Perfect 10

In the afterglow of UT’s Rose Bowl shocker, we revel in Vince Young’s mastery of the game, compare this year’s national champs with their forebears, and channel the ghost of Harvey Penick.

February 2006By and Comments

In the afterflow of UT’s Rose Bowl shocker, we revel in Vince Young’s mastery of the game, compare this year’s national champs with their forebears, and channel the ghost of Harvey Penick.
Photograph by Daniel Adel

Portrait by Platon

>> January 5, 2:44 p.m.

Bud, old amigo:

I dreamed about Vince Young last night. At least I think it was a dream. I had five or six cups of coffee watching the Rose Bowl (yeah, I know—in the old days it would have been a quart and a half of scotch), so I slept in fits and starts, like the game itself, never sure if this would end well.

But there he was, number 10, a vision in orange striding effortlessly across the emerald landscape, 8 yards at a time, small bodies clawing at his ankles, accidental tacklers splattering off his knee pads like bugs against the windshield of life, never knowing what hit them. It was one of those dreams where gravity is suspended, where everything is possible and life is constantly renewed.

Then I woke, gathered the morning newspapers on my front lawn, and found it was true—an event so earthshaking that even the state edition of the Dallas Morning News had full coverage. Normally, events that happen after nine-thirty at night don’t reach the Austin edition for at least 36 hours. As a rule, editors at the DMN won’t stop the presses unless, say, Houston crumbles into the Gulf of Mexico (I think they keep that story on permanent overset), but there it was on page one, in World War III type, a one-word headline that said it all: “Invincible.”

Can you remember a more incredible individual performance by a football player? Jim Brown against the Cowboys? Joe Namath against the Colts? John David Crow against Texas? Doak Walker against TCU? Or a more stunning moment in Longhorn history? I can’t. Somehow this seems bigger than any of the three national championships that Darrell Royal won, in 1963, 1969, and 1970, when we were young and brilliant and teaching Darrell everything he knows. Or maybe I’ve just got a coffee hangover. I know one thing: Vince Young is the best football player I’ve ever seen or hope to see. And what he did in the Rose Bowl last night is something I’m going to dream about for the rest of my life.

He simply willed it to happen. When the Longhorns were down by twelve points with less than seven minutes to play, everyone in the country thought they were whipped—everyone but Vince, and maybe Mack Brown, whose own career was saved when he told his quarterback to stop worrying about the X’s and O’s and just have fun. And that’s what it looked like, fun—except maybe to the bewildered USC players and fans. First, Vince methodically drove his team 69 yards in eight plays, running the final 17 himself. The extra point cut USC’s lead to five, at which time the Longhorn defense made one of its infrequent appearances of the evening. Then, with nineteen seconds remaining and Texas facing fourth down on the USC 8, it became clear what would happen next. Vince would take a direct snap from center, scamper out of the grasp of three or four Trojan tacklers, read a magazine, file his nails, call his momma, and head for the corner flag and his rendezvous with history. It was the easiest touchdown I ever saw.

I’m out of breath just thinking about it. I’m going to take a nap and try to forget all the ways Texas could have, and probably should have, lost this game. Wake me if I start snoring real loud.

Your pal,

Jappy

>> January 5, 4:28 p.m.

Jappo:

The first time I saw Vince Young run with a football in his hands, I slapped my palms against the sides of my head the way you would to get water out of your ears, and then I rubbed my eyes and made a note to look up the word “eerie.” I don’t have a problem with believing we on earth have been visited by advanced life forms from other galaxies, but when you see an alien who is six feet five, weighs at least 230 pounds, wears orange and white, has huge feet, and seems to move among his fellows as if he inhabits a space no one else can enter—that is enough to send me to the dictionary. There has to be a word for it. “Eerie” does it pretty well: “suggestive of the supernatural.”

There are times during a game when it looks as if everybody on the field is standing still except for Vince. He doesn’t appear to be running fast (though, of course, he is) so much as everyone else is frozen in place, like in one of those party games. The proper stance in the face of mystery is awe. That’s my reaction to watching him. I think, “No human could have done that.” This guy is from the same planet that sent the guy to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Somehow I keep picturing a running back from TCU named Jim Swink. He had the same uncanny knack for running back and forth in a herd of people without anyone being able to touch him. Swink would dip and swing behind the tacklers, who suddenly found themselves running interference for him as he glided around the field. But Swink turned out not to be an alien— not a total alien, anyway, since he became a doctor—and Vince Young doesn’t do that trick of circling back and dodging around. He just goes where he wants to.

