WILMETTE — It might be difficult to comprehend that an athlete would consider ending his football career not long before compiling 1,861 rushing yards and 31 touchdowns across his next two seasons.
But that’s Vaughn Pemberton’s story.
He was flying high as a Loyola Academy newcomer, relatively speaking.
MVP of Ramblers football’s freshman A team and playing up on the school’s sophomore basketball squad.
“I kind of coasted from there. I was being cocky,” Pemberton said. “I was very cocky at that point.”
But an Aug. 31, 2018, football game at New Trier knocked the running back off this perch.
He suffered a broken leg against the Trevians. Missed the remainder of his sophomore football season, as well as his final chance to play basketball with his older brother Quinn, a senior.
Vaughn Pemberton already felt he’d be playing basketball in college anyway. So he began to ponder concluding his time on the gridiron.
“Rehabbing from my injury, I did not think I was going to play football again,” Pemberton said.
At least one of Pemberton’s Loyola classmates felt that was a bad idea.
“One of my friends, Perrion McClinton, was just like, ‘You should just play like you’ve been playing your whole life. Just finish it out the next two years,’” Pemberton said. “And I’m glad that he said that.”
He’s not the only one.
The 2021 News-Gazette All-State football player of the year dazzled as a junior and only enhanced his stock as a senior this past spring.
The 6-foot, 220-pound Pemberton carried the ball 103 times for 916 yards and 15 touchdowns, averaging close to 9 yards per touch. He accomplished this for the Class 8A No. 1 Ramblers (6-0) against a who’s who of powerhouse opponents: 5A No. 2 St. Rita, 7A No. 1 Chicago Mt. Carmel, 8A No. 7 Brother Rice, 5A No. 8 Hillcrest, 7A No. 8 Phillips and 8A No. 6 Marist.
The Ball State signee broke out as a Loyola junior.
He established a powerful legacy as a senior.
“He’s got it all now,” said Ramblers coach John Holecek, a former Illinois and NFL linebacker. “One of the most talented kids we’ll ever see walk through this building.”
That second comment means quite a bit, too.
Holecek has overseen a pair of Class 8A state champions and four more runner-up teams in 14 non-COVID seasons at Loyola. That doesn’t happen without high-end talent.
And his 2021 senior class, he said, may be the most talented he’s ever had. Defensive lineman Brandon Svets — another N-G All-State first-team selection — will continue playing at Harvard. Linebacker Braden Mullen is headed to Dartmouth. Defensive back Marty Auer is walking on at Notre Dame.
And Holecek still considers Pemberton the crown jewel of that Ramblers class.
“He’s always been a superb athlete,” Holecek said. “His brother was more concentrated on basketball, and he played basketball at a very high level.”
Indeed, Quinn Pemberton currently is a member of the Boston College men’s basketball program.
The Pemberton brothers are joined at the hip when it comes to sports. Quinn wanted to play football at age 8, so a 6-year-old Vaughn joined him.
The two lived in Boston at the time. And Vaughn Pemberton was a center playing up with kids two years his senior.
“That’s what made me so good later on when I started playing against people my age,” Pemberton said, “just because of the competition I was used to.”
Year 2 of youth football saw Pemberton transition to running back.
“I remember my first touchdown was a kickoff return, and we were supposed to be playing the best team,” Pemberton said. “That’s when I think I really fell in love with the game because I was scoring a lot of touchdowns and I liked that.”
How many touchdowns, as a 7-year-old battling 9-year-olds?
“Me and my dad have talked about this before,” Pemberton said. “I scored 22 or something like that in eight games.”
Pemberton said he wasn’t taking football all that seriously at this point — “it was just get the ball, run forward and lower your shoulder” — but added that he discovered another athletic passion while in the youth ranks.
Pemberton, his brother and their father, Steve, would work out with a man named Jason Douglas, whom Pemberton considered an uncle.
“I was training with him for a while back in grade school,” Vaughn Pemberton said. “I kind of knew then I liked working out at a young age. Just the adrenaline and just working my body and struggling at the last rep. I’ve always kind of liked that.”
Pemberton’s interest in working out proved beneficial at Loyola.
Though it took some time for those high school workouts to become meaningful.
“I remember going to lift at Loyola and just not even really lifting. Just dancing to the music, because I didn’t really take it that serious,” Pemberton said. “Now, the way I work, I don’t think my younger self would believe it at all.”
