When Bears outside linebacker James Vaughters was preparing to play in his first NFL regular-season game last week, he wasn't very emotional. Not during practice or even when the team landed in Philadelphia late Saturday afternoon.
But that all changed when the bus he was riding in approached Lincoln Financial Field Sunday morning. Suddenly, a rush of emotion swept over Vaughters and didn't relent until the opening kickoff.
"Everything felt pretty normal going through practice the whole week and pretty normal getting on the bus," Vaughters said. "But when we were pulling up to the stadium and you see all the fans, the tailgating, cars everywhere, just the entire atmosphere, it's just something that I never thought I'd see.
"I knew it was going to be something special. But as soon as we ran out of the tunnel for the start of the game, it really hit me, like really heavy hit me. It was an emotional experience, mainly from warmups until the time the ball got kicked off because it's something that only a few people get the chance to experience and something that I've been chasing for four years."
Vaughters shed tears on the sideline before and during the national anthem, overwhelmed by the culmination of an arduous journey that was littered with adversity—and pink slips. At the time, Vaughters had been cut seven times by four NFL teams and one CFL squad.
Ironically, it reminded him of the tears that had rolled down his face during trying times in 2016 when he was living in his parents' basement in Stone Mountain, Ga., wondering what exactly it would take to achieve his NFL dream.
Vaughters was a four-star recruit from Tucker High School in Georgia who went to Stanford, where he played football and earned a political science degree. Although he had and still has a passion for architecture, he wanted desperately to become a pro football player, an odyssey that began in Green Bay.
Vaughters signed with the Packers in 2015 as an undrafted free agent. He was waived during final cuts and re-signed to Green Bay's practice squad. But he suffered an arm injury and was later waived/injured.
The following year was the most frustrating of his life. In 2016, he was released by the Patriots during the offseason, the CFL's Calgary Stampeders in the summer and the Chargers as part of final cuts. Vaughters headed back home to Georgia unsure whether he wanted to continue to pursue his dream.
"At that point, you're like, 'I don't know how many more times I can actually go through this,'" Vaughters said. "I kind of remember telling my dad, 'I don't think I can keep on doing this.'"
Vaughters lived in his parents' basement—adjacent to his dad's home office. He leaned on his parents, Jonathan and Vanessa Vaughters, and the rest of his family for support, and eventually rejoined the Stampeders in 2017.
"I don't think I had ever really been in a situation where I could walk across a hall and talk to my dad like that," Vaughters said. "I could wake up in the morning and he'd be right there for me. We could talk one-on-one."
Vaughters spent two seasons in Calgary, contributing at linebacker and on special teams, and helping the Stampeders win the CFL championship in 2018.
He signed with the Bears in January and performed well in the preseason, recording three sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in four games. But he was waived as part of final cuts.
Vaughters was re-signed to the practice squad the next day, waived Sept. 12, re-signed to the practice squad Oct. 29 and promoted to the active roster Nov. 2.
In making his NFL regular-season debut against the Eagles, Vaughters registered one tackle while playing four snaps on defense and nine on special teams. He was waived again the day after the game but re-signed to the practice squad Tuesday.
As Vaughters battles to earn another opportunity, he's more motivated than ever after achieving an elusive goal that turned tears of frustration into tears of joy.