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|Vaught was late boomer|
Gerald Vaught did not start punting a football until his junior year of high school at Huntington School.
He certainly became a quick learner, earning a free agent contract with the Los Angeles Rams after averaging close to 40 yards a punt at Mississippi State.
Vaught was raised in Natchez and attended Morgantown Junior High before moving on to Natchez-Adams High School.
"Our freshman team at Natchez was really good," Vaught said. "We beat Hattiesburg, Yazoo City, Laurel and all the teams in the Big Eight that the high school team played."
Vaught's sophomore class at Natchez-Adams High totaled 442 students.
"And we had some great players in that class,'" Vaught said.
But in the spring of 1970, the Rebels were practicing outside one day when they were told to go back into the dressing room.
"We were told the School Board had a big blow-up," Vaught said. "They told us to get dressed and go home. At that time, integration was going on."
With all the uncertainty for the next school year, Vaught's teammate, Russell Huber, who would later go on to be a standout running back at Tulane, had talked with Huntington coach Bobby Marks about coming to Ferriday.
"Russell told me that Coach Marks wanted to talk to me," Vaught said. "We went over to his house and then by the school. They had a new school, new football stadium and new jerseys. Coach Marks asked me if I would be interested and I told him I was."
Vaught said it was tough leaving Natchez-Adams High.
"My dad (George) took me down into the pit (Martin Stadium) to watch games when I was little and I would sit in the stands dreaming of playing on that field," Vaught said. "I ended up participating in five plays on the field as a sophomore."
Vaught was part of the first football team at Huntington in 1970.
"We had the best players from all around," Vaught said.
Huntington defeated Tensas Academy 30-8 in its first game played on the new football field over the levee on Lake Concordia.
The Hounds ended up going 8-3, defeating Leland (Ms.) 20-6 in the Miss-Lou Bowl. Vaught returned an interception 41 yards for a touchdown during the season, but was mostly known for his punting that season.
"I really don't know how I got started punting," Vaught said. "Punting had never entered my mind."
Midway through his senior year, Vaught was booming kicks high and far for the Hounds.
"I remember our trainer, Bill Jones, told me there were 8-to-10 scouts watching me punt at one practice," Vaught said. "That was the first time it sank in that I could do this. I realized I could do something not a lot of other people could do. So I really started working on it then. We had scouts at all our games, but that was because of Russell and all the other guys. And Coach Marks would really be egging it on for me to do something for the scouts. The thing is, I didn't know how to hold the ball, how to drop it and didn't know there was an art to it. Nobody had ever helped me. It just kind of escalated from my freshman year."
But punting was not Vaught's only specialty in 1971.
Huntington started off the season with a 36-14 win over Tensas as Vaught rushed three times for 116 yards and a touchdown.
The Hounds beat Riverfield 42-6 as Vaught had a 47-yard run called back.
Huntington came from behind twice to beat defending state champion Valley Forge 18-13 in their third game as Vaught rushed for 63 yards on two carries and had three catches for 22 yards.
The Hounds beat Silliman 13-12 as Vaught played quarterback for the first time.
"Coach Marks had the idea we could run on them," Vaught said. "The first play was a sprint right and I got tackled for a 5-yard loss. The second play was a sprint left and I got tackled for a 7-yard loss. On the third play I got sacked for 10 yards."
The next week against Southland, Vaught played quarterback the first half in a 33-6 win in which he had two 20-yard quarterback keepers for scores and caught a 42-yard touchdown pass from Benny Wayne Huff.
Huntington beat Trinity Heights 32-6 as Vaught returned a punt 58 yards for a score and had a 21-yard interception return for a TD.
Huntington improved to 7-0 with a 21-7 win over Briarfield.
The Hounds suffered their only loss the following week in Reserve as Riverside defeated the Hounds 21-6 as Vaught scored the lone TD on a 10-yard pass from Huff.
Huntington ended the regular season with a 26-20 win over Tallulah and 35-6 rout of Claiborne.
Huntington squeezed past Valley Forge 12-7 in the semifinals. Valley Forge was on the Hound 16-yard line late in the game when a pass into the end zone was deflected by Jimmy Darden into the hands of Vaught for a touchback.
That led to a rematch with Riverside in Ferriday for the state title.
