleged predatory behavior by Anderson, according to court documents and police reports.

Anderson worked at the University of Michigan in a variety of roles from 1967 through 2003, including as a team physician in the athletic department. He died in 2008, but a letter sent from Tad Deluca, a former wrestler, to current athletic director Warde Manuel in 2018 prompted a university police department investigation that eventually led to revelations of a long pattern of alleged sexual abuse.

The detectives spoke to several former athletes who felt violated decades earlier by Anderson’s treatments during annual physical exams and other medical appointments.

Deluca said he first complained about Anderson in a 1975 letter to his wrestling coaches. According to Deluca, coach Bill Johannesen ridiculed him in front of his teammates for making the complaint, and then-athletic director Don Canham attempted to take away his scholarship.

Johannesen denied receiving a complaint about Anderson in an interview with the Associated Press in February. Canham died in 2005.

More than 400 patients have come forward about the doctor’s conduct since late February, when allegations against him were first made public in the Detroit News.

In all, Vaughn spent three years at Michigan and saw Anderson around 50 or 60 times, often at practices and during games as a patient.

“Anytime you had to go see Dr. Anderson for any illness, physicals, rehab. If you were prescribed any medicine, you had to go see him,” Vaughn recalled. Asked to recall the number of times Anderson assaulted him, he said, “I would say those 10-12 times that I had one-on-one exams with him.”

In his late teens and early 20s, Vaughn never questioned why Anderson did these things to him. He likened the experience to going to the dentist. He never looked forward to his appointments; he just dealt with the experience to get it over with.

“There were times that a few of the athletic trainers made comments,” Vaughn said. “Either I heard them firsthand or heard them while we were in the training room say to other players, ‘Just take your medicine, haha, and go see Dr. A.’ ”

Who were those trainers?

Jon Vaughn, former Big Ten co-offensive player of the year, is trying to reconcile the joy he experienced and the friendships he cultivated at Michigan with those one-on-one appointments with Dr. Robert Anderson.

Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“Russell Miller and Paul Schmidt,” he replied.

Neither Schmidt, Michigan’s current assistant athletic director, nor Miller could be reached for comment on this story. But in a November 2018 police report, Miller is quoted as telling investigators he remembers athletes crudely joking about going to see doctors, not specifically Anderson, and asking, “He isn’t going to be using two fingers is he?”

Schmidt, who has been at Michigan since 1983, told university police in December 2018 that he was frequently in the room when Anderson treated athletes. Schmidt said he never saw Anderson do anything inappropriate. According to a police report, he called Anderson a “personal friend” and a “very incredible doctor” with a good bedside manner.

Michigan advanced to bowls in all three of Vaughn’s years on campus, including back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances, and the team was tightknit, Vaughn recalled. But there were never any specific conversations among his teammates about what happened in exam rooms with Anderson. And definitely not with Schembechler. Vaughn only played one season under Schembechler, who retired after the 1989 season for health reasons, but stayed on as athletic director.

As a 19- or 20-year-old, Vaughn’s main concern was staying on the field. He redshirted his first year. By the start of the 1990 season, Vaughn was one of the best players in the country. He began the campaign with 201 and 288 yards against Notre Dame and UCLA, respectively — making him the lone Michigan running back to earn consecutive 200-yard games until Mike Hart did it in 2004. Vaughn finished that season with nearly 1,500 yards from scrimmage and was voted conference co-offensive player of the year by coaches along with Iowa’s Nick Bell and Matt Rodgers. Michigan finished in a four-way tie for first in the Big Ten. (Iowa got the tiebreaker and went to the Rose Bowl.) Anderson was one of the furthest things from his mind.

“I did compartmentalize. Dealing with a mother who, at that point, is two years outside of having breast cancer. My father was very oppressive at times,” he said. “Being able to make my family and teammates proud, and to carry on the legacy of Michigan football [was all that mattered].”

Vaughn declared for the 1991 NFL draft, even though he had two years of eligibility left. Part of the reason was disappointment over Schembechler’s decision to leave the team.

“I remember [Bo] sitting down and talking with my father and myself that he would be there,” Vaughn said. “On my recruiting trip that January, he promised my parents and myself that he would be there for my entire tenure. So it was a little heartbreaking, to say the least.”

“I think hate takes up too much energy, so realizing that I survived abuse, I survived molestation, the biggest question I want to know is why. That’s really what I want to know, because it’s up to me to do the healing that I need to do.” — Jon Vaughn

Part of it was wanting to provide for his family, in particular his mother. And part of it was Vaughn being tired of sacrificing his body for free. Anderson was a factor, but not a deciding one, he said.

