Stampeders’ DE James Vaughters returning to where football was ‘fun’ after NFL stint

Photo courtesy: AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski

On the long list of sporting cliché, few are more overused by players on the gridiron than the three F’s: football, faith, and family. For James Vaughters, the list requires a fourth alliteration.

“Contrary to what Coach Boone says in Remember The Titans, football is fun,” the veteran defensive end laughed during his first address to the Calgary media since signing with the Stampeders in January.

After four seasons in the NFL, Vaughters had multiple options regarding his football future. However, none could offer that fourth ‘F’ in a way that could rival a return to the Stamps.

“You weigh your options because you have the XFL, USFL, and CFL, but for me, I’m always a person that’s wanted to play football in the fall and I’m always a person that has wanted to enjoy playing the game,” he explained. “I enjoyed playing the game more here than I did probably anywhere else since I was in high school.”

Vaughters played two seasons with the Stampeders in 2017 and 2018, recording 50 defensive tackles, eight special teams tackles, and 11 sacks in 33 games. The team went to the Grey Cup both seasons, winning a title in his second year.

He credits his time with the club for teaching him how to be a professional, citing the influence of players like Micah Johnson, Junior Turner and Charleston Hughes in showing him the ropes. Their openness created an environment unlike any he had been a part of in the past.

“That selflessness is something that I’ll always appreciate and I think it’s a big part of why I was able to have so much fun playing up here and why I was able to learn so much because there was no gatekeeping on any information that could help you be a better player, that could help you win,” Vaughters explained. “I think that transparency is something that you need to have in order to do the things we want to do: win Grey Cups, win playoff games, win every game.”

The Stanford product left for the NFL in 2019, signing with the Chicago Bears. He was released after two seasons with the club, spending a year with the Atlanta Falcons before a final training camp stop with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2022. Along the way, he dressed for 27 games and recorded 33 tackles, two tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble.

The experience was a far cry from his childhood expectations of NFL stardom but Vaughters believes that it made him a better player. During his time south of the border, he was able to watch the pass-rush nuances of elite players like Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn and Justin Houston up close and learn how they operate, gaining valuable insight.

“When you grow up wanting to be in the league, you grow up wanting to go to the Pro Bowl, wanting to be an All-Pro. You want to be a starter on a regular basis. You want to get drafted. You want to go to the combine. All that stuff is part of what is a fantasy for a lot of guys,” he admitted. “I think that once you get there and it becomes a reality, the access that you get, being able to see those guys that you watch go to the Hall of Fame and see them as your peers, that’s the part of the dream that becomes fulfilled. Because on a road like mine, it becomes a lot more about the process than the destination.”

Nevertheless, time in the NFL placed into perspective why what he had been a part of in Calgary had been so special.

“I think the game jades a lot of guys that end up on paths like mine where you get cut more times than you can count and are number 53 on the 53-man roster time and time again, season after season,” Vaughters explained. “I’m thankful that I was able to come here and enjoy the game in a way that I wasn’t necessarily sure was possible when I was going through the uphill battle that I began to understand that I was going to have as a professional.”

“When I originally left, I had a very one-track mind about it but as I continued to play, I began to see how the things that I learned here helped me down there. There was never a time when the line of communication wasn’t open, I’ll say that.”

Now 29 years old, Vaughters will be taking on a very different role in his return than he had during his first stint with the Stampeders. Many of the recognizable names that guided him back then have departed and he will now be asked to take up the mantle of veteran leadership, as well as becoming the team’s top pass rusher.

Still, the winning culture he grew accustomed to has remained unaltered. Though the Stampeders are in their greatest period of flux in a generation, their repatriated pass rusher has complete faith in the team’s reputation for reloading.

“If a lot of stuff had changed, I don’t necessarily think that’d be a good thing,” Vaughters said. “I think great teams when they lose a lot of players and they lose a lot of coaches, they become good teams but they never become bad teams.”

Despite his grounded outlook, a shot at another Grey Cup remains the defender’s priority. After all, football is always more fun when you’re winning.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.