When Steve Vaughn ran onto the field at West Springfield High School Stadium, he was scared. Not so anyone could really notice, but enough that his knees were knocking, his mouth was dry, his stomach was churning.
Vaughn, a 5-foot-9, 200-pound center, was playing his first varsity football game for James Madison High School. He had been playing football for seven years, dreaming about this moment. Finally, the night of Sept. 4 had arrived. The wait was over.
Madison, the fourth-ranked team in the Washington area, was playing its first game of the season. Vaughn, 16, is the only junior regular on a team that starts 21 seniors.
Vaughn probably could have started last year as a sophomore. Coach Chuck Sell says he was that good. But, at 15, Vaughn wasn't ready emotionally. "In 10 years here, I've only had three sophomores make it," Sell said. "They are just too young."
"I felt out of place and I was scared," Vaughn said, thinking back to a year ago. "I wasn't ready to be a varsity football player then."
So he readily spent last season on the junior varsity, honing his skills and dreaming about the varsity. But this year, he knew, was his time. He wanted to play now, despite the knocking knees.
"It doesn't bother me that I was scared last year and it doesn't bother me that I'm nervous about my first real game; I feel I'll do good," Vaughn said the day before the West Springfield game.
To professional football players, the game is their livelihood and most reject fear. College players often are afraid, but rarely admit it. A 16-year-old high school junior playing his first game just comes out and proclaims his fear.
"Who's he going to fool by denying it anyway?" asked Sell. "He's the only nonsenior starter we have, but they all felt that same fear at one time or another. Fear isn't bad. It goes away after a few hits.
"Steve has been a potential starter since he came here as a freshman. It was just a matter of when he would be ready."
Who wants to be a center, anyway?
"I started playing organized football when I was 9 years old," said Vaughn. "I was pudgy, so every team I ever played on put me on the line. Hitting was always fun. Since I started out that way, I never worried about scoring touchdowns. I'll let someone else have that glory. Down in the trenches is where the real fun is on every play. I just like playing. My philosophy is to hit the other guy before he hits you and you'll never get hurt."
Vaughn came to Madison as a middle guard, but Sell knew Vaughn wanted to play college football, even though he was too small to play the defensive line. So he switched him to offense.
"I told him he had to move to the offensive line to have a shot at college ball and we needed a center, so . . . "
Vaughn plays on a team with two scholastic all-Americas -- quarterback Tim Hecht and linebacker Richie Petitbon -- and such other highly recruited players as tailback Doc Basil and receiver Jim McNamara. A 5-9 center like Vaughn could get overlooked.
"If I prove I can play, then someone will want me," said Vaughn. "I don't have any fears about that."
High school football is big in Vienna. Many of the local merchants advertise in the game program and many area residents, even those without children in school, attend the games.
The Warhawks have nine assistant coaches and a large practice field in addition to a stadium. This year, they went to Randolph-Macon College for a week of training camp.
The uniforms have that NFL look. The Warhawks resemble junior Atlanta Falcons with their gray pants and white jerseys with black, red and gray trim. Even the helmets, with a warhawk instead of a falcon, are similar. And everyone wears white shoes and wrist bands.
Still, there are plenty of reminders that this really is high school football. The kickers had to be warned not to kick the newer-looking footballs. The pompon girls were practicing on the running track around the field, ducking and giggling whenever a loose ball came their way.
Vaughn's girlfriend, Carrie Begley, is a pompon girl. She was practicing her routines five yards behind Vaughn. He never turned around.
The Warhawks suited up at Madison for the West Springfield game and took a bus to West Springfield, arriving at 7 for the 8 o'clock game.
"We like to get dressed and undressed at home; it's easier," said Sell. "This was a long trip for us, too: 15 miles."
The Warhawks immediately went out to warm up, then returned to the dressing room 15 minutes before kickoff. The players sat quietly. Waiting.
Vaughn was in a corner trying to calm himself, trying to beat back the fear.
The captains, offensive tackle Bob Leity and defensive back Steve Richbourg, came into the room and said they had won the coin toss. Madison would receive the kickoff.
The room grew silent again as Sell spoke. At practice he uses a bullhorn. Now, he spoke softly.
"I want everyone to look at this," he said, and passed around a small plaque. Each player looked at it, then handed it on.
The inscription: "This is the year."
"We've got four minutes to see if we hang that plaque up or throw it away," Sell said. "From this point on, what you say doesn't mean a thing. It's action that counts." Then he and his assistants left the room.
At that point, the locker room erupted in noise. "Let's bite their heads off," the players screamed. "Kill those . . . " Vaughn took part, but he still was on the fringe looking in.
It was a slow, 200-yard walk from the dressing room to the field and the Warhawks made it in a double-file line. No one said a word as they walked through the crowd to the field. They gathered under the goal posts, then ran to their side of the field. They knelt for a prayer in front of their bench just before the kickoff.
Vaughn was the first player onto the field. He went right to the 40-yard line, turned and gave a double high five to teammate Stan Groft.
When West Springfield's Mike Casey kicked off, Vaughn peeled back to his right to block. Basil fumbled the kickoff, but Mike Colbert picked up the ball on the dead run, got a stunning block from Vaughn at the 35 to get into the clear and went all the way for a touchdown.
By halftime, Madison had a 22-0 lead. Vaughn had played nearly flawlessly. In many games he will be overmatched against bigger defensive linemen, but West Springfield played a "Tennessee bubble" defense, putting a defensive back over the center. So Vaughn was blocking, with success, a 5-6, 160-pound youngster.
Vaughn's only glaring mistake came in the second period, when he missed a snap count, causing half his teammates to jump offside.
"I was nervous," he said later. "I was thinking about this and that and I just blew the snap count."
In the locker room at halftime, it became obvious that Vaughn now was a valued member of his football team.
"Whenever we run the trap, I have a hard time getting to the linebacker; what should I do?" senior guard George Cholakis asked Vaughn.
"I'll take him and you block the nose guard," Vaughn said.
"Good idea," Sell said.
The Warhawks played listlessly the second half, but still won, 22-14.
"Steve played good for his first game," Sell said. "He did what he had to do. He blew that onee play, but it didn't really hurt us. He'll be fine."
For the first time in almost a week, Vaughn let out all his emotion. A big smile appeared and it looked as if the weight of the entire team had been lifted from his shoulders.
"I was nervous, oh, God, was I nervous," he said as he trudged toward the team bus with his girlfriend walking proudly by his side. "The first 10 plays I was dying. I was thinking about everything and couldn't really concentrate that well. I finally settled down and acted like it was a regular game. The rest of them will be easier, I hope."