This Gator is hailed as the Father of Sports Massage. Growing up Black in the Jim Crow South prepared him to be the leader and innovator he is today, he says.
In the spring of 1969, Georgia’s top high-school runner got his first glimpse of Gator hospitality — and liked what he saw.
It was a warm midday at the Jacksonville Airport, and 17-year-old Benny Vaughn (BSHSE ’85), of Columbus, was doing what all blue-chip athletes were doing that season: going on recruiting visits. Only, this being 1969 and him being African American, those visits had made him uncomfortable. Sure, the SEC schools were under federal orders to desegregate, and their athletic programs were eager to have the Peach State’s Most Valuable Player in their track and field program. But he hadn’t exactly felt at home touring those campuses, where all the students were white and from the same 40-mile radius. Heck, at one SEC school, the coaches had proudly escorted him to a fraternity house’s annual Old South Day celebration, with the brothers decked out in Confederate grey and sorority sisters parading in hoop skirts, under the Stars-and-Bars.
Talk about having no idea how to make a young Black man from the Deep South feel at home, he thought, bitterly.
But what he experienced in the Jacksonville terminal that day renewed his hopes, Vaughn recalled in a recent interview.
February 9, 2023
“Growing up in the Deep South as a young Black boy provided me with some of the best preparation and training to be persistent.”
— Benny Vaughn —
“I was met at the arrival gate by two athletes on the track team: Eamonn O’Keeffe, (BSBA ’73), who was from Dublin, Ireland, a half-miler like myself, and Johnnie Brown (1968), an African American distance runner from West Palm Beach,” said Vaughn. “I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve got a European guy and a Black guy meeting me as representatives of the University of Florida.’”
“Then when I toured the campus, I met students from all over the country, not just Florida,” he added. “I saw there was a lot of diversity of views and people from all manner of life. And the coaching staff was awesome.”
Vaughn signed as a full scholarship athlete with the UF track and field team, becoming one of the first five Black athletes to desegregate Gator athletics. That began a half century’s journey that would see him break collegiate running records, pioneer the use of therapeutic massage in sports medicine and participate in five Olympic Games as medical staff for Team USA.
For the secret to Vaughn’s drive and persistence, though, you have to go back to his roots, starting with a humble family farm in southwest Georgia.
From Back of the Bus to Bussing Frontlines
The eldest of five children, Benny Vaughn was born at the Colored Women’s Hospital in Americus, Georgia, in 1951. His father was a mess sergeant stationed in Korea, and his mother was living with her parents in the small farming village of Smithville, about 23 miles from Plains, Georgia. Even after his father was assigned to Fort Benning and his family moved to Columbus, Vaughn always spent his summers in Smithville, he said.
“We had no running water, barely any electricity,” Vaughn said. “Every morning, I had to go out to the well and draw water for the day, filter it in a cheese cloth for drinking and the remainder for our baths. We didn’t throw anything away. We reused every jar, kept every scrap of paper. We had chickens, fruit trees, pecan trees. The original, organic, recycling people of America are the poor people of the South.”
Living in segregated Columbus required another skill: hypervigilance. Vaughn grew up riding in the back of the bus, drinking at “colored” water fountains and pedaling away from vicious dogs sicced on him in white neighborhoods. Looking at or speaking to a white woman could spark violence, his family stressed, so he kept his eyes down, his mouth, shut.
Then, in 1961, Vaughn, his mother and siblings flew to join his father, now stationed in Crailsheim, Germany, with the 4th Armored Division. For three years, Vaughn attended an integrated school, lived in an integrated apartment building and played sports with white children. That showed him it was possible to build a society of inclusion and opportunity, just Martin Luther King Jr. had “dreamed” in his 1963 speech. The key was to think big and hold onto that vision.
Back in Columbus, Vaughn’s new mindset was tested when he and other Black students were chosen to be the first to desegregate Columbus’s all-white Baker High School, in 1965.
The trailblazers were taunted and shunned, but Vaughn found strength through adversity.
“It was rough, but it was all wonderful preparation for me to be persistent and to stick with what I loved,” said Vaughn philosophically. “In the end, I give gratitude to all the white police officers who did random stops, to all the white kids that called me the N-word and to all the store owners that wouldn’t let me enter their store. I just give gratitude to all those people because what they did was prepare me to be the strong, persistent leader and innovator that I am today.”
Finding His Gainesville Groove
What brought Vaughn to UF, of course, was his athletic prowess. As Baker High’s first Black track and field athlete, Vaughn had led his school to multiple state victories. At the 1969 Georgia High School Track and Field Championships, he won the mile, the 880-meter (half mile) and the 440-meter races; anchored Baker High’s mile-relay win; and was named the meet’s MVP. The handsome young athlete’s photo ran prominently in Georgia papers.
Those achievements impressed UF track coach Jimmy Carnes, who was looking to end his team’s streak as perennial SEC runners-up to the Tennessee Volunteers. (Under Carnes, UF would go on to claim the SEC crown in 1975 and 1976.)
