- Elizabeth Merrill, ESPN Senior Writer
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On Day 3 of the Vince Young saga, a 78-year-old man showed up on Young's doorstep with a suitcase, unannounced. The Spirit sent him.
Pastor Samuel Smith does not question these messages; he just goes where they take him. He is Young's spiritual adviser. In the early days of 2006, after Young led Texas to the national championship, the pastor had a dream in which he saw men trying to catch a rainbow trout and make it their trophy. "Man," he said, "that trout is not meant to be on nobody's mantelpiece. Let him go free and let him do alone what he can do."
Smith used that dream to advise Young to leave Texas after his junior year and become an NFL quarterback. And now, 2½ years later, football followers wonder whether Young was truly ready.
And they wonder whether Vince Young is OK.
He has been the NFL's biggest mystery since Sept. 8, when Nashville police were called to help track down the Tennessee Titans quarterback. Young was described as being "emotionally down," disenchanted with football and possibly suicidal. His inner circle went underground. Young shrugged it all off at the time, saying people were overreacting. His mother, Felicia Young, told The Tennessean that her son "needs love and support," then said she wasn't talking about it anymore.
What's eating at Vince Young? A handful of his friends and former coaches have been asked about his past, and what it might say about his future. They share stories, and theories. But the truth lies with Young, who hasn't spoken publicly in a couple of weeks.
In Houston, the man Young calls "Pops" tries, best he can, to explain what is going on in Young's head. Smith sits in an empty blue pew at the Mount Horeb Missionary Baptist Church, a dozen or so rows up from where Young parked as a kid. It's 90 degrees, but the air conditioning is off. Outside Mount Horeb's door is the steel skyline of downtown Houston; around it is the destruction of the hurricane. Ike was merciful to the church, Smith says, "He walked around us."
Before Ike hit, and hours after Young's own personal storm, the pastor says he flew to Nashville and spent four days with Young. They rested, ate well and, Smith says, "chilled out." He was called there, he says, because of Young's aching knee, not his heart.
"We all go through these things," he says, "in our youth and in our age. That's life. How much does he love football?"
Smith puts his hand on his chest.
"That's his life."
Mack Brown says it's a misunderstanding. A young man gets frustrated, needs some air, and he takes off, without his cell phone. Young, Brown says, did it a couple of times before at Texas.
"He's been on TV so much, and everybody knows where he is and who he is," says Brown, who coached him for four years in Austin. "So his life is different, and it's hard for us to understand that he needs a little time to himself, too.
"I think he took a moment for himself, and we all went crazy over it."
Austin is the perfect place to find Young, even if he's in another state or country. His likeness is still plastered everywhere. The local Wal-Mart sells Vince Young sausage packaged with a photo of its hero decked out in a suit; Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium is loaded with snapshots of Young stretching and scrambling the Longhorns to glory.
"He's the face of this program," says Roy Miller, a senior defensive tackle for the 'Horns. "Anytime he comes down here, it's like he never left."
In a news conference for this weekend's big game against Arkansas, Young's name was mentioned at least twice. He hasn't played here in three seasons.
Critics say it was here, in this burnt-orange palace that worships its heroes, that the quarterback became coddled. Here, Young seemingly could do no wrong.
Brown, who is sitting in the press box next to a giant photo of Young reaching for the end zone in the Rose Bowl, bristles at the notion that Young led a charmed life prior to 2008. And that he was coddled.
Obviously, Brown says, they don't remember 2004.
Young was a redshirt sophomore that year, and he was sacked three times in a 12-0 loss to Oklahoma. The next week, he was booed on his home field against Missouri after throwing two interceptions.
"There were very few people in this city fans, media who thought he'd play quarterback and be any good at it," Brown says about Young, who then beat Texas Tech 51-21 and won 19 straight games. "People do not realize he didn't have the perfect little story here.
"So he's been criticized before, he's been booed before, he's been questioned before, and he's lost and played poorly before. And he overcame all that here and handled every bit of it. So anybody who questions his sincerity or his toughness doesn't have any clue who he is."
Brown, seated next to longtime offensive coordinator Greg Davis, says Davis was as hard on Young as any quarterback at Texas. Davis nods.
Young's confidence, they say, was unflappable. Before the national championship game against heavily favored USC, Young danced in pregame warm-ups while the band played. Once, in a tight game against Kansas, Young asked his coach on fourth-and-18 if he wanted him to score or go to overtime. When Brown said score, Young said, "You got it, baby."
Young returned to Texas last spring to begin finishing up work on his degree. The first day of school, he received a standing ovation from his class.
"He's a real pleaser," Brown says. "He wants to please everybody. And to do that, he wants to be the best at what he does in everything he does and says. Here's a young guy who's got multimillions of dollars, and he comes back to school at Texas because he promised his mom he'd get his degree.