The contest was scoreless for the first half. On the first play from scrimmage of the second half, Vaught intercepted a pass and ran 30 yards for the score.
"It was just a quick slant," Vaught said. "I stepped in front of the receiver and got the ball at full speed."
Huntington would go on to win the game, 12-0. It would be the school's only football state championship. Huntington closed down last year following the 2009-10 school year.
"I wish I could go back and see how our coaches (Marks and Eddie Hunter) handled that game on the sidelines," said Vaught, who would serve as Huntington School head football coach in 1991 and '92. I would love to see Coach Marks calling plays and see how they handled it back then. There was so much athletic ability on that team.
"We worked hard in practice and we hit, hit and hit some more," Vaught said. "When Friday came around it was the easiest day of the week. We had that mentality that we knew we were going to win."
A huge melee near the end of the title game against Riverside came after a hit by Huntington's Terry Powell on the Riverside sideline.
"Both benches emptied," Vaught said. "Law enforcement came out and had to help break it up. There wasn't much time left. On the last play of the game, me and Jimmy were backed up about 30 yards around the 50-yard line. I looked over at Jimmy and said, 'Hey Darden, I bet I beat you to the dressing room.' Jimmy said, 'I bet you don't.' I just knew all heck was about to bust loose."
Vaught was recruited by LSU, Mississippi State and Ole Miss, along with all the small schools in Louisiana.
"I really liked Coach (Charlie) Shira at Mississippi State," Vaught said. "And they had just built a new athletic dorm and worked on the stadium. It was a good program."
Freshmen did not play with the varsity at that time. In Vaught's sophomore season, he was working at wide receiver.
"Coach (Ray) Perkins was the wide receiver coach and I hated him to the bone," Vaught said. "He was always down on me, but I realized he was just that way to force guys to step up or quit. I ended up loving him when I realized that. My sophomore year I caught a pass and got drilled and tore up my left shoulder. They put in back into place and Coach Perkins asked me if I was ready to go back in. I sat out about 10 or 15 plays before he sent me back in. At the end of practice I was running sprints. I got down into a 3-point stance and took off and it popped back out."
Vaught went to the hospital and had surgery. Perkins visited him every day.
After rehabbing, Vaught returned to the field, but on the first day of practice after catching a pass he was hit and tore up his shoulder again.
"I decided not to have surgery," he said. "But that was the end of my pass receiving. All I did was punt from then on. I never saw the actual playing field during a game at State until my junior year."
The Bulldogs went 9-2 in 1974, losing to Florida and Alabama.
State defeated North Carolina 26-24 in the 40th Sun Bowl.
"Mike Patrick, who went on to punt for New England, was the State punter my sophomore year," Vaught said. "He wasn't a lot better, but he was older. I knew my sophomore year that I had a shot of punting in the pros."
The night before the Sun Bowl game, an overnight snow hit Sun Bowl Stadium. Although removed from the field, it left moisture that turned to steam when the sun came out during the game, and thus the "Fog Bowl" was born.
Coach Bob Tyler's Bulldogs had been a surprise in the SEC, finishing 9-3 and 18th in the nation. On the field, these two high-powered offenses combined for more than 900 yards of total offense. North Carolina and Mississippi State traded score after score all day
Carolina padded the lead at 24-20 lead with 10:26 to play on an Ellis Alexander field goal. On their next possession, Rocky Felker led MSU down the field. Three times MSU faced third downs on the drive and State faced a fourth and 2 at the UNC 25 yard line, where Felker called his own number, clawing for 15 yards. Felker then ran eight more yards to get MSU into scoring position. Vitrano capped the 6:29 drive that ate most of the fourth-quarter clock with a 2-yard plunge into the end zone at the 3:41 mark.
Vaught was part of a ceremony honoring that team two years ago during State's home contest against Georgia Tech.
"That was a blast," Vaught said. "I got to see a lot of old friends."
But State would be put on probation the next two years. The Bulldogs went 8-3 in 1975 and 9-2 in 1976, but was ineligible for a bowl.
In his junior year, Vaught punted the ball 60 times and finished with a 35.8 average, with his longest being 55 yards against North Texas State.
