Last September, in the second game of his college career, Kansas State running back Chris “Deuce” Vaughn stamped his arrival to the world of Big 12 football. Vaughn, a five-foot-six, 173-pound spark plug out of Round Rock, had traveled with the unranked Wildcats to Norman, Oklahoma, eager to give the third-ranked Sooners everything they had. With his team down 28–35 in the fourth quarter, Vaughn ripped off a 28-yard touchdown run, tying the game and stunning the Sooner crowd. As a swarm of Wildcats rushed toward him to celebrate, “the world stopped,” Vaughn remembers. A feeling washed over him that confirmed what he’d long believed: that he could hang with the nation’s best football players. 

“That play gave me confidence for the rest of the season,” Vaughn says. Kansas State went on to score a game-winning field goal and upset OU 38–35. The moment didn’t just bolster his resolve; it also won Vaughn the trust of his coaches and teammates. From that point forward, the true freshman became the headline success story of college football last year. He led Kansas State in both receiving and rushing, finishing the season with 1,221 all-purpose yards, good for second in the Big 12. Only three players had more than 600 rushing yards and 400 receiving yards: Clemson’s Travis Etienne and Alabama’s Najee Harris—both selected in the first round draft of April’s NFL draft—and Vaughn. 

As good as his individual play was last season, Vaughn credits the coaches who prepared him and the teammates who toiled alongside him. “This is football,” he says. “There are eleven guys out there, and they’re all doing their job to be successful.” Vaughn says he gets that modest streak from his parents, particularly his mother, Marquette, who made sure he was always on time to practice and never procrastinated on homework. 

After graduating from Round Rock’s Cedar Ridge High School, Vaughn took his talents out of state and became a revelation for K-State. Vaughn proved wrong talent scouts who considered him too small to succeed in major college football, making jaw-dropping plays all season long. He was so impressive that the website 247Sports named him true freshman player of the year. Over the summer, Pro Football Focus listed Vaughn among the top fifty players in college football, and he was recently added to the preseason watch list for the Earl Campbell Tyler Rose Award, given annually to the best offensive player from Texas in college football. 

Vaughn’s compact build allows him to perform quick and nimble footwork on the field—attributes he uses to stay low to the ground and cut laterally back and forth faster than taller, heavier opponents can keep up with. He excels at making defenders miss in space, and possesses an almost effortless knack for breaking tackles. After his breakout freshman campaign, Vaughn intends to be even better this year.

Over the offseason, he worked on both physical and mental aspects of his game. “The first thing I talked to my coach about after last season was adding some weight, some muscle,” he says. Vaughn has added six pounds and says he feels “faster and stronger” heading into this year. Vaughn also spent hours studying the Wildcats’ playbook and defensive schemes to improve his ability to read opposing defenses. “I want to be a better teammate,” he says. “I want to be a better leader. I want to be somebody my teammates can trust every Saturday.”

Despite the promising start to his career, Vaughn’s stature all but assures he’ll remain an underdog no matter how far he rises. If he falters, some will undoubtedly point to his size. They’ll note that he was just a three-star recruit coming out of high school. But Vaughn is used to being underestimated—he expects it—and he has made a habit out of surprising his detractors. He calls this being a “wow guy” as opposed to a “whoa guy”—both terms Vaughn learned from his father, Chris Sr., a Dallas Cowboys scout. According to Vaughn, his father told him: “Son, you’re never gonna be a ‘whoa’ guy. The ‘whoa’ guy walks into the facility and they go, ‘Whoa, that guy looks like he can play football.’” Instead, he encouraged Vaughn to play so well that he couldn’t be denied—a ‘wow’ guy. “That advice carried me so far,” Vaughn says. 

His success in the proving grounds of Texas high school football also convinced Vaughn that he belonged at the highest level of competition. “When you’re playing 6A Texas football, it’s the best of the best,” he says. “Getting to play against that type of competition really gets you ready for the next level.” Vaughn adds that the facilities at Cedar Ridge and his practice regimen under coach Sam Robinson offered a preview of the rigors of college football. “We would come in the morning, practice and watch film before class,” he says. “Then, during the day, we’d lift, go outside and do a walk-through. After school, we’d come back and watch film again.” 

When he arrived at K-State, he was already prepared for the long days and busy schedule. He was surprised to learn that teammates from other states weren’t pushed to put in as many hours, particularly with reviewing game film. “Football in Texas means quite a bit to the people in that community, so the players and coaches are going to prepare themselves for Friday night, and it’s pretty special,” Vaughn says. He loved playing under those famous Friday night lights at Cedar Ridge, and his talent impressed coaches, teammates, opponents, and fans from the start. His first carry for the varsity squad came as a freshman during a playoff win over Austin’s Anderson High School. Vaughn took a handoff from the quarterback, bounced to the outside of the defensive line, cut upfield, and carried the ball about 70 yards for a touchdown.

During his high school varsity career, Vaughn racked up 1,842 all-purpose yards and eighteen touchdowns, but he also learned to overcome setbacks. Early in his sophomore season, Vaughn fractured his shin in a game and was sidelined for two months. His return to action came when senior running back Simi Bakare went down with an injury of his own in the third round of the 2017 playoffs against Coppell High School. All eyes turned to Vaughn. “The lights were bright, it was a night game,” he recalls. Despite having not played for almost the entire regular season, Vaughn helped Cedar Ridge to a 35–34 overtime win. Being ready to perform when the opportunity presented itself paid off, and Vaughn took that as a lesson. “To those ‘wow’ guys,” he says, “take this journey day by day, and whenever it’s time, go do what you do.”

Vaughn reminded himself of that motto when his college recruitment got off to a slow start. The only school from his home state to offer him a football scholarship was the University of North Texas, and that offer came after Vaughn had already committed to Kansas State. Acknowledging that his size likely scared other schools away, Vaughn used those programs’ lack of interest as motivation. “I had a very big chip on my shoulder coming into college,” he says. “Every time I went to a camp, I was always told I was too small.” 

But he harbors “no hard feelings, no vendettas” for the Texas schools that overlooked him, and he says he has the utmost respect for UT running back Bijan Robinson, with whom he spoke after the Longhorns hung a 69–31 loss on the Wildcats last season. The teams meet again in the final week of the 2021 season in Austin.

Even as the legend of Deuce Vaughn grows, he resists looking too far into the future. “I’m a pretty be-where-your-feet-are type of guy,” he says. “All I’m worried about is being a great Kansas State football player and being a great teammate.” Though he acknowledges that playing in the NFL would be a dream come true, he’s learned that focusing on the work today is the only way to get to tomorrow. For now, Vaughn has a singular mission: “I’m going to attack every day like it’s my last.”