Movie fan Hebron loves support role Broncos: Bypassed in draft and released by Eagles after knee injury, the Gibbons grad has made quite a return to bring back kicks for Denver in NFL showcase

Super Bowl Xxxii

January 19, 1998|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

When he wasn't hitting his schoolbooks, tearing up the sandlot fields around his old Catonsville neighborhood or running the ball as a Cardinal Gibbons standout, Vaughn Hebron would slip into a local theater to satisfy another passion.

Hebron often would get to the Westview Cinema in time for a noon showing, then stick around to see one or two other releases. Sometimes, he would watch the same flick twice. It wasn't unusual for Hebron to emerge from his Hollywood escape after dark, some eight hours after sitting down with his first cup of popcorn.

Years later, Hebron continues to feed his main hobby. He estimates his collection of movies at 600. And, as the Denver Broncos' main kickoff return man and backup running back who will play in his first Super Bowl on Sunday at age 27, Hebron laughs as he reviews his own, unlikely script.

It goes something like this: A short, strong, lightning-quick Gibbons phenom spurns the University of Maryland for Virginia Tech, where he becomes the sixth-leading rusher in school history. Injuries force him to miss four games as a senior, after which he goes undrafted by the NFL.

He eventually lands with Philadelphia as a free agent, then becomes a dependable kick returner and running back before a knee injury knocks him out of action for the entire 1995 season. Despite an excellent comeback, the Eagles cut him in August 1996, and Denver barely beats the Baltimore Ravens to the punch in signing him less than a week later. A month later, the Broncos give him a two-year contract extension worth $1 million. Sixteen months later, the comeback kid is bound for the biggest football game in America.

"I feel truly blessed for all of this to happen," Hebron said. "I felt blessed last year, getting released, then getting picked up by a winning team, then getting an extension. I went from not having a job to making more money than I've ever made in my life.

"I like going into every city [with the team] with rock star status, walking around with that Broncos mystique. This is what I've always dreamed of. Be careful what you wish for."

Hebron adds that warning with a wink. Throughout last week, he received calls from friends and family -- he figures about 70 relatives still reside in the Baltimore area -- ranging from heartfelt congratulations to Super Bowl ticket requests. Some callers identified themselves as cousins whom he failed to recognize.

The Hebron family will be celebrating Vaughn's huge day in a huge way. Three separate Super Bowl parties have been scheduled, including a bash at a rented, Catonsville recreation center.

"He deserves it. I never had any trouble out of him. I always knew where he was, and he turned out to be a nice kid," said Janice Hebron, Vaughn's mother. "I remember when Vaughn first started playing football, he was one of the smallest guys. He'd get hurt, and he'd beg the coach to put him back in. He told me when he was 8 that he would play in the NFL. He always knew wanted to play football, and he knew what it took."

At 5 feet 8, 195 pounds, Hebron remains one of the league's smaller guys. But, when faced with a roadblock, he keeps coming up big -- starting with the day he overcame doubts about his size and durability at Virginia Tech by making the Eagles roster in 1993.

By the end of his second season, Hebron had firmly established himself as a bona fide backup running back (82 carries, 325 yards, two touchdowns) and kickoff return man (21.1-yard average).

That all changed one day early in his 1995 training camp, when Hebron tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, ending his season before it had begun.

The way Hebron sees it, he learned the most about himself during that trying time.

"It [a serious injury] either makes you stronger, or you fall by the wayside," Hebron said. "I've seen how certain players deal with it. Some of them turn soft as cotton. You find out about your true relationship with your teammates, because you're not sweating blood with them anymore. My rehab was my playing field. Can I achieve this today? I attacked it."

Even though the Eagles put Hebron on injured reserve after he hurt his knee, Hebron recovered so swiftly that fall that he said he could have played at the end of the 1995 season. He looked like the same quick, shifty back during a preseason visit to Baltimore in 1996, but Philadelphia had stacked the roster with so many runners that Hebron wasn't the least bit shocked when the Eagles waived him before the final exhibition game. Philadelphia coach Ray Rhodes later said it was the team's worst decision of the year.

Had the Broncos not reached him first, Hebron most likely would have become a Raven. He was due to visit Baltimore the day after seeing Denver, but Hebron blew away the Broncos with his smarts and a workout that included a 4.5-second, 40-yard dash. He never left Denver.

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