When Vaughn signed with UF in ‘69, Athletic Director Ray Graves, aka “the Bull Gator,” wrote him a handwritten note welcoming him to the Gator family.
“I thought that was cool,” Vaughn said. “I still have that note from Ray Graves!”
As a freshman, Vaughn broke barriers in desegregating UF Athletics, simultaneously breaking records in the half-mile event. During his four years on campus, he witnessed the Black Thursday protests and the subsequent launch of the Institute for Black Culture and the recruitment of more minority students.
In 1974, he read an article in “Track & Field” magazine that sparked a new desire. The story described how European runners were using massage therapy to recover from hard training sessions and, ultimately, to enhance their performance potential.
“I was running at the time,” remembered Vaughn, “and I thought, ‘Wow, we’re not getting that here in the United States. What if we got regular massage? Wouldn’t that be helpful?’”
Vaughn enrolled at the American Institute of Massage (now the Florida School of Massage), in Gainesville, and immersed himself in massage therapy techniques. The practice was not new to him, although he knew it by a different name.
“I was always attracted to the concept of laying on of hands, of putting your hands on people to help them feel better,” he told Massage magazine in February 2021. “My mother would do it whenever things were not feeling well for us kids in the family … I think it was a calling.”
“My driving, burning desire”
Once licensed, Vaughn spent the next eight years building a successful massage business. There was just one thing missing in his life — well, make that two.
“When I finished my athletic career at the University of Florida in ‘74, I did not have a degree to reflect that college experience,” said Vaughn. “Back then, the NCAA did not have any rules about athletes making a progression towards a degree like they have today. Once your eligibility was up, you were done with college… So, years later, I asked myself, what was my primary goal in life? And the answer was that I would love to be a graduate of the University of Florida. That became my driving, burning desire.”
Vaughn returned to UF in 1982, entering the College of Health and Human Performance’s Health Education program and working toward certification as an athletic trainer. At a Foundations of Education class, he met graduate student Joan Carroll (MAPE ’84, PHD ’92). An accomplished scuba diver, Carroll had enrolled at UF to get her master’s degree in physical education and, later, her doctorate in exercise science and medical physiology. But the two students had more in common than their HHP coursework.
“We were both SOTAs,” said Vaughn with a laugh. “Students Over the Traditional Age, as they called us then. I just thought she was very smart and articulate, and I was attracted to that. We got to talking after class one day and, and well — 37 years later, here we are.” (The couple tied the knot in September 1986).
Making Olympic History, Leaving a Legacy
After earning his degree and winning over UF Athletics to the benefits of sports massage, Vaughn spread the gospel nationwide. Several videos he produced in the 1990s became industry game-changers, reframing massage as a necessary tool for injury recovery and peak athletic performance.
Then in 1996, Vaughn was handpicked to manage athletic medical services at the Centennial Olympic Games, in Atlanta. His first order of business was to incorporate therapeutic massage.
“This was the first Olympic Games in modern history where massage therapists had the same credential as physical therapists, medical doctors and athletic trainers,” he told Massage magazine in 2021.
Since Atlanta, Vaughn has provided medical support to the USA track and field team at four subsequent Olympic Games: Athens 2004, Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Tokyo 2021. He has also supported countless elite athletes at regional, national and world meets, and at his own business, the 5,000-square-foot Benny Vaughn Athletic Therapy Center, in Fort Worth.
Massage is so much more than a rub-down for top athletes, Vaughn told NBC News in July 2021. “It’s also helping their mindset because the massage therapist is the very last contact they have, besides their coach, before they walk out onto the track or onto the pool deck or the stadium.“
Balancing a client’s competitive edge is just as important as preventing injuries, he stresses.
“Much of what I do is what I say to athletes — or not say — as I’m stretching them, making sure their muscles are feeling loose and ready,” he said, “Then I’ll add just a word or two to amplify their readiness. ‘You’re prepared. You’ve done the work. You’ve got this.’ I always tell them, ‘That fear you’re feeling is a good sign. That means you’re on the edge of your growth performance.’”
Vaughn ought to know. At 71, he has spent a lifetime overcoming fears and facing challenges head on, growing exponentially in the process.
He has pushed his profession by leaps and bounds too, for which Massage Magazine lauded Vaughn as one of the Most Influential Massage Therapists of the Last 100 Years. And he has earned the gratitude of hundreds of elite athletes, whose handwritten letters and signed photographs fill the walls of his center.
Gratitude flows the other way, too, from Vaughn to his alma mater, where he and Carroll established a scholarship fund for HHP graduate students.
Looking back, he says he has no regrets. Not even for what he endured during the darkness of Jim Crow. He always knew to look for the light, starting with the day he was greeted by two hospitable Gators at the Jacksonville Airport.
“The university experience is life changing and life expanding,” he said. “You don’t know it at the time, but you feel it. For me as a student, I knew something important was happening then. The journey of earning my degree, and who I became during that journey, is the biggest gift from my University of Florida experience.”