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CHICAGO — Perhaps you were lucky enough to drift into his orbit, to feel Vaughn McClure’s ebullience, passion and infectious positive energy.
Perhaps you were an NFL player, an MVP quarterback such as Atlanta Falcons standout Matt Ryan, who genuinely enjoyed McClure’s presence in the locker room, the opportunity to shoot the bull about the NBA or many other things besides football.
Perhaps you were a rising talent evaluator or front office executive, such as Terry Fontenot in New Orleans, crossing paths with McClure only periodically but always feeling that unmistakable jolt of adrenaline and appreciating his genuine interest in your journey.
Perhaps you were a longtime friend and a fellow writer such as Mike Wells, who lived off the daily phone calls — the laughter, the connection, the deeper conversations about life.
Perhaps you were a fellow member of the sports media — a TV personality, a reporter, an editor — blessed by McClure’s encouragement and friendliness, grateful for the compliments he would pass along on a story or his constant willingness to open the door to his vast network.
And perhaps, on Oct. 14, when word spread that McClure, one of the veteran members of ESPN’s NFL Nation coverage team, died alone in his Atlanta apartment at age 48, you felt the intense shock. It rippled through the league like an earthquake.
Vaughn? There’s no way. Gone? Just that suddenly?
It made little sense and may never.
“It kills me, man. It does,” said Nick Gialamas, who met McClure in the dorms of Stevenson Towers at Northern Illinois University in 1990 and talked to him at least once almost every day since. “There’s an emptiness I will never be able to fill.”
Still, amid the numbness, as memories and tributes began flooding out with a heavy blend of sadness and appreciation, so many who had been inside McClure’s circle at some point realized their experience was far from unique. For just about everyone McClure encountered, his presence left an imprint, his personality brightening their world. He had been so gregarious, caring, driven.
Around the NFL, McClure’s footprint was undeniable, a rare reporter with profound connections and tight bonds with players, coaches, agents, front office execs and fellow reporters alike.
“He had a big heart and was one of the nicest guys you will ever meet,” Chicago Bears legend Brian Urlacher posted to social media.
“I always appreciated his professionalism and humanity,” Ryan noted.
Added longtime ESPN commentator Michael Wilbon: “So incredibly sad to lose this close and dear friend, my Chicago running buddy, a total pro of a reporter and a prince of a man.”
Now, through the Vaughn McClure Foundation, a push is accelerating to honor McClure’s kindness and spirit, to pay his generosity forward. The foundation was established by Gialamas this winter with an intent to raise money for causes that meant a lot to McClure.
Heart disease. Lupus. Mental health. Journalism. Youth sports.
“The biggest thing is making sure that from this tragedy, something great happens,” said Heather Burns, one of McClure’s editors at ESPN and a vice president on the foundation’s board. “And hopefully it’s something great across many, many different areas.”
In May, Prospect High School seniors Rick Lytle and Elizabeth Keane were honored as the inaugural winners of the Vaughn McClure Foundation Mid-Suburban League scholarships, awarded a total of $5,000 and reminded to carry forth with the purpose that helped them win the award and the passion McClure would have admired.
McClure, a graduate of Conant High School in Hoffman Estates and an NIU alumnus, grinded for decades to make his career ascent. From the DeKalb Daily Chronicle to the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune to the Fresno (Calif.) Bee. Later, he returned home to the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune before landing at ESPN in 2013.
At every stop, he made connections.
Going forward, the seven-person board of the Vaughn McClure Foundation is intent on creating new bonds and new opportunities. Fundraising efforts continue. A benefit event will be held in McClure’s memory in July at the Lincolnshire Marriott. Talks also have begun to establish an endowment scholarship at NIU for minority journalism majors.
“Every time I see any kind of memory of or tribute to Vaughn, a little tear wells up,” Burns said. “And I don’t want this to be sad anymore. I want to have a happy feeling where we’ve been able to make a positive impact for others through Vaughn’s life.”
‘I felt like we were best friends’
Five days after being hired as the general manager of the Falcons in January, Terry Fontenot made one last trip into the New Orleans Saints facility to finish cleaning out his office. As he opened one of his desk drawers, a lone business card stared up.
Vaughn McClure, ESPN.
Fontenot immediately had goosebumps.
During his introductory news conference with the Falcons earlier that week, Fontenot had an hour to present himself through a Zoom session with reporters. For whatever reason, he felt compelled to acknowledge McClure within his opening statement, highlighting him as an example of the kind of ambitious, determined and positive person he hopes to fill the Falcons organization with.
