Friday, December 5, 2008
Updated: April 15, 3:09 PM ET
By Eric Neel
Vince Young hums. Just before every opening kickoff, standing alone behind the bench, he beatboxes "June 27th," the classic slow-ride joint by fellow Houstonian DJ Screw. He bobs his head a bit and puts a subtle wiggle through his 6'5", 233-pound frame. All flow, no hustle. "I'm loose," he says of these moments. "I get that drive, that beat, and I'm dancing before it's even game time."
He keeps the groove once the game is on. It's third and 10 on his own 20. The Longhorns are down 28-12 to start the third quarter at Oklahoma State. The junior quarterback takes a deep drop but sees covered wideouts everywhere, so he quickly steps up and glides between his blockers. Then it's a feint left and a step to the right, a little something he calls his Texas Two-Step, and he's into free space. Cowboys safety Donovan Woods looks to bottle him at the line of scrimmage, but Young sells him a pump fake so funky it launches Woods into midair. Ten seconds, 35 strides and 80 yards down the sideline later, VY's in the end zone and Texas is on its way to 35 unanswered points. "He's got so many moves," says tackle Justin Blalock. "He's like a kid out there, having fun."
And it's hard to imagine anyone in college football having more of it than Vince Young these days. He's first among three equals in this season's Heisman race; he's 27—2 for his career; and he and his boys are undefeated, ranked second and headed for a Rose Bowl showdown with USC.
The coach swears by him. "He's the best quarterback in the country," says Mack Brown. "And the bigger the scene, the better he likes it." The fans idolize him. They come out by the thousands to get his autograph on signing days. "He's embraced here like no one I've ever seen," Brown says. And teammates adore him. "The guy is magnetic," says tight end David Thomas. "You're just drawn to him."
In the first team meeting after last season's 38-37 Rose Bowl win over Michigan, Young set a tone for the future. The mood was loud and light when he walked to the front of the room. Like a father setting sons right, he made everyone sit up, take their hats off and listen to what the coaches had to say. The Rose Bowl was big but just a beginning, Young told them. "I won't accept what's good right now," he remembers saying. "I want us to achieve greatness." He continued to challenge his teammates over the summer, with a note on the locker room bulletin board: "If you want to beat Ohio State, meet me here every night at 7 p.m. for seven-on-seven." The turnout was faithful and focused. Many nights saw full 11-on-11 scrimmages.
But if Young is team leader, he's also one of the boys. He's serious and dedicated but never tight. Young punches a lineman in the shoulder, whispers to a corner that he'll never be able to cover the wideout coming to town this weekend, sings and shouts in the middle of practice-a little Al Green, a little rumble-young-man-rumble Cassius Clay.
"He's always dancing around, messing with somebody," Thomas says. "Just keeping things light." Walk-ons and freshmen get grief the same as his closest friends. "He makes everyone feel comfortable," Thomas continues in earnest appreciation. "We all feel like we're a part of things."
His teammates catalog favorite VY moments. For Blalock, it's the fourth touchdown run in the Rose Bowl. For Thomas, it's Young stepping into the huddle and predicting a game-clinching score in the last minutes at Ohio State. They're just waiting for the day their kids and grandkids ask them what it was like to play with the immortal Vince Young. SOME QUARTERBACKS are forged in the pressure of a collapsing pocket or the fire of a two-minute drill. VY's career was first tempered with a little help from a pair of handcuffs and a rake.
There was a gang fight at Dowling Middle School in Houston's Hiram Clarke neighborhood eight years ago, and by the end of it, Young was wearing bracelets and catching the business end of his mother's rage. "She was in my face," he says, "telling me I was going to end up dead or in jail."
Felicia Young-who worked long hours as a home health aide, but also drank and lit up a joint some-had never really connected with her boy. "For a while, I wasn't really being much of a mother to my kids," she admits. But that changed on that spring day: "I had to put my foot down. The stakes were too high."
She told Vince that if he didn't change, he'd end up like his father, Vincent, who has moved in and out of jail like the place was offering Marriott Rewards points. She put Vince to work in the family's front yard, pulling leaves into piles, then scattered them so he could do it all over again. It gave him time to think about what his mother had said, about where his father was, about guys he'd seen who'd wasted their chances. "Some better athletes than me, guys who should be in the league right now," he says. And about paths and choices. "I saw the direction I was going, and I knew I needed to go another way," he says. "Those leaves got me right."
Nearly a decade later, Young's teammates chuckle when they talk about his determination. "I know it sounds cliché," Blalock says. "But the guy's will is incredible. He comes through. He won't let us lose." No kidding. In the past three seasons, Young has pulled off eight second-half comeback victories. Coach Brown is emphatic: "He's a tough sucker."
That toughness is written all over his right arm. Young pulls up his sleeve to reveal an elaborate tattoo of intertwined roses on his biceps. The flowers represent the women in his family. He gently rubs his fingers over the ink, as if touching a holy symbol. "I wanted to show how much I appreciate them," he whispers. Inspired by Vince's efforts to straighten up, and led by a neighborhood pastor who told her she'd be blessed through her son, Felicia became a born-again Christian seven years ago. She and her mother Bonnie have kept an especially tight ship since then, steering Vince from trouble and toward his promise. His older sisters, Lakesha and Vintrisa, were extra sets of eyes-and wagging fingers. When they married, each asked Vince to walk her down the aisle.
"A house full of women is a powerful thing," Felicia says with a laugh. "We intimidated him." Vince remembers it more charitably. "They wouldn't let me fall back," he says. "They wanted me to be different from my father, and different from so many of the men around us." So he carries them on every scramble, every follow-through, keeping the family close at hand. As they are his shield, so is he theirs. "I learned a lot of things on my own," Young says. "I remember going around locking the doors at night, knowing I was the protector for the women in our house. I grew up quick."
