Jim O'Donnell: A life of triumph -- the improbable dream of Vaughn McClure
WHEN A YOUNG LAD from Conant High School in Hoffman Estates decided to pursue a longshot dream to become an acclaimed sports writer, there were no national headlines.
Two weeks ago, when Vaughn McClure suddenly died at age 48, there were.
In between is a story of triumph.
Interwoven are also tales of a genius for friendship, a remarkable knack for networking and an unfailing capacity to rub people the right way.
"He knew what he wanted to do from the time we met at Robert Frost Middle School," said Vaurice Patterson, still one of the greatest multisport stars in the history of Northern Illinois University.
"With me, it was always, 'I'm gonna be a big NFL star.' With Vaughn, it was always, 'I'm gonna be a sports writer and some day cover Michael Jordan.'
"Man, did he love Michael Jordan. Cupcakes with sprinkles, Lou Malnati's pizza and Michael Jordan. We were kids."
Added columnist Elliott Harris, a colleague during McClure's brief turn at the Sun-Times in 2006-'07: "He seemed like a fellow who knew he was going somewhere. He didn't have to push it, he didn't have to be up in your face about it. He just had that elusive 'it.' "
For the past seven years, that "it" took McClure about as high up as it gets in current American sports media.
Since 2013, he served as the Atlanta Falcons beat writer for ESPN's sprawling "NFL Nation."
It wasn't the Bulls, where his heart would always lay. Nor was it Chicago, where his passion was first stoked.
But it was where McClure would achieve national acclaim.
And it was where he would be posted when he quietly passed, in his sleep, of natural causes, hours after filing his final breakaway.
A look back
His mother, Mrs. Earlene Montgomery, worked for The Red Cross. Theophilus Montgomery, the man who raised him as a son, was a mailman.
At Conant (Class of '90), his great jones was basketball. Visions of journalism completed McClure's teen perfecta.
"He was full of a spitfire energy that sometimes got him into trouble," said Kevin Katovich, a 1989 graduate of Conant who is currently the head boys basketball coach at Rolling Meadows High School.
"Anyone who played basketball at Conant for Tom McCormack and Bruce Hilldebrand were aware of two things -- there were rules and expectations that were to be met without exception. And, if you were a member of the basketball program, you were family."
While McCormack was doing a stellar job of flipping a beleaguered Cougars brigade into those Sweet Sixteeners, McClure was relentless in his pursuit of belonging.
By his junior year, he was a practice player/manager, according to Katovich. The next season, the big year, he was a full-fledged contributor.
But his parents also made certain academics remained No. 1.
Said McCormack: "The night we were playing in the sectional we were going to Malnati's for a team meal after school. Vaughn didn't go because he had to study. That attention to detail and priorities was evident even back then."
A foreshadowing bit of convergence happened during McClure's senior year at Conant when the great Taylor Bell was asked to speak to his journalism class.
"Afterward, the teacher introduced Vaughn to me," said Bell, the iconic prep sports editor first at the Chicago Daily News and later the Sun-Times.
"He wanted to be a sports writer and he wanted some advice.
"I told him the most important thing to do was to get as much experience as he could in the craft he had chosen, like writing and covering sports. I even invited him to call me and be a part-timer and cover events on my 50-man 'SWAT squad.' But he never did.
"And I still remember one thing I told him that I've often wondered if he might have taken the wrong way.
"I said to take advantage of what he had going for him. At that time, 25 to 30 years ago, the newspaper industry was starting to decline and jobs were getting scarce for college journalism graduates. But opportunities were opening up big-time for females and minorities.
"It wasn't a racial thing, I insisted, just the way it was -- and is today.
"Remember TV and newspapers in the 1970s and 1980s? How many Blacks, Latinos, Asians and females? How about today? I was right. I hope he understood. At any rate, he made the most of his talent."
Up and coming
That talent and drive and focus took him to the journalism program at Northern Illinois.
On day one at the Stevenson North dormitory, McClure met Nick Gialamas, a freshman from Oak Lawn, who like Patterson, would be a wake-up/midnight-call friend to the end.