No, I don’t remember a more incredible individual performance by a football player. The Cowboys couldn’t tackle Jim Brown, but he didn’t throw passes. In the famous Super Bowl in which he had predicted his New York Jets would win against the Baltimore Colts and heavy odds, Joe Namath passed brilliantly but couldn’t run at all (the Jets defense won that game, with the help of an interception by Longhorn-ex Jim Hudson). I don’t remember John David Crow against Texas, though I’m sure it was memorable. I do remember Doak Walker against TCU. He had that magical bubble around him as well, and he too seemed to go pretty much wherever he pleased. But none of those people ever had a game like Vince Young in this Rose Bowl—or, for that matter, in last year’s Rose Bowl.

Until now, James Street had my vote as the all-time best University of Texas quarterback. Street had the invincible quality about him that you mention—he never lost a game as a starter—and sparked some very dramatic events for the Longhorns. But I doubt that James would argue he could beat Vince to the goal line in a race of national champion quarterbacks who never won the Heisman trophy.

Are you the one who thought Vince Young shouldn’t start as a freshman, or was that Rush Limbaugh?

Your old amigo,

Bud

>> January 5, 7:45 p.m.

Amigo:

I don’t recall the first time I saw Vince on television, but the first time I saw him with my own eyeballs was in 2004 at the Oklahoma State game, when he threw two interceptions in the first half, and OSU took a four-touchdown lead. That weird sidearm motion of his looked comically inept, like a giraffe trying to shake hands with a doorknob. I turned to Ken Shine, a UT vice-chancellor sitting next to me, and made the comment: “I hope that Mack Brown uses halftime to teach the boy to pass.” Apparently that happened, because in the second half, Vince was perfectly on target, directing the Longhorns to six unanswered touchdowns. They won by a landslide—not that I got even a tiny bit of credit.

Does Vince still throw sidearm? I’m not sure. His passes are so effortless, mere flicks of the wrist, and so uncannily accurate that the concept of passing technique seems as obsolete as that famous coaches’ caveat against scrambling quarterbacks. This guy was born to break rules, records, and hearts. He can throw on the run or falling backward or standing on his head—and still hit an ant’s butt at eighty paces. And when he runs, as you say, the rest of the world seems frozen in place. He can do anything he wants on a football field, anytime he pleases, and he damn well knows it. That, my friend, is what us football guys call dangerous.

The most amazing part about last night’s game is that while the Trojans had an embarrassing number of offensive weapons, Vince had to do most of the work himself. Tight end David Thomas was tough and dependable as always, but the others busted assignments, dropped balls, caused penalties, and mostly got in the way. Even the Texas defense got flustered. After the Longhorns forced USC to go three-and-out on the game’s first series, Aaron Ross coughed up the ball, trying to get an extra yard on a punt return. Helped along by a late hit by one of the UT linebackers, the Trojans wasted no time scoring. Then there was Mack’s astonishing decision to go for it on fourth-and-one from the USC 48, with the first quarter only half done and USC up by a touchdown. Can you imagine Darrell taking such a foolish risk? Mack’s blunder was compounded by offensive coordinator Greg Davis’s crazy call that gave the ball to the wrong Young—Selvin instead of Vince.

But my heart truly sank after UT’s first touchdown, when David Pino missed the extra point. A national championship game, and this boy misses a freaking extra point. (Later he missed a short field goal.) Teams don’t blow extra points against great teams, not if they expect to win. As Abe Martin might have put it, Pino ought to buy Vince Young a cream cone.

If you remember, Darrell used to lecture on how the game had three more-or-less equal parts: offense, defense, and special teams. There was rarely a time when DKR didn’t have a solid kicker. Coaches don’t seem concerned with that part of the game any longer. The Dallas Cowboys would be in the playoffs and might even have the home-field advantage if Parcells and Jones had bothered to look for a good kicker.

I wonder if Vince can boot the old pig hide? I’ll give you odds he can.

Jappy

>> January 5, 11:21 p.m.