In 1976, Vaught punt 62 times for a 39.9 average, with his longest punt his senior season being 64 yards against Florida.
"College was so disappointing because I got hurt," Vaught said. "I went to college to play football. It was also tough because my dad died between my freshman and sophomore years. He never got so see me play at Mississippi State. I can understand how sad that is more now after watching my kids grow up. My dad coached me through Natchez Dixie Youth Baseball, helped build the gym at Huntington and held the mascot on the sideline. My mom and dad were at every game and my dad was my biggest fan."
Vaught hired the same agent who handled Ray Guy, who punted at Southern Mississippi before becoming an All-Pro for the Oakland Raiders.
"I really thought I was going to be drafted," Vaught said. "I still have all kinds of letters from the Seattle Seahawks, New England Patriors and Dallas. Gil Brandt sent me a 6-foot Dallas poster of a star. I got all kinds of emblems and stickers in the mail."
But Vaught's name was not called out.
"I listened to the draft on the radio and that was tough," he said. "But my agent told me not to worry. A couple of days later, he called to tell me he had a deal with the Los Angeles Rams."
Vaught went into camp against Southern Cal punter Glen Walker.
"I felt like I had it wrapped up," Vaught said. "But I was stretching with Tom Dempsey one day and pulled my left shoulder out."
Vaught returned to practice and continued a pattern of warming up with legendary quarterback Joe Namath, who was traded to Los Angeles late in his career.
"Joe would come out early with the kickers, so I just started throwing with him," Vaught said. "He was kind of superstitious, so he always threw with me. He was really a nice guy. The funny thing is, we would have 5,000-to-6,000 people at practice so they would have to drive Joe to the dressing room so he wouldn't have to go through the crowd."
As matter of fact, when Vaught injured his shoulder during practice, Namath rode with him to the hospital.
"He told me he enjoyed his time with me and wished me good luck," Vaught said. "We kind of knew that was it."
But actually, Vaught played in an exhibition game against Minnesota when he got out of the hospital.
"They still had not cut me yet," Vaught said.
Vaught's wife, Janet, came to Los Angeles for the Minnesota game. Vaught's shoulder had popped out again, but he kept it quiet this time. He stayed with Janet at a hotel the night before the exhibition game.
"I made a harness in the hotel room closet and used a rod in the closest and popped it back in myself," Vaught said.
Vaught was back to punt against Minnesota when the final curtain came down.
"The snap rolled back to me on the ground and I picked it up and tried to punt it," he said. "Alan Page blocked it and was running to the end zone about 30 yards away. I dove at him and landed on my arm."
Vaught was released by the Rams, but actually signed a mini-contract with the New Orleans Saints at a 3-day camp later.
"The Saints' team doctor, Dr. Ken Sayers, operated on my arm and put a pin in my shoulder," Vaught said. 'I don't think the Saints had any intention of signing me. Tom Blanchard was their punter and he was re-negotiating his contract, so I think they were using me against him."
Vaught returned home and went to work for John Deere before eventually settling into his farming career.
"I really wasn't prepared for life after football," Vaught said. "I think that is one reason our kids did so well. They learned from my experience."
Chad and Lindsey both graduated from Huntington. Lindsey played tennis, while Chad played all sports and went on to pitch for LSU.
Lindsey Richardson now lives in Mandeville with her husband, David Richardson.
They have one daughter, Reece, who was born July 22, 2008 and welcomed son, Porter, into the world last March 2.
Chad and wife Emma live in Covington and Chad has a dental office in Slidell. They have one son, Drew, who was born last March, soon after cousin Porter entered the world.
Vaught looks back on his football playing days with a hint of sadness for what he knew it could have been.
"I knew I was going to play football until somebody told me I wasn't good enough," he said. "Nobody told me that. I can see where it would be so tough for someone who has played for five or six years to suffer an injury and not be able to play anymore. I still watch football now and wonder, 'What if?' I believe I could have been playing pro football for a long while if not for the shoulder injury."
Vaught also wonders what a career in coaching would have been liked on a different scale.
"That was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life at a different level," he said. "I'm not sure I could deal with high school kids and parents for a long time. I know the game of football. There is so much technique and teaching. The best part was being able to go out there and teach a player to do something and then see them do it. I miss all parts of the game."
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