And strong and smart. Take the third quarter at home against Texas Tech. He steps to the line on third and five. The play call from coordinator Greg Davis features a short crossing route, but VY sees single coverage on wideout Billy Pittman. He audibles a go-route. Bam, a 75-yard backbreaker. "That's the fourth time this season he's checked down at the line and gotten a touchdown out of it," Davis says. "He's a very mature quarterback."
Man-against-boys mature. Since the Rose Bowl, when he ran through, over and around the Wolverine defense for four hit-the-TiVo TDs (he threw for another), it's been clear Young is playing a different game. That night, Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr called him "the finest athlete I've ever been on the field with as a quarterback." But Davis, who has seen VY practice calls and cadences in front of a full-length mirror, knows it's more than athleticism. "Vince has worked hard at being a complete quarterback," he says. "The game has slowed down for him now. He's beyond the thought process. He's running through progressions, making decisions without dwelling on the steps."
FORGET THE steps. What about the motion? Well, Young's delivery comes out somewhere between putting a shot and skipping rocks on a pond. It's the one part of his skill set that isn't pretty, and exactly the sort of thing that raises questions about future prospects. "He's not the prototype," agrees Davis. "Neither is Philip Rivers, and neither was Bernie Kosar." Kosar with wheels? That works.
"I'm a quarterback," Young says simply. And it's hard to argue. He has a 169.8 passing efficiency rating through 10 games, second only to the 172.5 of UCLA's Drew Olson, and he has rushed for 774 yards, behind Missouri QB Brad Smith who has 1,080. Texas has scored 40-plus points nine times. Brown is like most big-time college coaches, cautious and politic, but not when the subject is Young. "He'll be one of the great pro quarterbacks we've ever seen play," he says. "He'll be in the Hall of Fame."
Young thinks about the next level, about making his mark. He reclines in a high-backed swivel chair in the Longhorns' sports information office and looks off into the upper corner of the room, trying to find a window on the future. "I have goals," he says. "I want to someday be in the same position as John Elway, Joe Montana, Steve Young." Steve McNair, an old friend of Vince's uncle Ivory from their days at Alcorn State, has been a friend and mentor to Vince for five years, and he can see Young taking his place in the roll call. "Vince is what the league demands now, with the sophisticated defenses we see," McNair says. "You need the ability to run and the ability to beat teams with your arm. He has both pieces, the way Michael Vick and Donovan McNabb do."
Young recently said he's returning to Texas for a senior season, but outside of Austin the news was met with a healthy dose of "we'll see." If Texas wins out, if Young wins the Heisman, the pressure to go pro will be intense. What's left to prove? Why risk an injury? Why wait to show what you can do?
Funny you should ask. "College is the best time of your life," Matt Leinart has said. "You live with your friends, just hang out and have fun." VY feels that. He is the locker room DJ, spinning 50 Cent and Chamillionaire, with a little Garth Brooks thrown in for his country-loving pal Thomas. He meets with friends from the team every Tuesday night for steaks. He goes head-to-head on the Xbox-NCAA 06-with his roommate, junior running back Selvin Young. He dances on the bus and cuts up on the practice field. "It's real fun right now," he says. "The team is a team. We're tight."
But VY isn't Leinart. There's much more to playing quarterback at UT for Young than the limelight and the good times. "I think being quarterback of this team is what God put me on earth for," he says. Ask him about his favorite moments from the season, and he might begin with the time a group of moms were lined up in the tunnel near the field and asked Felicia to lead them in prayer. Young's phone rings every morning; it's Felicia reciting a verse from her daily devotional reading. "I want him to know the Lord's work starts early," she says. Watching his mother's transformation has had a profound effect on Young. Her commitment has shadowed and now reinforces his own. "We look at each other now, me on the field and her in the stands, and we smile," Young says. "We know where we've been, what we've been through."
The same goes for Young's relationship with his coaches. After a narrow win over Missouri last year, and after weeks of trying and failing to fine-tune his motion, Young sat down with Davis and Brown, who told him to forget the motion and just play.
"It was a key moment," Brown says. "I think he heard that as, 'We like you. We believe in you. We trust you.' " Late in the Missouri game this year, Davis called down to the sideline from his perch above the field to say "good job" and to sit his quarterback down for the rest of the game. "I love you, Coach," Young said back into the phone. "I love you too," Davis replied, startled and touched by the exchange. Trust and love. There it is. The stuff you look for. "My coaches, my uncles, that's been everything to me," Young says. "Having guys like that around, looking at the things they do as men, I eat it up."
Young better get his fill of fun and fellowship while he can. "It's different in the pros," says McNair, who talks on the phone with Young a couple of times a week. "It's all business once you come out." VY doesn't shrink from that. And no decision has been made. "It depends on the season, then I'll sit down with my mother," he says, half under his breath, as if he hopes the decision will go away if he doesn't speak of it. "Right now, I'm just playing."
He's got game, statements to make and a tattoo full of family to shoulder. "We've struggled," he says. "There were times we'd wear the same shoes for years, you know?" But don't assume he's feeding you a line when he says he's coming back. His memories drive him, but they make him want to linger, too. This time, this place, is home.
As Young walks out of the athletics office on a sunny fall day, a call comes in. A local reporter is petitioning sports information director John Bianco to interview Young about the Heisman. "Nah, it's not time for that," Young tells Bianco. "That can wait." He disappears into his black Chevy Tahoe and rolls down the window. The heavy bass of Houston hip-hop rises up out of the speakers. You can't see Vince, but you can picture him. Head starting to bob a little, a subtle wiggle in his shoulders.
All flow. No hustle.