Jappo:

You know how the TV announcers and color guys (they’re called analysts now) are always making hostile remarks to each other and then acting like it’s a joke and laughing heartily? They used to talk about Vince’s passing motion in that same tone, like he ought to forget about throwing the ball and stick to running with it and it was silly to think otherwise. I heard one of them say there are only two reasons he completes so many passes: (1) His receivers are always open, and (2) defenses are no good. That kind of comment reminds me of the political analysis we get on the cable talk shows—it’s both simple-minded and uninformed, a popular combination.

A number of critics still say that Vince will never make it as a pro because of his lack of classic form. He’s a three-quarters thrower instead of a put-the-ball-up-by-your-ear-and-let-it-fly-overhand picture passer. You’d never try to teach your Pony Leaguers to throw it that way, they say. But to me, Vince’s throwing motion looks very much like the one used by Drew Bledsoe, who has passed for more than 43,000 yards in the NFL, so he must be doing something right. And as you say, Vince often just flicks it. Of course, he can flick it 40 yards like a bullet. In the far-off galaxy he comes from, that’s how they do it in the interplanetary games. They call it “pegging the apple.”

I confess to being totally partisan about this. For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been wearing an orange bracelet with the Longhorn image on it that UT media legend Bill Little sent me. Stamped on the bracelet are the words “Take dead aim.” The bracelets are not for sale, but they should be. I haven’t read much about them in the papers, but the theme of the UT football team this season has been “Take dead aim,” in honor of the tenth anniversary of Harvey Penick’s death and Ben Crenshaw’s downright eerie (there’s that word again) winning of the Masters just a few days after Harvey’s funeral.

“Take dead aim” was what Harvey called the most important message in his books. What he meant was, be aware and be in the moment. He said that once you address the ball, hitting it has got to be the most important thing in your life at that moment—that you should shut out all thoughts other than picking a target and taking dead aim, believe you’re going to hit what you are aiming at, and swing away. Bill told me the coaches were looking for a theme for the 2005 season, and Mack Brown’s wife, Sally, suggested “Take dead aim.” I doubt if any of the players had ever heard of Harvey Penick. They weren’t even born yet when Crenshaw and Tom Kite played for UT. But Mack explained to them that Harvey was a wise man and a great teacher and an Austin and a University of Texas hero—and they got it. So while you can’t exactly say they dedicated this season to Harvey, he was, in spirit, a large part of it.

I did the eulogy at Harvey’s funeral. Cactus Pryor sang, and Kite and Crenshaw were pallbearers. Ben cried on the plane on the way back to Augusta. People wondered if he would make it to the first tee, but there he was on Sunday, tied for the lead. I was pacing around the living room in front of my TV screen, and I felt so utterly involved that it was, well, eerie. I felt Harvey’s presence there. So did Ben. If Ben hit a ball into the woods, it bounced off a tree and went back into the fairway. (If you do it from heaven, it’s not cheating.) By the end of Sunday, when Ben sank the putt that won the Masters and then collapsed in tears, I was on my knees on the carpet. Ben told reporters that day that Harvey was the fifteenth club in his bag. The point is that a couple of those bounces at Augusta on that Sunday reminded me of certain events at the Rose Bowl—like when Vince tossed the lateral that went for a touchdown but his knee was on the ground and the replay equipment didn’t get it because Harvey Penick had his thumb over the lens. And I’m sure that Harvey’s spirit piled into the line on that USC fourth-down-and-two late in the fourth quarter, the play that failed because Harvey had told Reggie Bush to stay on the sidelines.

Back to the Longhorn bracelets: They ought to sell them like Lance Armstrong bracelets and split the money between the athletic department and the First Tee Harvey Penick Golf Campus.

Looking out my back windows, I can see the Tower lit up orange. I can’t see the big number one from here, but I just saw it on television. And we know that if we see it on television, it’s real.

Bud

>> January 6, 10:31 a.m.

Bud:

Wow! I knew the phrase “take dead aim” sounded familiar, but until now I never made the connection. Got to get one of those bracelets fast.

I found myself fighting the bitter disease of partisanship as the season wore toward what now seems like its inevitable conclusion. As sportswriters, we hated partisans (“homers,” we called them). Remember that sportswriter at the Dallas Times Herald who always referred to the SMU Mustangs as “we,” not just in conversations but in his damn columns? Pathetic. But I knew I had been infected just before Christmas when I went to the University Co-op and bought my sixteen-year-old grandson, Malcolm, an orange UT coach’s jacket and a white number 10 Longhorn jersey. Malcolm lives in Little Rock, but I’m hoping he gets the fever. Just to be sure, I’m going out today to buy him a poster of the orange Tower with the big 1 on its face.

