Vaughn Hebron walked through the George School parking lot and made his way onto the track while he waited for his daughter Sanaa.
The former Eagles running back preceded his youngest child by about 20 minutes, which gave him time to place five hurdles in a row for Sanaa’s warmup routine.
As he meticulously placed each hurdle perpendicular to the 40-yard line of the football field, Vaughn reflected on how he went from an NFL player to the father of five highly successful athletes, four of whom chose to focus on track and field.
Sanaa, a Neshaminy graduate headed to the University of Miami for track next season, is preparing for the New Balance Nationals at Franklin Field. The three-time state champion will compete in the 400-meter hurdles on Friday and the 200-meter dash on Saturday with the final for that event on Sunday — Father’s Day.
“We became a track family,” said Vaughn, who settled in Bucks County after his two seasons with the Eagles from 1993-94. “It became a big family affair. Our vacations were when we went down to AAU tournaments, nationals, all that.”
The entire Hebron family agrees, Sanaa and Vaughn are cut from the same cloth. Sanaa’s mother, Kim, told Vaughn years ago that their youngest child was the one most similar to the five-year NFL veteran personality-wise.
“Those two? They’re definitely wired the same,” she said. “In terms of their drive, they both want to be the best and they don’t mind the work that goes into it.”
Vaughn added, “Sanaa is just so driven. Most people, when they say they want to do something, they don’t think about the work that it takes. When she says she wants to do something, she’s already thought about the work that it’ll take. Her focus is crazy.”
On Wednesday, Sanaa’s intense focus was hard to miss. She got to the track a few minutes after a check-in text from her father, whom she affectionately calls “Doach,” a cross between dad and coach.
She’s used to training a little later in the day, but her high school graduation ceremony was scheduled for that evening. Before the celebration got started, though, her and “Doach” had to finish a rigorous workout.
“Today I have seven hurdles,” she said. “It’s going to be hard.”
“Graduation?” Sanaa said after being reminded of what’s to come. “I’m excited for it, even though it’s going to be a little hot. I decorated my cap. It’s just a real surreal moment because I’ve seen all my siblings graduate and I’m finally here.”
Gravitating to track
Sanaa started running track in middle school but primarily played soccer as a child.
Vaughn, not exactly a soccer fan, dreamed of other sports for his daughter but stayed silent and supportive.
“She started playing soccer, that [stuff] kills me,” Vaughn said. “I was like, what are we doing out on the soccer field? I’m going to keep it 100. But it was my daughter and I was going to support her. I was out there, but I was dying inside.
“She was good because she was fast. But Sanaa is a very driven kid and I knew she wasn’t that interested. I got her all these different things to improve her footwork and all that, but she wasn’t doing it. That’s not Sanaa, so I knew she didn’t really love it.”
Eventually, she followed her siblings’ footsteps and took up track in middle school. Her older sister, Saloni, runs track at Morgan State and her brothers, twins Savion and Savaughn, run for Penn State and Kutztown, respectively. Her eldest brother, also named Vaughn, played Division I football at Lafayette College.
Sanaa eventually realized the meaning of her father’s fame as the two-time Super Bowl champion with the Denver Broncos would sometimes stop to sign autographs at her school’s field day. Still, she said she didn’t feel the weight of expectations from the outside world.
“I don’t think there was pressure,” she said. “I’m sure some people would just assume I had to be good at a sport because of my family, but it’s not something that scares me or anything. I want to do well, the fact that my family is good at sports is just a bonus. I work really hard for it, so I don’t feel pressure by anyone, but it definitely is mentioned.”
Seeing her older siblings’ success on the track was part of what drew her to it in the first place, and early success against local competition helped it stick. Sanaa was winning races by about 10 seconds most of the time, but her father warned her that the real challenges were coming.
“We weren’t gauging ourselves for this [area,] we were talking about kids in Texas, kids in Florida, kids in Western Pa., that’s what you gauge yourself on,” he said. “So then, natural athleticism, everybody’s got that. So then, it’s about work. That’s what separates you. Think about how many guys you see go in the first round and they’re busts. Why? Because, when you’re surrounded by other guys that are like you and breathe your air, now it’s about work. We see that all the time.”
The sting of defeat
The elder Vaughn’s words came true for Sanaa in 2017. A week after joining the Trenton Track Club at the recommendation of a friend, she was headed to the AAU national championships in Orlando, Fla.
For the first time in her young track career, she lost. She ran a personal-record in the 400-meter dash, but she didn’t qualify for the final round.
“I remember crying after not making it for the 400 finals,” Sanaa said. “It was a weird day, but it was something I was really grateful to go through because it showed how much I wanted to be a part of it and it was when I knew I had to step up my game to be able to compete with the rest of the people.”
Vaughn saw the experience as a turning point for his daughter’s track career, which now features multiple state titles and an indoor national championship after running a personal-best 54.37 seconds in the 400 at the Adidas-sponsored event in Virginia Beach.
“That’s when I knew this was real,” Vaughn said of Sanaa’s first loss. “You never know when they encounter that first disappointment, how they’ll respond. She told me, ‘Dad, I want to win this.’”
The following year, she did just that, edging out the previous year’s 400-meter champion in the final 10 meters.
“It’s probably my favorite race she’s run,” Kim said. “Seeing her struggle the year before — she cried and cried and cried because she’d always won. Having her come back that following year and come from behind, it was really special.”
Next season, Sanaa will run for the University of Miami and hopes to qualify for the U.S. under-20 team en route to a professional career in the sport.
The routine training sessions with Vaughn will be coming to an end soon, but at least for the rest of the summer, Vaughn will continue being the one directing his daughter through her sessions.
“He definitely pushes me hard, but when I’m hard on myself, he backs off and focuses on the positive things,” Sanaa said. “He really knows how to get maximum effort out of me, although he’s annoying sometimes. He gets annoying sometimes, but I think we have a good relationship and balance between father and coach.”