“That’s what you’re looking for in coaches, players, scouts,” Fontenot said. “With everybody in the organization, you want people who are going to be great teammates. You want people who are going to help the people around them. And you want people who are going to be humble enough to listen and then try their best to get better.”
There wasn’t any obvious reason McClure and Fontenot should have been connected. Fontenot had worked in the Saints organization since 2003. McClure had spent his NFL days on the Bears beat for the Chicago Tribune and covering the Falcons for ESPN.
The two first met in a press box somewhere in the early 2010s. Small talk, really. And while their relationship strengthened over the years, they were never close friends. They would see each other at games from time to time and cross paths at the Senior Bowl or NFL scouting combine in the offseason. Each time, McClure would approach with his bright smile, a warm hug and a sincere interest for what was happening in Fontenot’s world.
“For some reason, every time I saw him I felt like we were best friends,” Fontenot said. “He had such a good energy about him. And he was so positive that after I would talk to him, I would walk away feeling really good about myself.”
That was McClure. With just about everyone he encountered.
In January 2020, Fontenot ran into McClure inside a Starbucks in Mobile, Ala. Fontenot was with members of the Saints front office on the way to a Senior Bowl practice. But McClure was working on a story about diversity hiring in the NFL, highlighting top minority candidates for head coaching and GM positions. Fontenot’s name kept coming up.
McClure felt an urge to share that and sprung up from his table to greet Fontenot.
“I think you’re going to get a job or you’re going to get an opportunity in this next (hiring) cycle,” McClure said.
As usual, Fontenot walked away from that brief but energized exchange feeling good about himself. He was also again appreciative of McClure’s endearing nature. “That was the last time I talked to him,” he said.
Three months later, on the week of his biggest career breakthrough, Fontenot couldn’t stop thinking about McClure. The discovery of that business card pushed him into deeper reflection. He again felt inspired by McClure’s passion, intensity and considerate nature.
“This is a relationship business,” Fontenot said. “And there are a lot of good people in this league. But Vaughn was different, man. He just was.”
With “chills from head to toe,” Fontenot snapped a photo of the business card and texted it to his wife.
“In any business — whether it’s a restaurant or a coffee shop or a grocery store or a school or the football world we’re in ― there are certain people who will always stick out because of the people they are and the passion they have in everything they do,” Fontenot said. “They handle themselves a certain way and it’s infectious. Plus there’s no agenda. … Vaughn was that way. He always had so much positive energy and so much passion for what he did. That’s who he was.”
One more hug
Relationships meant everything to McClure. Luckily he was natural at cultivating them.
Every winter, the scouting combine in Indianapolis was a showcase of how extensive McClure’s reach was. When he entered a room, his presence often was felt before he was seen. That wasn’t because he was loud or boisterous or constantly commanding attention. There was just a positive aura that emanated. And through all pockets of the NFL, McClure seemed to know just about everyone and know them well.
He was always happy to see folks he knew. And they were pleased to bump into him.
McClure frequently would introduce friends and colleagues to some of his best sources in the coaching and agent world, a rarity in such a cutthroat business.
“Take care of my guy!” he would say.
His late nights at the combine often turned into early mornings. Always one more stop, one more person to meet up with.
Prime 47 to St. Elmo’s to the bar near the lobby at the J.W. Marriott.
One more hug to give. Another conversation to have.
Said Mike Wells, who covers the Colts for ESPN: “With Vaughn, it was always, ‘One more place! Just give me 20 more minutes!’ Twenty more minutes would turn into another hour. And who knows when the night would finally end?”
In Atlanta, Falcons assistant coach Raheem Morris grew fond of that warmth. But Morris also respected McClure’s desire to learn about football, to enlighten himself — and by extension, his audience — on the nuances and complexities of the game.
Morris always sensed the attention to detail in McClure’s questions, his natural inquisitiveness and commitment to the grind.
“He was always eager to explore and go into deeper thoughts on how we looked at the game and how the game could be portrayed through our eyes as coaches and players and how he could report that in a better way,” Morris said.
The two would also talk periodically about the dynamics for minority coaches in the NFL. They discussed social justice issues. The depth of their conversations continually increased.
On Oct. 12, a day after Dan Quinn was fired as Falcons coach, Morris was promoted to that role on an interim basis. McClure broke the story.
He died just two days later.
“To lose him at the time we lost him hurt,” Morris said. “It hurt our community, our fan base and certainly our team. … You don’t want to believe it at first. You’re just waiting for your phone to ring or someone to tell you that Vaughn had requested you for an interview. But then those things don’t happen anymore.
“That sense of sadness and grief that goes through you is unreal. And it’s still a little unreal for me right now.”