"His personality was infectious and magnetic from our first conversation to our last," Gialamas said. "He lived my peaks and valleys and I lived his. And people, all sorts of people, simply loved him. We used to joke that he was 'The Mayor of NIU.' "
He also quickly established himself on the radar of Mike Korcek, the university's supremely facile director of sports information.
"That demeanor. That smile -- his 'sweet smile,' as the secretary in our department always called it," Korcek recalled.
"And his curiosity. That was the key. That's the center of any good, or great, journalist. And Vaughn had it. He not only wanted facts, he wanted to know the background of the facts, why they were facts, how they came to be facts.
"After graduation, Vaughn covered us for the DeKalb Daily Chronicle and also did the local news beat there. So from afar, I watched his ascension up the media ladder -- Daily Herald, Fresno Bee, South Bend Tribune, Sun-Times, Chicago Trib and then ESPN.com in Atlanta.
"All amazing but well-earned."
(Full historical mosaic: McClure was never full-time at the Daily Herald. According to the esteemed Marty Maciaszek, he covered high school sports as a freelancer, "primarily in the Fox Valley region," while still living in DeKalb.)
McClure finally got to touch Bulls as a professional in 2007, when Sun-Times sports editor Stu Courtney assigned him to the paper's postseason NBA posse.
Backstage, it was fun to watch how much fun he was having, even if Tayshaun Prince and the Detroit Pistons would not allow Luol Deng, Ben Gordon, et al, to get past the second round.
Within a year, hawk-eyed Trib sports chiefs Mike Kellams and Dan McGrath snapped him up to catch the final silver skating of The World's Greatest Newspaper.
McClure's power alley evolved into coverage of the Bears and the NFL. That made him a natural for ESPN in 2013, when the broadcast behemoth expanded its multimedia coverage from eight "divisional" beat reporters to a full coterie of 32 for each NFL team.
His mother died in 2010. His older sister Nona succumbed to heart disease at age 37. His younger brother, Mark Montgomery, died of lupus at 28.
Last winter, in another blow to his spirit, McClure's beloved stepdad passed away.
On Easter weekend in April, he posted a plaintive Instagram below a picture of his family:
"Would do anything in the world to have you four back right now to celebrate Easter. As you would say Mom, 'This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it.' This pandemic has made folks understand the value of family. Believe me, I understand that family is EVERYTHING. I will see you in Heaven one day Mom, Dad, Big Sis and Little Markie."
On the final full day of his life -- a Tuesday -- McClure did his job, focused on the Falcons headquarters in Flowery Branch, Ga.
The news was big -- head coach Dan Quinn had been fired two days before after an 0-5 start. Defensive coordinator Raheem Morris was named interim head coach by owner Arthur Blank, a co-founder of Home Depot.
McClure edged all competition by minutes on the announcement of Morris's elevation. In the endless 24/7 cycles of contemporary sports journalism, that's a win.
He was at his condo. He had not been feeling well for weeks.
"He kept saying he was tired and that he kept getting headaches," Gialamas said. "And I kept saying, 'Vaughn, go to a doctor.' But he hated doctors. We talked briefly that day like we always did and he said he was going to try and go to bed early."
So he did.
And dream years from Hoffman Estates, and thousands of deadlines from DeKalb and the chest bumps with the Conant Sweet Sixteen team and the bus rides to Frost Middle School with Patterson, he died.
The following Friday, Gialamas and Patterson flew to Atlanta. A McClure cousin from Texas, Khris Bashford, was en route to oversee the estate.
News of McClure's death prompted waves of social media notes of sadness and shock and a whole slew of cardboard obituaries -- generic mentions of his life vitae followed by excerpts of the social media reactions.
Gialamas, an insurance broker and financial adviser, is in the process of establishing The Vaughn McClure Foundation.
He and Patterson have been attempting to schedule a Chicago-area memorial.
But, according to Patterson, "The new pandemic spike isn't making that easy. We're still hoping for something the weekend of Nov. 6-7. My first suggestion for a place was Conant High School, but that's not going to happen."
Wherever it's held, whenever it's held, whomever attends, there is one theme that must dominate:
Through his own sweet angles of determination, Vaughn McClure crafted a life of triumph.
• Jim O'Donnell's Sports & Media column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.