Last week, Texas Longhorn legend Vince Young was announced as one of the new members of the College Football Hall of Fame. Other enshrinees with Texas ties include defensive back Rickey Dixon, a Dallas native who played for Oklahoma and later for the Bengals and Raiders; defensive end Jacob Green, a graduate of Houston’s Kashmere High School and later a star for Texas A&M and the Seattle Seahawks; former Dallas Cowboy Darren McFadden and former Houston Oiler Lorenzo White. In all, thirteen players and two coaches will be inducted at a ceremony in New York City on December 10. But if there was ever a shoo-in for the honor, it is Vince Young.
Although he might not have won the Heisman in 2005 (which some would pin on a biased ESPN), it was Young, not the winner Reggie Bush, who hoisted the crystal football over his head on that epic night in Pasadena at the Rose Bowl. Young won just about every award Bush did not—the Maxwell Award, the Manning Award, the Davey O’Brien Award—and was a consensus first-team all-American.
He had a glorious one-and-a-half-year run. According to Longhorn lore, after a humiliating 12-0 defeat at the hands of Oklahoma in 2004, Young tearfully begged coach Mack Brown to “let Vince be Vince,” both on the field and in the locker room. Brown and offensive coordinator Greg Davis, desperate after another loss to the Sooners, obliged by modifying the offense to suit Young’s talents, pretty much taking him back to the same shotgun, zone-read he’d run back in Houston at James Madison High School under coach Ray Seals. The rest is history: after that skunking in the Cotton Bowl, Vince Young never lost a college game again, as the team went on a 20-game winning streak and won its first National Championship since 1970.
As Bum Phillips once said of another Longhorn great, Earl Campbell, Vince Young may not have been in a class by himself, but it sure didn’t take long to call roll. Had he completed his eligibility at Texas, he would almost certainly be the consensus pick as the greatest college football quarterback of all-time, and even as it stands today, he is in the conversation.
Some have labeled him a “bust” for his frustrating, stunted NFL career. He really wasn’t. He went to two Pro Bowls. He was the NFC Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2006 and the NFL Comeback Player of the Year in 2009. While his 46 TDs to 51 interceptions NFL career ratio is lackluster to say the least, his Titans teams won. With Young under center, the Titans went 30-17.
Still, it’s safe to say that he did not live up to the expectations of transcendence he created in Austin. When he left the 40 Acres, it seemed like he was poised to redefine NFL quarterbacking. Passed over by his hometown Texans, Young wound up in a terrible situation, something akin to a NFL-style custody battle. Tennessee Titans owner Bud Adams picked him, then forced his coach, Jeff Fisher, to start him. (Fisher and his staff reportedly wanted to select USC QB Matt Leinart, whom Young had just out dueled in the Rose Bowl and went on to be a true NFL bust.)
Jeff Fisher, unlike Mack Brown, forced Young to conform to his system—no more of letting Vince be Vince. Among Longhorn faithful, particularly Vince Young devotees, Fisher is regarded as a villain. Years after Young flamed out of the NFL, it became clearer and clearer that Fisher really had no idea what to do with a talented quarterback. In the 2017 playoffs, three of his former signal-callers were starting (Case Keenum, Jared Goff, and Nick Foles), all of them with much better numbers under their new coaches than they ever had under Fisher.
But though it’s tempting to blame all of Young’s failures on bad coaching and friction between leadership and the owner, some of the blame must fall on VY’s shoulders. There was the photo of him shirtless in a club swilling from a bottle of a tequila. There was a $15,000 tab—essentially the cost of a new Kia—for one single feast at a Cheesecake Factory.
All that partying and junk food caught up with him. He put on bad weight, lost a step as a runner, and began having soft muscle injuries—hamstring pulls and tears and such. He never had those at Texas, where he seemed constructed of titanium. (Most famously, on a play against Kansas State, his ankle was bent double in a grotesque manner. It looked like a season-ending injury, but Young was back out there to win the game a few plays later.) He had a mental breakdown, going missing from the team.
But it’s better to remember his career for what he did accomplish rather than what he did not, and the long odds he overcame to make it as far as he has. The southwest Houston area Hiram Clarke, where Young was born and raised, is not the worst neighborhood in Houston by a long stretch. But in comparing it to nearby Meyerland, Mimi Swartz described it thusly: “In the Hiram Clarke neighborhood, the ranch houses were much smaller, the windows had bars, and weeds choked the front yards.”
full name is Vincent Paul Young, Junior, but that was about all the elder Vincent Paul Young ever gave his son. He walked out on the family when Vince Jr. was three years old, and according to Harris County District Court records, the elder Young has been arrested nineteen times since 1976, on charges ranging from assault to weapons violations to car burglary to fencing to cocaine possession. He was in prison on a burglary conviction the day his son took down the mighty Trojans. In 2017, he was convicted of evading arrest in a motor vehicle and sentenced to a year in state jail.
In seventh grade, Young was being courted by a street gang. They get you early in “the Clarke,” as it is known locally. His mom, who with help from his grandmother and two uncles raised Young, wasn’t having it. To keep him out of trouble, she would have him rake the yard before she dumped the leaves out and force him to do it all over again. (It’s reminiscent of the Bobby Fuller song: “Raking leaves in the hot sun / I fought my mom and mom won.”)
A few weeks before VY’s career peaked in Pasadena, Ralph Cooper, the dean of Houston sports radio talkers, spoke to the Austin American-Statesman: “You can’t overestimate just how much Vince his meant to Houston and vice versa,” he said. “His athletic ability has been legendary since eighth grade at Dick Dowling Middle School. We’ve all watched and cheered this respected young man, knowing the price he’s paid to get to where he is.”