Illustrated by The #1 Sports Writer for Kids
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Copyright © 1997 by Matthew F. Christopher
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First eBook Edition: December 2009
Chapter One 1967–1982
Learning the Game
Maurice Samuel Vaughn was born in Norwalk, Connecticut, on December 15, 1967. Even when Mo was very young, his father, Leroy, and mother, Shirley, taught their son the value of hard work and education. They had learned those same lessons from their own families, lessons that served each well in their lives.
Growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, Leroy Vaughn was an excellent athlete. In high school he was a star in every sport he played — football, basketball, and baseball. He then attended Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia. At Virginia Union, Leroy Vaughn played quarterback on the football team. While there, he met another student from Baltimore, a young woman named Shirley, who later became his wife.
Just before Leroy graduated from college, the Baltimore Colts of the National Football League contacted him. They invited Leroy to try out for the team.
The Colts were one of the greatest teams in pro football. Leroy worked hard during the Colts' training camp and made the squad. The Colts knew Leroy Vaughn was a fine athlete. He only needed more experience to become a good professional player. So the Colts placed Leroy on what they called the "taxi squad." Although members of the taxi squad weren't eligible to play in regular season games, they were still allowed to practice with the team. During practice the Colts experimented with Leroy at quarterback, wide receiver, running back, and defensive back.
Leroy worked hard each week, and each week he got a little better. At training camp the following season, everyone could tell that Leroy was going to make the Colts regular team.
Then, one day in practice, Leroy took a handoff from the quarterback. He swept around the end behind the Colts' giant offensive tackle, Jim Parker, turned the corner, and tried to push his way through the line. But he was tackled. As he fell to the ground, big Jim Parker stumbled and landed on Leroy's knee. The injury ended Leroy Vaughn's professional football career.
Nevertheless, Leroy knew that the injury to his knee need not ruin his life. He had been a good student at Virginia Union and decided to make use of his education. He and Shirley moved to Norwalk, Connecticut, a working-class town of about fifty thousand people just outside New York City. They both became teachers.
The Vaughns felt that it was their responsibility to contribute to their community both inside and outside the classroom. Leroy taught middle school chemistry and physics and coached football, baseball, and basketball. In his spare time, he helped underprivileged children at the local Boys Club. He and Shirley both volunteered to help with the homeless. In addition to teaching elementary school, Shirley spent her summers working with an educational program that sent children from New York City to camps in the woods and fields of rural Connecticut.
In one program, she worked with Rachel Robinson, the widow of Jackie Robinson. In 1947, Jackie Robinson had become the first African American to play major league baseball. He had been more than just a great athlete. He had given of himself to help his community, a tradition that Rachel Robinson continued and the Vaughns believed in.
Like many young couples, Leroy and Shirley began saving money to purchase their own home. After a few years they finally had enough for a down payment. They looked at dozens of homes before they found the one they wanted to buy. The house was in an all-white neighborhood of Norwalk. The Vaughns were the first African-American couple to move in. Most of their neighbors had never lived near African Americans before. At first they were suspicious of the Vaughns.
Most soon discovered, however, that Leroy and Shirley were much like themselves — hardworking, responsible, and friendly — and soon welcomed the Vaughns to the neighborhood. But a few residents were not so open-minded. To them, it didn't matter how pleasant the Vaughns were. They were prejudiced against all African Americans and didn't want the family in the neighborhood.
Late one night shortly after the Vaughns moved in, they heard a commotion in front of their house. They looked out at their front yard and saw a wooden cross in flames.
The burning cross is a symbol of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization that tries to keep African Americans and whites from living together. In the early part of the twentieth century, the Klan was a powerful organization with tens of thousands of members. The group terrorized African Americans and other minority groups, sometimes even pulling them from their homes and killing them. The Klan often used the burning cross to send a warning to whomever they planned to attack.
The burning cross in the Vaughns' front yard sent a clear message to the young couple. They were to leave their neighborhood or else.
Leroy and Shirley refused to be intimidated. They had worked too hard to buy their new home to be scared off. They were frightened, but they bravely chose to ignore the threat and remain in the neighborhood. Whoever burned the cross realized the Vaughns weren't going to be frightened away and gave up.
On December 15, 1967, Shirley Vaughn gave birth to a son, Maurice Samuel. The Vaughns were excited to have a child, but they were also worried. The baby was born prematurely and weighed only three and a half pounds. For the first few weeks of his life, little Maurice Vaughn lived in an incubator at the hospital. Leroy and Shirley visited often and watched their young son grow strong. Finally they were allowed to take him home, where he grew quickly.
Like his father, young Maurice — whom everyone had started calling "Mo" — loved sports. Because little Mo was too young to go with his father to baseball or football practice, it was his mother who gave Mo his start in sports. When Mo was only three years old, Shirley took him into the backyard and taught him how to swing a baseball bat.
Shirley Vaughn had been a softball player and had hit left-handed. Although Mo was right-handed, when Shirley started playing with him she showed him how to hit from the left side because that was the way she hit. When he realized what was happening, Leroy Vaughn thought about switching Mo back to the right side. But once he saw how well Shirley had taught their young son, he forgot all about it. Before Mo was even in the first grade, he was hitting into the neighbor's yard the tennis balls his mother threw him.
When he was old enough, Mo started tagging along with his father to practices for the teams Leroy coached. He loved spending time with his father, and he loved every sport he tried.
Soon Mo was old enough to play sports in the backyard or at the school yard with his friends. They would spend hours playing basketball, football, baseball, and street hockey. When Mo spent a day playing basketball, he'd run home and tell his father he had decided he would become a basketball player. The next day, if Mo played baseball, he'd tell his parents he had changed his mind, and now he liked baseball best. One thing was certain. Mo loved sports. He loved to play and he loved to win.
Mo was one of the best athletes in his neighborhood. He grew to be much bigger and stronger than most boys his age. By playing so many different sports, Mo was also better coordinated than many of his peers. By the time he started playing organized sports, Mo was clearly one of the best young athletes in the city.
Yet Mo's parents didn't let him spend all his time on the ball field. They knew that it was important to become a well-rounded person. They made sure Mo kept his grades up in school, and they took him to plays and musical concerts so he could develop an appreciation for a variety of pursuits. They knew that no matter how much Mo loved sports and no matter how good he was, it was unlikely that he would be able to fulfill his childhood dream of becoming a professional athlete. And even if Mo did beat the odds, an athlete's career can end in a second, as Leroy Vaughn knew through his own experience with pro football. The Vaughns wanted to make sure that if sports didn't work out, Mo would have other interests.
Mo still loved sports best, but he loved music, too, and his parents allowed him to take drum lessons. Soon Mo was almost as serious about playing the drums as he was about playing football or baseball.
Shirley and Leroy also ensured that Mo learned that he had a responsibility to his community. When the Vaughns volunteered their time to help with a worthy cause, they often took Mo along. They wanted him to know that not everyone was as fortunate as he was.
- On Sale
- Dec 19, 2009
- Page Count
- 128 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers