False Start

What do you think of Vince Young now?
Illustrations by Graham Smith

When it comes to Vince Young, I can’t promise impartiality. Beginning with his days at James Madison High School, in Houston, and continuing in a broken-field run through his years at the University of Texas, Young dismantled the part of my brain that vowed never to make too much of athletes. After his wizardry against USC in the national championship in 2006, I thought about his gliding six-five form every waking minute for several days. I occasionally still find myself thinking about that performance while I jog, hoping I can flip some physiological switch and start taking Young-size strides across the pavement.

In the past few weeks, though, I’ve watched the slow disintegration of my hero. Now a Tennessee Titan, Young first fell apart as an NFL quarterback and then as a person, culminating with an apparent suicide scare in September. It is not the kind of fall from grace we can thoughtfully discuss on sports radio. Fans are left with an empty feeling, a nagging question: What should we think of Vince Young now?

On September 7, in his opening-week game against Jacksonville, Young sprained his medial collateral ligament. It was the first major injury of his career. It was later reported that, before the injury, Young had tried to leave the game in frustration after being booed by the crowd and that Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher ordered him back on the field. The next day, Young didn’t show up for a scheduled MRI, so Fisher went to Young’s home with a team psychologist. Several hours after they had left, Young’s family couldn’t locate him, so Fisher called the Nashville Police Department and said that Young had mentioned suicide to the psychologist and had left his house with a gun.

Young turned up unharmed, thankfully, and shrugged off the incident. (“I was never depressed,” he said. “I just hurt a little bit.”) Suddenly Young’s behavior had become as big a story as his three-quarter throwing motion. Previous incidents burbled back to the surface. In 2006, the season Young scrambled his way to the NFL’s rookie of the year award, he missed a Titans charter flight to Philadelphia. The next season, Young blew a team curfew. The NFL Network’s Adam Schefter reported that Young’s attempted self-benching against the Jaguars wasn’t his first. At halftime of January’s playoff game against the San Diego Chargers, Young was so disgusted by his performance that he had to be coaxed into the huddle.

Part of the problem was obvious: Young’s skills had hit a wall. His improvisational genius was no longer sufficient to win games, and the sport’s pundits, who are appointed to protect us from $58 million busts, were beginning to get restless. “What would you think, if you were tired of being ridiculed and persecuted and talked about and not being treated very well, what would you do?” Young’s mother, Felicia, told the Nashville Tennessean. “But it is hard, all he is going through right now. He’s hurting inside and out.” That didn’t stop ESPN’s Merril Hoge from calling him a baby, and from Fisher announcing that Young would have to earn back his starting position.

This Vince Young seems like an impostor, a poor imitation of the player who stood on the field of the Rose Bowl in 2005 after beating Michigan and crowed, “We’ll be baaack.” What happened? The best clue I could find was an interview on 60 Minutes last year. Young described his career not as a triumph over adversity—a standard talking point for athletes—but as a triumph over embarrassment. There was the embarrassment of the 2005 Heisman Trophy race, which he lost to USC’s Reggie Bush and which spurred him to his amazing performance in the national championship one month later. Then there was a mortifying incident from childhood, when Felicia caught him fighting at school and sentenced him to do yard work. “When I was raking up them leaves, doing my punishment,” Young recalled, “you know, the kids on the bus were riding by [saying], ‘Aha, Vincent!’ You know, laughing at me. It was like I was a joke, and I didn’t want to be a joke no more.”

So maybe Young hasn’t changed after all. Maybe the struggling Titans quarterback isn’t so different from the Houston kid who was forced to rake leaves—the kid so sensitive to the jeers of the peanut gallery.

I suggest this merely as a theory, because I will never know what is going on inside Young’s head. Indeed, it seems Young’s two-sided fall has been so dramatic that we sports fans are overreaching to connect both parts. We are conflating quarterbacking with mental health. We are allowing our natural proclivity as fans, which means knowing everything about a player and judging him at every moment, to cloud an issue that is unknowable and cannot with any decency be judged. It is one of the strange moments in sports fandom when there are no opinions to be had.

Consider the last enigma to emerge from Austin, former Longhorns running back Ricky Williams. His introduction to the NFL was similarly fraught: He conducted interviews with his helmet on, ran afoul of the league’s drug policy, and then abruptly quit, embarking on a kind of vision quest in Asia. The fans put Williams through the requisite psychiatric workups. Now he is back with the Dolphins—happy, or so it seems. And I have to ask, for all the chatter, for all the five-thousand-word magazine articles: What did we ever really know about Ricky Williams?

Or move over to Irving, where Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens overdosed on the painkiller hydrocodone, in 2006. Owens denied it was a suicide attempt, and a surreal press conference followed. We spent weeks analyzing the psyche of T.O., wondering how his swagger and braggadocio had suddenly morphed into … well, whatever it was. And yet two years later, Owens is one of the most dominating receivers in the game. What did we ever really know about Terrell Owens?

Young has entered that

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