Adding to Loyola’s legacy
Pemberton was 9 or 10 when his family moved from Boston to Highland Park for his dad’s new job.
Once Quinn began attending Loyola two years ahead of Vaughn — “pretty much I go wherever he goes at that time” — it didn’t take long for the younger Pemberton to latch on to Ramblers football.
“I remember going to games with my grade-school team and just watching all the guys, like Ian Swenson and Dara Laja,” said Vaughn Pemberton, name dropping two members of Holecek’s 2015 8A state-champion team. “And I’d get really excited watching them play.”
Laja was a running back who broke Loyola’s all-time rushing yardage record in 2015. He scored a pair of touchdowns in the 41-0 state title game victory over Marist as well.
But Pemberton contends he didn’t learn a great deal about the running back position watching Laja compete.
“I didn’t understand the game as much then,” Pemberton said. “I was just running.”
That didn’t mean Pemberton couldn’t make an impression early in his own Ramblers career.
“You saw some shining moments where you thought the potential is there,” Holecek said. “I didn’t know if he was going to be that breakout star because he could’ve just been playing basketball like his brother did. ... Certainly his tools have always been there, if he could put them all together.”
Finding his groove
Pemberton was prepared to throw those football tools in a proverbial chest once he suffered that broken leg as a sophomore.
He’d like to credit his friend McClinton for preventing that, with the suggestion to give football another chance. The two have been close since sixth grade, after all.
“He doesn’t even remember that he said that to me,” Pemberton said.
At any rate, Pemberton returned to the field for his junior season in 2019. By his own account, he was Loyola’s fourth-string running back behind seniors Trevor Cabanban and Tyler Flores and sophomore Marco Maldonado.
“I was a little upset about it,” Pemberton said. “But at that time I thought there were three players that were better than me at that position.”
But there’s a twist to that anecdote.
“I don’t really remember much about it besides him starting right away,” Holecek said. “We did have a couple smaller backs that had very productive years, but no one with the size and strength that he did. ... When you have a kid that can slash and move and jump-cut like a 155-pounder, then obviously that’s a different animal.”
Whatever the case, Pemberton did see varsity reps during a Week 1 loss to St. Ignatius out of Ohio.
“Nobody could really tackle me, and it was a really good team,” Pemberton said. “So they kept trusting me with it.”
Pemberton was trusted to the tune of 146 carries for the 8-4 Ramblers. He used them to amass 945 yards and 16 touchdowns, averaging 6.4 yards per rush.
Pemberton believes those other running backs, especially Flores, played an important role in his breakout effort.
“Working with them, they thought I had something very special. That’s what Tyler would tell me a lot,” Pemberton said. “He was one of the best teammates I’ve ever had, I think. He helped me become a very good running back.”
Pemberton said he didn’t notice how well he was performing as a junior until a Week 6 matchup with Brother Rice, after which a teammate compared Pemberton to a Madden video game character.
“I scored four touchdowns and had like 220 yards,” Pemberton said. “I remember one of my friends, Artist Benjamin, came up to me and was like, ‘You got your X Factor.’”
Pemberton used the COVID-19 pandemic to unlock a different sort of X factor.
Weeks into the pandemic, he began working out with Loyola teammate Josh Kreutz, now an Illinois football signee.
And with Kreutz’s father, 14-year NFL center Olin Kreutz.
“I think of him just as Josh’s dad because me and Josh went to grade school together,” Pemberton said. “At first I actually was starstruck by Mr. Kreutz, and then I kind of realized, this is a real cool guy.”
Pemberton did put on 20 pounds between the start of the pandemic and the beginning of the Ramblers’ spring 2021 campaign. But that’s not his biggest takeaway from working with the Kreutzes.
“I learned so much about the O-line this offseason,” Pemberton said. “I’ve learned how to move the linebackers just with my eyes and move them with just subtle movements that’ll move them to the O-linemen and then make their block a lot easier.”
That’s part of the reason Pemberton felt comfortable operating between tackles more often this season versus just bouncing to the edges.
The other part being Pemberton is difficult to take down these days.
“Giant for a running back in high school,” Holecek said. “He’s big and strong. Slasher. He bounces (off) stiff arms. He’s got it all. He looks like a big-time back, for sure.”
Prepping for next level
One concern dogging Pemberton’s game among college coaches, according to Holecek, was a potential lack of “breakaway speed.” Even during his junior season.