When the Falcons honored McClure with a moment of silence during their Week 7 home game against the Detroit Lions last fall, players made a push for that brief ceremony to occur between quarters rather than at halftime. They wanted to remain on the field to pay their respects.
Burns understood McClure’s rare knack for making connections inside a locker room. As one of his editors, she also loved McClure’s inherent desire to push himself, to squeeze every ounce of potential from his writing and reporting talents.
McClure could veer off the beaten path for interesting features, such as the piece he did on offensive lineman Chris Chester’s pregame ritual of guzzling coffee on the bench. Or the feature he wrote on Ryan’s quest to relate to younger players through ping-pong and Pop-A-Shot.
In December 2010, when a blizzard tore through the roof of the Metrodome in Minneapolis and changed the venue for a Week 15 game between the Vikings and Bears, McClure threw on a pair of leather gloves, headed into TCF Bank Stadium on the University of Minnesota campus and joined a civilian effort to shovel out the bleachers.
McClure could also tackle difficult issue stories. Last summer, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and with racial tension intensifying across the United States, McClure wrote about Falcons safety Ricardo Allen’s 2018 trip with teammates to the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Ala., an excursion made to learn more about the deadly 1965 confrontation there between police and civil rights protesters.
In the process of writing and reporting that piece and then going through the editing process, McClure channeled his own experiences of being racially profiled.
“Phenomenal story,” Burns said. “And Vaughn was super passionate about it for what it illuminated.”
‘I’m tired of the death’
What are you so worried about?
As frequently as McClure told friends and colleagues he loved them, as much as he expressed his sincere appreciation for their presence in his life, they often would have to ask him that pressing question.
Why the constant concern? Why so much anxiety?
In the hyper-competitive NFL landscape, McClure always feared he was going to get beaten on the next big story on the Falcons beat. He frequently was worn out by the 24/7 on-call nature of the NFL news cycle. He worried his next big feature wasn’t going to be quite good enough. He was certain the next round of ESPN layoffs would escort his career to the guillotine.
“He would stress out about everything,” Gialamas said. “I’d tell him, ‘Dude! Life’s too short to worry so much!’ I would yell at him. ‘Knock it off!’ Focus on all the positives in your life.’ ”
As unfounded as that unease was, McClure could never shake it.
“He didn’t believe how good he was,” Burns said. “He was just way too hard on himself.”
Added Gialamas: “He couldn’t grasp that he had already made it. You’d have to tell him constantly, ‘Vaughn, you’re a success.’ ”
Despite the glowing presence so many adored, McClure always felt like a fish out of water when it came to his on-camera responsibilities, so much so that on the night of the ESPN’s NFL Nation reporter mock draft in 2017, McClure threw up — twice — before he went to the podium on-air to project Kansas State pass rusher Jordan Willis as the Falcons’ pick at No. 31 and once more after.
“He would get himself so worked up,” Burns said. “Before he went on that night, I couldn’t find him anywhere. I eventually tracked him down in a side studio adjacent to the NFL studio.
“The TV thing was so hard for him. And he was so good at it.”
While so many knew McClure as a charismatic and vibrant force, few knew about the ferocious demons that often lured him into brawls with self-doubt and depression. On a personal level, he experienced unspeakable loss within his family.
His older sister Nona McGahan died of heart failure in 2006. She was only 38.
Two years later, his brother Mark Montgomery succumbed to lupus at age 27.
His mother, Earlene Montgomery, died in 2010. And in February of last year, McClure’s stepfather, Theopolis Montgomery, died.
Said Gialamas: “He would tell me, ‘I’m tired of the death. I can’t take it anymore.’ He was exhausted from all the loss.”
Compounding all that, the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 proved suffocating. It left McClure stuck inside his apartment and stuck inside his own head. He made the necessary adjustments the job required, learning to mine the Falcons beat through Zoom and fighting to cover the team well from a distance.
Still, none of it was the same. Those interviews through a laptop camera were nothing like the in-person experience, an unfulfilling substitute for working a locker room, for connecting with players and coaches on a more personal level.
Covering road games from home, as all ESPN NFL Nation reporters did in 2020, left McClure without the pregame socialization and networking opportunities that fueled him. It took away his competitive advantage to work the press box for a new nugget, a new relationship, another story idea.
As a people person who fed off others’ energy, McClure felt trapped in that work-from-home world and so badly missed the chances to affect a room — any room — in a positive way.
“He was really struggling with all of it,” Burns said. “Vaughn thrived in the locker room, shaking hands, telling stories, letting guys know he cared about them. … He understood why we all had to be stuck at home and confined. But he hated every minute of it.”