“There wasn’t one thing that influenced it more. I think it was just a realistic look … just what was going on at Michigan and in my life personally,” Vaughn said. “I’m not going to say that [Anderson] didn’t contribute more or less than anything else, but I really took a look at everything that was my experience at Michigan and felt like it was just time to leave.”

The New England Patriots selected Vaughn in the fifth round. He’d spend four years in the league with the Patriots, Seattle Seahawks and Kansas City Chiefs and found his most success as a kick returner, leading the NFL in 1992 with an average of 28.2 yards per return. In 1998, he played for the World Bowl-winning Rhein Fire in NFL Europe. In his last game, he tallied more than 100 yards, then a record for a championship game, and scored the game-sealing touchdown.

It was in Ann Arbor, Michigan, though, where his star illuminated brightest. He can still hear the roar of the 100,000 Michigan faithful on Saturday afternoons. In the three decades since his departure, he’s returned several times, sometimes for games and reunions. His most recent visit was December 2018 for a conference on the business of sports. It is in Ann Arbor, that until earlier this year, he felt most at peace. A peace that is now fractured.

On Oct. 5, 2008, Irene Vaughn arrived at Britt Jr.’s doorstep with her car, her purse and the clothes on her back. She had finally left her marriage after 41 years. She and her two boys moved to Atlanta from Missouri. Irene Vaughn, who’d die from Alzheimer’s disease and leukemia three years later, never spoke to her husband again. Also lost were all of Vaughn’s sports memorabilia, which he kept at his parents’ house. His Rose Bowl ring and jerseys, the cleats he wore when he returned his first kickoff for a touchdown, his track medals, Junior Olympic gold medals, his World Bowl ring — all vanished.

“Everything that said ‘Jon Vaughn had a sports career’ was gone,” he said. “And my father stole it all. When my mom passed, I knew that legacy would die with her.”

The last time he spoke to his father was days after his mother died in 2011. Vaughn had stopped talking to his father four years earlier after he threatened to kill his mother in front of Vaughn’s daughter. Vaughn wanted to tell his father himself about his mother’s death, and he did. He never spoke to his father again.

Britt Thomas Vaughn Sr. died in 2018.

Michigan advanced to bowls in all three of Jon Vaughn’s years on campus, including back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances, and the team was tightknit, Vaughn recalled.

Bernstein Associates/Getty Images

Vaughn’s learning how to define what he experienced at Michigan, but his emotional struggle is apparent. He is still the man everyone at Industrial Cigar Co. knows by first name. He’s still Jon. But he’ll never be the Jon they once knew. Or even the Jon he once knew.

“All of this has hurt me to my core,” said Britt Vaughn Jr. “If there was ever any situation growing up or even afterwards where I felt like someone attacked Jon, then they attacked me. It’s been extremely painful and hurtful for me, especially with experiencing from a family standpoint his success at Michigan. But even with the deep hurt I have, I can’t fathom what Jon is going through. He bled blue.”

As a young man, Vaughn did what he had always done: followed the rules, listened to his coaches and was a team player. He came to Ann Arbor to become a Michigan Man. The idea of being one brings him to tears. He’ll always cherish the brotherhood with his teammates. But 30 years later, those tears now come with disorientation.

As a 50-year-old man, what would he say to Anderson?

“I think hate takes up too much energy, so realizing that I survived abuse, I survived molestation, the biggest question I want to know is why,” Vaughn said. “That’s really what I want to know, because it’s up to me to do the healing that I need to do.”

Michigan is a large part of who he is today. And Michigan exposed him to a predator. Vaughn knows finding peace will take time, perhaps the rest of his life. He hasn’t begun therapy, though he figures to come to a decision on a therapist in the coming weeks.

Regardless of what happens with his lawsuit, Vaughn is trying to reconcile the joy he experienced and the friendships he cultivated at Michigan with those one-on-one appointments with Anderson. His eyes are now open to a world he had only heard and read about before. Looking at the list of schools mired in abuse scandals — Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State, Minnesota, Nebraska — he wonders, Where would I have been safe?

“I don’t have the answer to that question,” he said. “I don’t know if anywhere.”

The all-time leader in yards per carry in Michigan history then asks a question he knows the school responsible for making him a Michigan Man can never answer.

“If … it could’ve been stopped, why wasn’t it stopped?”

Vaughn’s new journey will likely take him the rest of his life trying to decode. He’s still a Michigan Man, but he’s a sexual assault survivor, too.

Justin Tinsley is a culture and sports writer for The Undefeated. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single-most impactful statement of his generation.

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