"He's a good kid who wants to do good things for everybody. Sometimes, you get a little overloaded with all that good."
Floyd Reese wonders whether it's the knee that got into Young's head. He had never been seriously hurt before on the football field, and he was coming off a bad game, boos and the uncertainty of when he'd play again.
"My first reaction was complete surprise," says Reese, who was the Titans' general manager in 2006 when Young was drafted. "[Depression over football] would be the furthest thing from your mind. It would be the last thing you would ever believe.
"We still don't know the story, but it's so the opposite of anything that you knew or believed about him. It's so uncharacteristic. You don't blow it off of course, but you want to take a wait-and-see until you know what this whole thing is about."
The Young the Titans knew in 2006, before the draft, exuded confidence. Reese, former Titans offensive coordinator Norm Chow and receiver Bobby Wade were among the contingent who set out early that year to evaluate the next best thing, the three quarterbacks who had established themselves as college football's elite. Chow dubbed them "the traveling circus." They saw Matt Leinart at USC and Young at Texas, and they worked out Vanderbilt's Jay Cutler.
Reese asked Wade which quarterback he liked best. Wade said he'd draft Young.
"He was ready," Wade says. "So many times it's hard to find a quarterback who has a competitive edge to want to win every single game and to go about it that way. He has all the intangibles. He can throw the ball well, he can see a lot of things, he can run."
After drafting him with the third pick, Reese says, the Titans agonized over the proper time to turn the offense over to Young. They wanted to make sure he was ready. They knew that rookie quarterbacks who get thrown in too early can suffer irreparable consequences.
But he made his first start in Week 4 against the Cowboys, when the Titans were 0-3. He led Tennessee to an 8-8 record, was named to the Pro Bowl and took his team to the 2007 playoffs despite seeing his personal statistics drop.
On Sept. 7, in the Titans' 2008 opener against the Jaguars, Young was booed loudly after throwing his second interception. He sat with a towel over his head and initially refused to re-enter the game. Four plays later, Young suffered a sprained left knee.
"He takes a lot of pride in the work he does," says Chow, currently the offensive coordinator at UCLA. "He was obviously hurt when whatever happened happened.
"He's a sensitive, thoughtful young man. You can't tell me the boos don't hurt any quarterback. Maybe Vince's response needs to be tempered out, but he's a young man. He's 25 years old. He certainly deserves a little bit of leeway, if you will. Because he's intense and wants to do well."
Yolande Lezine is no longer in the inner circle and knows she's merely speculating. But she has her own theories as to why Young is struggling. She says he's conflicted because too many forces on his management team are pulling at him.
"I've always told Vince the higher you climb," Lezine says, "the more people are going to be in your ear. It will be hard for you to stay humble. He said, 'No, no. I'm OK. I won't change.'
"I just think too many people want to be in control and tell him what he should do and what he shouldn't do."
Lezine is eating tacos in a corner booth at Casa Ole in Houston on Tuesday, bracing for the heat. Ike knocked out her power a week and a half ago, and she rides around Houston in her rusted Ford Escort seeking temporary comfort in cars and restaurants. She is thumbing through Vince Young photos in between bites in the air conditioning. In one shot, he's mugging with Lee Ann Rimes. A few stacks down, he's clowning around at Madison High School in Houston.
Lezine has tried to contact Young a couple of times, tell him she's praying for him, but she says he hasn't phoned back. She used to teach journalism at Madison and was part of a team of confidants that was formed in Young's senior year in high school to help him avoid the trappings and dangers of stardom. Lezine says she served as his media adviser through Young's days at Texas but was let go right after the draft.
Major Adams, Young's agent, could not be reached for comment. Young, through the Titans and his marketing manager, Mike Mu, declined interview requests. Mu says Young is fine and "moving on."
Though Lezine is shut out now from the banquets and parties, her affection for Young is still obvious. She recently wrote a column on Young for blackathlete.com. The headline said, "Don't Give Up On V.Y."
She remembers the tall boy at Madison who wanted to make it big and support his mom and sisters and grandmas. She knows that kid still loves football.
"I listened to his heart," she says. "And I know deep down inside, his heart is still in the right place."
Pastor Smith says his "son" is doing "beautifully." He called Young the other night. He was watching "Monday Night Football," and they laughed and had a prayer. Smith thought it was good for Young to see Jets quarterback Brett Favre struggle against the Chargers.
"You look at others who go through things that you go through and observe the way they take them," Smith says. "And you excel over that."
In the front of the church is a clipping from the 2006 Rose Bowl. Young was unstoppable that day. Smith keeps it there so people who walk in know that this is Vince Young country, and his son is still like that trout, swimming, trying to get away.
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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