INDIANAPOLIS – Ke'Shaun Vaughn and Daniel Bituli took different roads to get to the NFL Combine here this week, but Nashville helped guide them, and shape them.
And they're thankful for it.
"I feel like I've got the whole city supporting me," Vaughn said.
"Nashville," Bituli said, "helped make me the person I am today."
Vaughn, who played at Pearl-Cohn and Vanderbilt, is a dynamic running back who first began playing football in the front lawn of one of the city's housing projects. As a kid, he used a water bottle as his football, and he had to fight for everything along the way.
Bituli can relate, knowing his path was especially unique, and challenging, as well. The University of Tennessee linebacker, who prepped at Nashville Christian School, was born in Congo. But his family moved to the United States – and to Nashville – when he was just three years old because of political unrest, and concerns about his family's safety. Joining the Bellevue Steelers youth football team as a kid helped him find his calling while his parents and four siblings adjusted to all the changes around them.
"Looking back, with everything I went though, I definitely didn't imagine all this," a smiling Bituli said from the NFL Combine on Thursday." Growing up, I was fortunate to just have roof over my head. We didn't know sometimes what we'd do for food. I had to grow up fast. What my family had to go through, it is definitely not taken lightly. … So to be here, it is amazing to me."
Vaughn, who began his collegiate career at Illinois before transferring to Vanderbilt, became one of the school's top five all-time rushers with 2,259 yards despite just 23 career appearances as a Commodore. Vaughn also produced 21 rushing touchdowns, third most among Vanderbilt backs. He also became just the third Commodore back to post multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
He's considered among the top backs in this year's draft class.
"You don't grow up on Nashville without knowing Ke'Shawn Vaughn," Bituli said of his college rival. "The records he was breaking, the highlight tapes he was making. When he was in high school, he was amazing."
Bituli blossomed himself. He became only the second Vol to lead Tennessee in tackles for three straight seasons, wrapping up his 44-game career with 266 stops. The 2019 All-SEC second Team selection collected double-digit tackles in three games as a senior and was named SEC Defensive Player of the Week twice.
He's ready to make his mark in the NFL.
"I want to be a great player, an All-Pro," Bituli said. "I want to be one of the best linebackers in this class and play in the league. To be here, and to have a chance to prove myself to these NFL teams, it means the world to me. I grew up looking up to a lot of guys who have been here before me. … So I don't take this position lightly."
Vaughn and Bituli are among a number of Nashville-area prospects here at the NFL Combine.
Purdue tight end Brycen Hopkins, son of former Titans tackle Brad Hopkins, played at Ensworth High in Nashville. LSU linebacker Jacob Phillips prepped at East Nashville Magnet School, and Florida receiver Van Jefferson played at Ravenwood High School in Brentwood.
Here this week, all of them are hoping to make a nice impression on NFL coaches and scouts, which would help their draft stock.
Vaughn said the players want to represent. And yes, he's envisioned a dream scenario where he could remain in Nashville, as a pick of the hometown Tennessee Titans.
"I feel like that would be a good situation, just the fact that, if I go to the Titans, I know I'd be going into number two back," Vaughn said. "So (Derrick Henry) getting 30, 40 carries, however many they give him, he's kind of wearing down the defense. So you got me as an explosive back, I can come in and capitalize on the defenses being tired here and there. So that would be a good one-two punch if it could happen."
Check out Titans players over the years at the NFL Scouting Combine. (AP Photos)