In retrospect, the Longhorns didn’t just have Harvey’s eternal spirit in their locker room; they had the living legend of Darrell Royal too. Darrell and his wife, Edith, were ubiquitous in Pasadena—Darrell his usual strong, quiet, laid-back presence and Edith making sure nobody missed the symbolism. There was a funny moment at the front gate of the Rose Bowl when security stopped Darrell and Edith because he wasn’t wearing his credentials. “Delbert” (remember when we nicknamed him Delbert?) didn’t bother mentioning that he had coached three national championship teams at UT. But when they tried to force him through a metal detector, Edith took charge. “He’s got a pacemaker,” she scolded. “He’s not going anywhere.”

As I recall, we coined the name Delbert after UT’s first national championship season, in 1963. He had just been named coach of the year and was hiding out from the press. So naturally he came to Dallas and concealed himself in an apartment on Cole Avenue occupied by two sportswriters named Shrake and Cartwright. Perfect plan, heh? “Delbert” was so that nobody would know his true identity. Four decades later, I still call him that. By the way, do you and Delbert play golf semi-regularly anymore, or has age rained you out?

Inevitably, people will compare Mack and Darrell. There are similarities, not the least of which is that they both won national championships. Both are solid, fundamental, and charismatic. Like Darrell, Mack knows exactly who he is and what he’s about. Mack has been criticized for being too conservative, too uptight, and too nice. Forty years ago you could have said the same about Darrell, though nobody did. They’re from different generations. The game has changed.

Darrell’s offense was once ridiculed as three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust, even though his 1969 national champions were the highest-scoring offense in UT history until this year. Vince Young throws more passes in a game than Darrell’s teams threw in a season. Darrell’s creed was that two out of the three things that can happen when you throw a pass are bad, but he knew when and where to use the weapon. Remember the 1964 Cotton Bowl, number one UT against number two Navy and its Heisman trophy quarterback, Roger Staubach? The best passer that day wasn’t Staubach but UT’s Duke Carlisle. The game is still about blocking and tackling. Darrell knew that, and so does Mack.

Before the Rose Bowl, a lot of people were calling USC the greatest team in college history. Now they’re wondering if this UT team is better than the UT team of 1969. It’s a question without an answer. Vince Young would have made one hell of a wishbone quarterback, though I’m not altogether certain he would have beat out James Street.

Jappy

>> January 6, 12:59 p.m.

Jappo:

I seem to remember that the Friday night before the Texas-Oklahoma game in 1963, when Darrell phoned the Cole Avenue apartment, you answered and asked him what brings him to town. That’s about as unpartisan as it gets. I get a kick out of the image of you buying an orange coach’s jacket and a white jersey for your grandson all these years later. You have gained in wisdom as you have matured, little grasshopper.

I feel sorry for people who can’t get a thrill out of a major event like this year’s Rose Bowl game and the national championship coming back to Austin after a 35-year absence. I’m not just talking about Aggies: I mean people who don’t get emotionally involved in sports. They are missing something important in life. Everybody should have a team—actually, several teams—to root for. The greatest thing about it is that there’s always next season. No matter how good or how bad this season was, we’ll get ’em next year. Unless you’re a fan of the Texas Rangers baseball team, in which case we may not get ’em, since we never have. But as a sports fan, there is nearly always something new going on, another game coming up, another chance for redemption. And you change sports as the seasons change. Love affairs bloom and fade, and new love affairs begin. So partisanship in sports is something to take pleasure in.

I should admit that I don’t actually go to very many sporting events these days (and I didn’t go to the Rose Bowl). That’s why television was invented. For 25 years, when I was writing for Sports Illustrated and various newspapers, I was paid to go to sporting events, and I always had a parking pass. Two things stop me from going these days: parking and instant replay. Mostly I just go to Lady Longhorns basketball games. I’m a big fan of the team, and I’m suffering with this freshman group as they grow up. And I went to the roller derby last summer at the Thunderdome. (By the way, that A&E reality series on Austin’s Lonestar Rollergirls is a winner.) But not going to the games doesn’t mean I don’t care. I’m a TCU grad, and they went 11-1. I spent my sophomore year at the University of Texas, and I live in Austin, and I am 13-0 with the Longhorns. My 24-1 season is something to be unashamedly partisan about.