“I believe he was caught one time (this season). I don’t remember any of it,” Holecek said. “He said it was one time, someone from Mt. Carmel caught him.”
Opponents struggled both to tackle Pemberton near the line of scrimmage and stop him if he broke into the secondary.
That resulted in outputs such as five carries for 205 yards and three touchdowns in the first half against Hillcrest and five touchdowns versus Marist. Pemberton cites the latter game as his favorite this season.
“I had to prove something to myself, that I was better than I thought I was,” Pemberton said. “I would look at where I was ranked. I’m still ranked like 80th in the state, so I’m still (upset) about that. I feel like it’s personal, in a way.”
Ball State came knocking on Pemberton’s door between his junior and senior seasons. Pemberton gave his verbal commitment in July 2020 and signed in December of that year.
Cardinals coach Mike Neu needs to replace leading rusher Caleb Huntley, who was signed by the Atlanta Falcons earlier this year. Pemberton would like to contend for the role while studying communications and sports management.
“It’s going to mean something (to play at the FBS level), but I’ve got to make an impact or else it won’t really mean anything,” Pemberton said. “I can run the ball very hard for them and make an impact with my attitude and my drive to just win.”
Pemberton said he’s working on improving his speed even further, which Holecek feels will be important for Pemberton to succeed in college.
“He’s got the body style to be a lean 220 and running a 4.5, 4.6 (40-yard dash) and still have that quickness of an upper-tier back,” Holecek said. “I thought if he played in this fall early he could’ve been a much higher recruit, but in the end it’s where he felt comfortable and I’m sure he’s going to be successful there.”
The younger Vaughn Pemberton was content to just run. Content to dance in the weight room while resting on early laurels.
It doesn’t resemble the version of Vaughn Pemberton heading to Ball State later this month.
“I’m just focused on what I can do in the future,” Pemberton said. “I have to prove myself everywhere I go, and I’m completely fine with that. It’s what drove me when I was younger, and it’s what’s going to drive me in the future.”
Honor roll: The News-Gazette’s All-State football players of the year
YEAR NAME SCHOOL POS.
2021 Vaughn Pemberton Loyola Academy RB
2019 J.J. McCarthy Nazareth Academy QB
2018 Jacardia Wright St. Teresa RB
2017 Nic Baker Rochester QB
2016 Jeff Thomas East St. Louis WR
2015 Josh King Hinsdale South DL
2014 Miles Boykin Providence Catholic WR
2013 Dylan Thompson Montini DL
2012 Matt Alviti Maine South QB
2011 Wes Lunt Rochester QB
2010 Reilly O’Toole Wheaton Warrenville South QB
2009 Kyle Prater Proviso West WR
2008 Terry Hawthorne East St. Louis WR
2007 Steven Filer Chicago Mount Carmel LB
2006 Robert Hughes Chicago Hubbard RB
2005 John Dergo Morris RB
2004 Jake Christensen Lockport QB
2003 Sean Price Maine South QB
2002 Pierre Thomas Thornton Fractional South RB
2001 Tim Brasic Riverside-Brookfield QB
2000 Casey Paus Lincoln-Way QB
1999 Ryan Clifford Naperville Central RB
1998 Jon Beutjer Wheaton Warrenville South QB
1997 Siaka Massaquoi Evanston RB
1996 Antwaan Randle El Thornton QB
1995 Marcus Smith Bolingbrook RB
1994 Quincy Woods Rich East QB
1993 Greg Williams Bolingbrook QB
1992 Robert Farmer Bolingbrook RB
1991 Chris Moore East St. Louis RB
1990 Corey Rogers Chicago Leo RB
1989 Oliver Gibson Romeoville LB
1988 Randy Scianna Homewood-Flossmoor RB
1987 Frank Kmet Arlington Heights Hersey DL
1986 Eric Bush Quincy QB
1985 John Foley Chicago St. Rita LB
1984 Ronnie Cameron East St. Louis QB
1983 Matt Studtman Belleville West LB
1983 Jeff Martin Homewood-Flossmoor LB
1982 Bob Westerkamp Montini WR
1981 Tony Furjanic Chicago Mount Carmel LB
1980 Alvin Ross West Aurora RB
1979 Tim Marshall Chicago Weber DL
1978 Jimmy Smith Kankakee Westview RB