Those close to McClure are certain the seclusion contributed to his untimely passing.
“He was sad, man,” Gialamas said. “His friends and his colleagues were like oxygen to him. That just gave him a rush. But then when you’re alone and you’re alone in your thoughts, the sadness closes in on you.”
At Super Bowl LV in February in Tampa, Fla., the NFL saved McClure a seat in the Raymond James Stadium press box and included him in the “In Memoriam” tribute of the NFL Honors show. For those who knew McClure, that small gesture was a heartening acknowledgment of his reach but also a crushing reminder of everyone’s loss.
Still, the photo of McClure with that magnetic smile triggered those who knew him well to again think about his most endearing quirks.
He was, for example, a clutch-the-armrest, bug-eyed air traveler. “Vaughn was the guy who would jump in your lap at the first hint of turbulence,” said ESPN’s Jeff Dickerson, a longtime friend.
McClure also had a similarly humorous fear of dogs, viewing even the most cuddly yellow lab (Dickerson’s Jake) or goldendoodle (Gialamas’s Rocky) as if they were snarling, junkyard pit bulls.
McClure was also an unrelenting flirt, always, frequently pausing conversations in midsentence to dart away into the path of a pretty stranger.
Excuse me. You’re a very beautiful woman. I mean no disrespect. You’re very beautiful. And I just had to let you know.
Then, just as he did whenever he met someone new, McClure’s emphatic introduction made his friends chuckle.
“Vaughn McClure, ESPN!”
Said Wells: “First name, last name, wherever he was working at the time. Always.”
Wells was among the many whose kids knew McClure as “Uncle Vaughn,” a big-hearted friend interested in celebrating their youth sports careers and feeding their sweet tooth.
Full boxes of Jelly Bellys would frequently show up on Wells’ doorstep, followed instantly it seemed by a phone-call demand to watch Wells’ son, Taye, and his daughter, Leila, do the unboxing over FaceTime.
“He wouldn’t even give me a chance to hide some of it,” Wells said. “If I tried to, he would tell my kids how much was in the box.”
When McClure showed up in person, it was often with a Lou Malnati’s pizza and a box of Sprinkles Cupcakes. Wells also laughs at the time Taye was playing in a first-grade basketball game at Connection Pointe Christian Church near Indianapolis and just about everyone in the gym was trying to figure out who the energetic stranger on the baseline was, dishing out encouragement after every pregame layup.
“He’s under the basket grabbing rebounds, high-fiving every single kid,” Wells said. “The only kid he knew was my son. I had parents asking me, ‘Who is this guy high-fiving and saying “Good job, buddy”?’ I tried to tell Vaughn he could come sit down. He was like, ‘No. No. I want these kids to know Uncle Vaughn is here and we’re going to play hard and have fun!’ ”
After Gialamas’ oldest daughter, Maggie, got engaged to a Denver Broncos fan, McClure crossed paths with John Elway and asked him to make a quick congratulatory video for the wedding.
“Typical Vaughn,” Gialamas said.
Taye and Leila Wells knew McClure as “Bologna Breath,” a nickname given after McClure once shared details of a date that didn’t quite work out. On the night McClure passed away, Taye texted Bologna Breath.
Gialamas’ 14-year-old son, Jack, meanwhile, began a habit of doing his homework with a small urn of McClure’s ashes beside him.
“He was just so broken up,” Gialamas said. “We all are.”
Last June, on his first Father’s Day without his dad, McClure posted a photo of the two of them relaxing on Instagram. In a lengthy caption, he spilled his emotions and detailed his love for his dad; his worries over racial injustice in the country; his affection for his best friends; and his sadness at all the tragedy within his immediate family.
“I wonder sometimes how much time I’ve got left,” McClure wrote. “I want to live long. I’ve told myself no matter what, I want to honor the memories of all four of you while I’m alive. The only way to do that is to give everything I have no matter what obstacles I encounter.”
Less than four months later, he was gone.
Those close to McClure know he never will be forgotten. But there’s additional hope that the Vaughn McClure Foundation will become an ongoing extension of his passion and generosity. The goal is to honor McClure’s lifeforce for as long as possible.
“Vaughn was so beloved and so cherished and so adored,” Gialamas said. “And he just never understood that. He was just the most gracious, most loving, most selfless man. … We don’t want him to be forgotten. He enlivened so many people’s lives with the way he connected. ... I want his name to live on forever.”
Donations to the Vaughn McClure Foundation can me made at thevaughnmcclurefoundation.org