- Carmen renee Thompson
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This feature appears as the cover story of ESPN The Magazine's "Travel Issue." You can access the full contents by going here.
Vince Young's Vacation Day 1
Five-plus hours into his flight from Nashville to the Caribbean islands of Turks and Caicos, Titans quarterback Vince Young looks out the window like a kid on his way to Disneyland, eager for that first glimpse of roller coasters peeking out between the trees. Stretched out -- as much as a 6'5" guy can stretch even in a first-class seat -- he peers at the ocean, a vast expanse of navy blue in every direction. Suddenly, the waters turn bright turquoise. "Finally," he thinks to himself.
This four-day minibreak is the first real R&R that VY has had this off-season, and never in his career has he appreciated a vacation quite as much as this one. Over the past two years, he has endured the media frenzy over his alleged-suicide scare, the indignity of losing his starting QB gig and the grief stemming from the murder of his hero and mentor, Steve McNair. But foremost in his mind right now is his improbable 8-2 run down the stretch last season after he got his job back -- a show of leadership and determination that quite possibly saved his career.
Young, who is traveling with his girlfriend, Candice Johnson, arrives in the open-air lobby at the Gansevoort hotel in Providenciales on this gorgeous April day feeling triumphant, vindicated and a bit humbled, the same vibe he's had since the 2009 season ended. After being greeted at the reception desk with a delicious punch drink and a cold hand towel, he heads up to his posh suite, where he gazes down from his balcony to the ocean below. Then, without intending to, he crashes for the rest of the day, the way you do when there's still plenty of vacation time left. Perfect.
Everything about Young's morning tour of Shining Stars Preparatory is sweet. (He often makes time to visit schools wherever he is, even on vacation.) He walks onto the grounds to chants of "Vince is the best, from the east to the west," visits almost every classroom, gives a talk about self-reliance and takes questions from dozens of enthusiastic kids. Then the script gets flipped. The school's principal directs him outside to a dusty playground, where a group of little girls seat him in a tiny plastic chair, place a homemade foil crown on his head and begin singing: "There's a hero/If you look inside your heart/ You don't have to be afraid/Of what you are/There's an answer/If you reach into your soul/And the sorrow that you know/Will melt away ... "
The Mariah Carey ballad brings tears to Young's eyes, the girls' soprano voices stirring him to thoughts of all that didn't kill him. At 27, Young has three gray hairs on the right side of his perfectly groomed, just-longer-than-scruff beard, souvenirs from a four-year-long wild ride. He followed a heroic Rose Bowl performance in 2006 with Offensive Rookie of the Year honors and a Pro Bowl nod, only to suffer a 2008 plunge from grace that turned him into a goat. This time last year, speculation had it that the Titans wanted to unload him and his $7.5 million 2010 salary. Instead, the team exercised his $4.25 million roster bonus in March. And yes, Young knows just how close he came to becoming Derek Anderson: a one-time Pro Bowl QB traded away and left to struggle his way out of a backup job.
"Just to be here, kicking it and talking about everything, is a beautiful thing," Young says while hanging poolside back at the Gansevoort. "My first years in the league, I was launching my career and my businesses (he runs Next Level Records, Vince Young Foods and his charitable foundation), and I lost a little bit of control. But finishing the season I just had with my team was the most thrilling experience of my career."
To be sure, it's been a long climb back from the events of Sept. 7, 2008. The buildup to that fateful day began with too much of everything. Too many people bugging Young for money. Too much backlash from leaked photos that showed him partying in a daze, gripping a bottle of Patron. Too much stress from trying to win games by himself. Too many interceptions. At home against Jacksonville in Week 1, Young threw two picks, and Titans fans booed him. Overcome with frustration, he wanted to leave the game, but head coach Jeff Fisher insisted he stay in. A few plays later, Young sprained his MCL and came out for good. He says he was in no mood to talk after the game and got sick of friends and family clamoring to know if he was okay. The next day, he took off from home without his cell phone, but with the gun he carried for protection. The dots got connected in a frantic way, resulting in rumors that the QB was suicidal. Later that evening, Young was found at his uncle's house, watching TV and eating wings. And ever since, he's had to fight the perception that he's a head case. "People still ask me, Did you want to commit suicide?" he says. "I tell them, 'No. I was getting away from all the knocks at my door.' I wasn't to the point of killing myself."
But Young admits that he suffered a rude awakening when Kerry Collins became the starter: Many in the Titans' locker room immediately shifted allegiances to the then-35-year-old veteran. "When I was down, I wanted to see the same faces I saw when we were winning," Young says. "And I didn't." Riding the bench for a year was a jarring, soul-searching experience for the Madden '08 cover boy. "I'd been on a pedestal and successful all my life," he says. "I didn't know how to be away from the team, not playing." As a teammate he supported Collins, but as a competitor he struggled not to show his inner turmoil to the outside world. "It was killing me, being on that sideline," he says.
