Sam Vaulton didn’t immediately feel pain when his right index finger disappeared into the winch of a four-wheeler.
It was March of 2017. An eighth grader at the time, Vaulton was driving around with a buddy when he noticed the crank on the front of the ATV looked stuck.
He inserted his hand into the spool to rectify the problem then told his friend to pull the lever meant to loosen the cable.
Those were the seconds leading up to a moment that changed Vaulton’s life.
“It just went the wrong way and smashed in between the bone,” Vaulton said. “One of my first thoughts was that I wouldn’t be able to play quarterback again.”
Shock immediately set in as Vaulton withdrew his hand.
He remembers blood spurting from his knuckle. He could see bone where his finger used to be.
Three years later, Vaulton is the starting quarterback for Alcoa — a Class 3A powerhouse that possesses a Tennessee record of 17 state titles — and he will be a significant factor on Thursday when the Tornadoes try to defeat Class 6A Maryville for a second consecutive season.
The possibility of continuing his football career initially seemed like a long shot to Vaulton, but renowned quarterback coach Steve Clarkson put those concerns to rest.
“Playing for Alcoa High School? That’s a tough challenge for anybody,” Clarkson said. “He’s able to do it because he has a certain innate ability to compartmentalize what he has to do. That’s really what makes him special.”
Based in California, Clarkson has coached 12 NFL quarterbacks, including Ben Roethlisberger, Nick Foles and Teddy Bridgewater.
He also conducts developmental camps around the country.
Vaulton was in sixth grade when he attended one in Atlanta, and he has been traveling to train with Clarkson during the offseason once a month ever since.
Clarkson said he instantly recognized Vaulton had the “it” factor.
“Sam was the kind of kid who you knew was in the room, and he didn’t have to say anything,” Clarkson said. “You can’t coach that. He just has it, and I think that’s what has really gotten him to where he is now.”
It hasn’t been an easy road.
After the accident, Vaulton pulled his detached finger from the winch and headed home.
He was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where the possibility of reattaching it was squashed. The blood vessels had been smashed beyond repair.
Vaulton was just weeks removed from competing in the Adidas national championships when the accident occurred.
Clarkson said opponents there were comparing him to former Vols great Peyton Manning for his ability to dissect defenses.
“He already had some legendary status — he was on his way,” Clarkson said. “Two weeks later, I got the call.”
It was from Vaulton’s dad, who Clarkson said got emotional while delivering the news.
Clarkson, too, was devastated.
“To think of your kid is coming in with his finger in an ice bag — you’re losing your mind because you’re thinking, ‘My boy, everything he has wanted is out the window,’” Clarkson said. “Your emotions are running strong, but he’s sitting there calming everybody down — telling the kid who pulled the lever it’s not his fault.
“I mean, who’s wired that way?”
After hanging up with Vaulton’s dad, Clarkson immediately headed to his garage to simulate throwing without an index finger. He said it was a challenge, but he recognized it could work.
Vaulton proved as much during his next training session. The key for Vaulton was moving his hand up on the ball. As for getting it to spin, he retained enough of the finger to throw a perfect spiral.
“What we had to do was figure out what made him get to that point where he was always releasing it the same way and getting the spin he wanted on a ball,” Clarkson said. “That came with a lot of reps, but he’s a very dedicated kid, and we figured it out.”
Vaulton has sparked Alcoa to a 3-0 record so far this year, including a 23-14 victory over a 6A Blackman in the season opener. He is 27-for-41 passing (66%) for 442 yards, five touchdowns and one interception.
Alcoa coach Gary Rankin also got a call from Vaulton’s dad shortly after the accident. For his size and athleticism as a middle schooler, Vaulton was an intriguing prospect.
“I was shocked to say the least,” Rankin said. “It was a pretty horrific accident, especially to a guy who throws the football. My first concern was not football, but to just make sure he was OK. He’s a great kid — great family. Football never crossed my mind.”
When asked if there’s an NFL quarterback Vaulton resembles, Clarkson said Drew Brees with the New Orleans Saints because of Vaulton’s ability to “see the field, lead his troops and understand the moment.”
Vaulton credits Clarkson with reviving his optimism about continuing his career as a quarterback.
“It made it tougher, but it made me realize how blessed I was before and that you can still do anything, no matter what you go through,” Vaulton said. “If you still want to do it, you’re able.”
Alcoa is seeking its fifth straight state title. Rankin believes Vaulton is up for the task.
“He’s a fighter,” Rankin said. “He’s going to find a way to win, whatever that is. We’re glad we’ve got him. We’ll go to war with him any night, and we’re looking forward to the rest of the year.”