Yes, Jap, I remember when we started calling Darrell “Delbert.” We went to some social gathering, and he didn’t want people to know who he was, so we introduced him as Delbert. And it worked. A few weeks later, after the national championship, he was about as anonymous as the Beatles. That’s what I mean about sports. As one of baseball’s wise men, Yogi Berra, probably said, “Your future is always ahead of you.”

Bud

>> January 8, 6:09 p.m.

Bud:

If you’ve been watching TV, you know already that Vince Young ruined my Sunday and possibly the remainder of 2006 and the start of 2007. The ingrate just announced he’s turning pro. A pox on his house.

Okay, maybe I’m overreacting. I admit that his draft stock in the NFL will never be higher. Vince said that he made the decision after talking to his momma and his pastor. He promised them that he’d come back and finish his degree. Presumably they reminded him that he’s certain to be one of the top three choices, which means he’ll be guaranteed about $25 million. We all need sound adult advice from time to time.

If the Houston Texans, who have the first choice in the draft, don’t grab homeboy Vince, they’re even dumber than I think they are. I hear that they’re still set on Reggie Bush. The only way Bush can help that miserable franchise is if they can trade him for five Pro Bowl linemen.

Looking at it realistically, what else could Vince prove at Texas? Sure, he could return for his senior year, maybe win the Heisman, help UT extend its winning streak to 33, and possibly even win a second straight title game. Or he could blow out his knee against Sam Houston State.

Vince’s afternoon press conference came as a shock to nearly everyone. Six or seven hours earlier, I’d awakened from my nightly Vince dream already sweating next season, calculating like some miser scouring his coin purse how the Longhorns can possibly replace AP All-Americans like offensive tackle Jonathan Scott and defensive tackle Rod Wright, not to mention half of the best secondary in college football. Then I remembered that Michael Griffin—whose amazing interception at the corner of the goal line was to me the defensive play of the game—will return, as will some fantastic skill players, such as Jamaal Charles, Ramonce Taylor, Billy Pittman, Quan Cosby, and Limas Sweed. No coach in America has a better supply of talent waiting in the wings than Mack Brown, and having his face on Wheaties boxes can’t hurt.

What Mack doesn’t have—I mean, who does?—is another Vince Young. The Longhorns will go into next season with a quarterback who has never played a down of college football. Forget another national championship. Mack will be lucky to make it to the Sun Bowl.

Let us pause now and be thankful for what we had. Let us hope it will come again. Let us forget that it won’t.

Jap

>> January 8, 6:56 p.m.

Jappo:

So he’s gone to the great NFL in the sky. The realist in me says he would never have had another peak experience in college to match the one he had at the Rose Bowl. That beautiful photo in the Austin American-Statesman of him standing in the midst of a shower of colored bits of something (was that confetti or the air in Los Angeles?) said it all. If he had come back to UT for his senior season, even as loaded with talent as the Longhorns are, it’s a long, dangerous road to next year’s championship. So he would have had to come back for his teammates and not just for himself.

And, of course, there was the elephant in the room. It is called “medial collateral ligament.” Tear one of those and no physical genius is ever the same again. Out the window would go tens of millions of dollars, not only for playing professional football but for endorsements. Vince is a total natural for endorsements. He’s got the smile and the ease, and he looks good on television. Now he can start cashing in on his personality. There are many things in life more important than money, especially if you’ve already got some of it in the bank. Now he’s protected from a financial disaster that would have come with injury. Of course, Vince will never get injured. In the galaxy he comes from, they may have bred bodies that won’t break. Just think of the preseason publicity that would have been lavished on Texas if he had come back. It would make Elvis Presley’s manager blush.

Having decided to take the money and run, may he be guided into the right professional organization by the wizards of his galaxy. The summer after O. J. Simpson won the Heisman trophy at USC, in 1968, I went with him to the Buffalo Bills training camp. Remember how Puss Erwin at the Fort Worth Press used to punch you in the chest with his knobby finger and say, “You’ll never make it, son”? The Buffalo coach took a look at O.J. and said he would never make it in the NFL as a running back. So O.J. wasted his first few seasons on special teams before a new coach turned him loose to break records as a running back. Surely such a thing will never happen to Vince Young.

The bright side is now we can watch him play twenty times a year.

Happy days,

Bud

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