Growing up in Paterson, New Jersey, especially in the projects, will undoubtedly challenge anyone in many ways with every decision, no matter how large or small, often impacting both one’s present and their future.
Such was the case for Vaughn L. McKoy who negotiated his way through the maze, hoping to succeed while watching others fail. What Vaughn and I have in common is that we faced many of the same tests during our formative years as we both grew up in Paterson. I have known Vaughn McKoy since we were teenagers and from our first encounter, I knew there was something different about him.
Playing with and holding his own with older guys, he was talented, tough as nails, mature beyond his years and had a tremendous work ethic. He seemed to be destined for greatness, learning which paths to avoid by observing others – lessons that could only come beyond the safer environment of the classroom.
Education was his foundation but sports served as his safe haven and he connected with coaches and mentors who would impact his life and help guide him toward achieving his potential.
I had a chance to sit down and speak with Vaughn L. McKoy, a former Division I star athlete and an accomplished attorney, author, highly sought after speaker, mentor, father and husband, to discuss his journey and career.
Where were you born and raised? I was born, raised, and educated through public schools in Paterson, New Jersey.
Talk about some of your influences growing up in Paterson. As the youngest of six siblings, I paid attention to what my older siblings did and tried to model good habits and eliminate the bad. My mother struggled but held the family together as best she could. She was strong and committed to her children and I learned what commitment was through her.
I had great primary and secondary teachers, sports coaches, clergy, and neighbors who inspired me to pursue my dreams through education and effort. The village was strong, and I embraced it.
When and where did your love for sports begin?
My love for sports began in the streets, literally. We played everything in the street: football, basketball, and baseball. A kid’s “status” or respect in the neighborhood often correlated to his toughness and athletic ability. I was young and would get pummeled by the older kids in football, struck out by the mature arms in baseball and have my shot blocked by those who towered over me in basketball. Constantly competing with the older kids helped me to learn and develop faster, even though it wasn’t always fun and easy. I learned at an early age to “play up.
Was there one sport that attracted you the most?
Not really. I enjoyed the three major sports. I started playing organized baseball when I was eight and did really well, playing for the New Jersey Bank Shorties, a team on which my neighbor Benjie Wimberly (currently 35th District Assemblymen) was a star and he vouched for me to the coach.
Basketball and football both satisfied my desire to compete and earn a scholarship. I didn’t care what I played; I wanted respect in the city and to earn a scholarship to college. By the time I got to Eastside High School, football and basketball became my primary sports.
You received a football scholarship to Rutgers; how did the University impact your life personally and professionally?
I was a four-year letterwinner at Rutgers University and one of only two freshmen to play during their first year. Rutgers provided the foundation for my personal and professional development.
I met Arthur M. Goldberg, my sponsor and mentor, in the weight room. I met Marnie G. Lewis, my future wife, in the classroom. Lastly, I developed my faith in God in a University meeting room. For me, Rutgers was and is a place of new beginnings.
Who planted the seed in influencing you to become a lawyer?
Mrs. Jones, my fourth-grade teacher at School #10, planted the seed and it grew from there. In my high school yearbook, I wrote that my career goal was to become an attorney without knowing how I would do or pay for it.
In the mid to late 1980s, two television shows that featured prominent Black lawyers enlightened me: LA Law (Blair Underwood) and The Cosby Show (Phylicia Rashad).
Three professors at Rutgers University, Lennox Hinds, Rhinold Ponder and Gail Belfert, each influenced my decision to pursue law as a career. Mr. Goldberg, who I referenced earlier, was also a lawyer and mentored me through college and law school.
You have seen and been part of several decades of collegiate athletics and professional sports; which decade was the most impactful and why?
The game has changed! Name, image, and likeness (NIL), the transfer portal and conference eliminations and consolidations, to name a few, have transformed college sports and continue to do so. The jury is still out on whether these changes will have long-term positive or negative impacts on universities and their student-athletes.
The NCAA is at a crossroads and federal intervention may be necessary to resolve some of these issues.
You attended Paterson Eastside High School, which was made famous by Joe Clark, the principal featured in the film “Lean on Me.” Can you share your experiences and how you were impacted.
Mr. Clark wrote the foreword to my book, “Playing Up: One Man’s Rise from Public Housing to Public Service through Mentorship.” His no-nonsense style and tough love were what many of us needed. Eastside was challenging on many levels, but he tried to create an environment conducive to teaching and learning. He exposed us to what was possible in life regardless of our individual circumstances.
Please make no mistake about it: Mr. Clark was an equal opportunity offender who held teachers and students accountable for their actions or inactions.
What was your most memorable moment as a collegiate and professional athlete?
Beating Michigan State and Penn State on the road in 1988.
One of your first jobs out of college was as assistant attorney general for the state of New Jersey. Describe the process that led to your landing that opportunity.
I have always been drawn to public service. After working in the private sector for five years, upon graduating from law school, I was presented with an opportunity to serve as a federal prosecutor with the United States Attorney’s Office. That experience laid the foundation for me to become AAG and Director of the Division of Criminal Justice.
I was 34 years old and in charge of the State’s most prominent prosecutor’s office. I remained for four years before jumping back into the private sector. A big highlight for me was returning to Paterson to serve as the Business Administrator.
What are you doing now?
I am a partner with the Connell Foley law firm, providing advice and counsel to companies and individuals on a wide range of legal, business, and regulatory matters and issues.
Through our family business, I am involved in retail and food and beverage operations at airports and other locations.
Active in the community, I am affiliated with several organizations serving youth, such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of New Jersey, UNCF and Mentor New York.