Loyola’s Vaughn Pemberton (21) scores a touchdown against Mount Carmel. | Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

Vaughn Pemberton climbed from the fourth string running back at Loyola his junior year to the Sun-Times Player of the Year as a senior. 

Vaughn Pemberton was a wrecking ball from the very beginning of his high school football career. The power and violence were always in his game.

That wasn’t enough. Being the big, strong running back landed him nothing but an offer from Northern Michigan, a Division 2 school.

“I was pissed about it,” Pemberton said. “I knew I had outplayed a lot of kids with Division I offers. I was just so mad.”

Pemberton works out with his Loyola teammate Josh Kreutz, the son of former Chicago Bear Olin Kreutz. It turns out a little bit of brutal honesty from someone he respected made an impact.

“Mr. Kreutz basically told me it was my fault that I didn’t have a D1 offer,” Pemberton said. “He said I had to work harder.”

The knock on Pemberton was his speed. So he fixed that. The 6-0, 210-pound senior terrorized the best defenses in the area this season. Pemberton climbed from the fourth string running back at Loyola his junior year to the Sun-Times Player of the Year as a senior.

Pemberton ran for 916 yards and scored 15 touchdowns in six games to help lead the Ramblers to an undefeated season and a wire-to-wire run as the top-ranked team in the Super 25.

“It almost made me feel like a bad coach to just keep giving him the ball and having him run over everybody,” Loyola coach John Holecek said. “[Pemberton] looks like an NFL player out there with his size and his big muscular back and the great stiff arm. And he has the vision to bounce things outside that you don’t think he should be able to.”

Pemberton’s increased speed made all the difference. Holecek didn’t remember a single defender catching Pemberton from behind this season.

“There was one time it happened,” Pemberton said. “Against Mount Carmel. I remember because I was so mad about it.”

Successful high school players are often written off as winners of the genetic lottery. But without an exceptional work ethic ability alone never produces a Player of the Year. Pemberton had to show that work ethic twice. He improved his speed after last season and spent most of his sophomore year rehabbing a broken leg.

Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times
Loyola’s Vaughn Pemberton (21) celebrates his touchdown against Mount Carmel with teammate Perrion McClinton (1).

The injury had Pemberton considering giving up sports completely.

“I’ve never told him this, but I’m not sure what would have happened without [older brother Quinn Pemberton, who played basketball at Loyola and is now at Boston College],” Pemberton said. “I was worried I wouldn’t come back as the same athlete. But he’d been through dislocating his knee like three times and told me I’d be fine if I worked hard. And during that rehab I kept thinking about how hard I’d seen him work to get back.”

Pemberton has signed with Ball State. It’s the only D1 offer he received. Now the question is, will Power Five schools come calling for the area’s best player? Pemberton doesn’t care if they do.

“[Ball State] is like the perfect situation for me,” Pemberon said. “They really wanted me from the get go. So even if another school tries talking to me, I’m not decommitting.”

Pemberton has been playing football since he was five, but even midway through high school he thought his future was in basketball. He was a big-time scorer on the sophomore team at Loyola. But just a year later his future had clearly switched to football.

“Maybe his top speed isn’t as elite as some other guys,” Holecek said. “But when you add on his size and power and ability to the speed he has. That’s some upside.”

2020-21 Sun-Times All-Area Football Team

OFFENSE

OL Pat Coogan, Marist, Sr. (Notre Dame)

OL Enrique Cruz, Willowbrook, Sr. (Syracuse)

OL Otto Hess, Oswego, Sr. (Boston College)

OL Cameron James, Simeon, Sr. (Minnesota)

OL Jack Walsh, Fremd, Sr. (Wyoming)

QB Justin Lynch, Mount Carmel (Temple)

RB Jordan Anderson, Joliet Catholic, Jr. (Illinois)

RB Jamal Johnson, Lincoln-Way East, Sr. (Bowling Green)

RB Vaughn Pemberton, Loyola, Sr. (Ball State)

WR Kaleb Brown, St. Rita, Jr.

ATH Athan Kaliakmanis, Antioch, Sr. (Minnesota)

DEFENSE

DL Carmine Bastone, St. Charles North, Sr. (Northwestern)

DL Tommy Matheson, Warren, Sr. (Princeton)

DL Brandon Svets, Loyola, Sr. (Harvard)

LB Carter Evans, Prairie Ridge, Sr. (Eastern Michigan)

LB Michael Gaughan, St. Rita, Sr.

LB Malachi McNeal, Warren, Sr. (North Dakota)

LB Kenenna Odeluga Mount Carmel, Sr. (Illinois)

DB Riley Dravet, Wheaton North, Sr.

DB Mar’Keise Irving, Hillcrest, Sr. (Minnesota)

DB Matt Kordas, Lincoln-Way East, Sr. (Bowling Green)

DB Jaden McGill, Naperville Central, Sr.

P/K Aidan Ellison, Naperville Central, Sr. (Arkansas State)

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