"I was still acting silly and goofy, but inside I was hurting." So Young vented to McNair, who kept telling him, "Don't worry, keep working, and be ready. Your chance will come."
And so Young settled into -- and took advantage of -- his supporting role. Under the guidance of
offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, he spent more time working on his lower body and core
stability, which made him more secure in his drop-backs. Young painstakingly prepared like never before, performing drill after drill to improve his accuracy and his awareness, so he'd understand what to do when plays broke down. All the while he was becoming more comfortable with the Titans offense and, perhaps more important, finding it easier to read opponents' defenses. "I figured out the things they had done to throw me off the previous season," Young says. "But I also studied how defenses approached Kerry, Peyton Manning and Donovan McNabb, especially on third-down and red zone situations, the times when quarterbacks need to show greatness."
On the sideline and out of the spotlight, Young was like a kid measuring his own height in pencil marks on the kitchen wall. "I grew up secretly behind closed doors," he says, proudly. "I could go up to Coach Heimerdinger and say, 'Here's what I see out there. I think we should do this,' and he'd say, 'Yeah, I see the same thing.' "
But while he was proving his football smarts behind the scenes, the questions surrounding Young's emotional fortitude could only be answered on the field. On Nov. 1, he got the chance to do just that. After a 59-0 depantsing by the Patriots dropped the Titans to 0-6, owner Bud Adams ordered Young back under center. When Young got the news, he knew everything was on the line. His NFL career, his reputation, his businesses would all be in jeopardy if the skid continued. But VY was ready to make the most of his opportunity. "You could tell from his aura in the huddle on his first day practicing with the first team," says tight end Bo Scaife. "Everyone knew he was back."
With Young at the helm, Tennessee soon reeled off five straight victories. The defining moment? That's easy. It was the Titans' two-minute drive against the Cardinals in Week 12. Young's last-play-of-the-game, back-of-the-end-zone pass to Kenny Britt to secure the 20-17 win was every bit as brilliant as Brett Favre's last-second jaw-dropper to Greg Lewis that helped the Vikings beat the 49ers in Week 3. "Vince starts on the 1-yard line, goes 99 yards and converts three fourth downs against a team that was in the Super Bowl the year before," Fisher recalls. "That speaks volumes." Although the Titans finished at 8-8, missing the playoffs, Young had accomplished something huge: winning back the trust of his teammates and coaches. "It was amazing," he says, "to see the smiles, the respect from people who thought I'd probably never do well again."
At 1 a.m., Young is still holding court at the Gansevoort's Bagatelle restaurant, surrounded by tycoons and entrepreneurs as eager to talk football as Young is to probe their business acumen. The QB oozes charisma. In person, he can be a goof or a charmer, a diva or a trouper. He can jovially drop profanity-laden observations and make almost any situation funny. The morning after his late-night chatfest, Young heads out for a boat ride, keeping every member of the crew laughing. As he consumes numerous conch pistols, a local delicacy, he hollers, "Conch!" each time. He cracks jokes while learning to paddle on a longboard and is playful and lighthearted during an extended snorkeling session. Showing his lighter side hasn't always been easy, but Young learned the importance of having the common touch by watching McNair. "How Steve treated fans was just down to earth," he says. "I picked up that trait from him. The love he got from people -- obviously he was doing something right."
Among the many sadnesses that accompanied McNair's death is that his friend never saw Young's resurrection. Last season's comeback performance was accomplished with a heavy heart, and it was very much a tribute to Pop, as he called the veteran quarterback. Young, who was raised by his mother and grandmother, attended McNair's football camp as a kid; during his high school ascent in Texas, he reconnected with McNair, who groomed him for the rigors of being a black quarterback in the NFL. "He'd come pick me up, and we'd just hang out or go fishing," says Young, who regularly spends time with McNair's two youngest sons, Tyler and Trent. "Steve would tell me how life in the league was gonna be." Almost a year after McNair's death, Young still finds it difficult to deal with the loss. As a tribute, he commissioned a giant painting of himself in his Titans jersey, No. 10, dropping back to pass. Just over his shoulder, in a cloud, McNair sports his old Titans uniform, No. 9, and enormous white angel wings as he drops back in unison.
It's still early, but Young's size-13, blue-and-orange Reebok flip-flops are already on the hotel's wooden shoe rack at the edge of the beach. His plan is to soak up as much Turks and Caicos sun as possible, get a workout in, and hit the spa for a massage before heading to the airport. Running shirtless on the beach in black shorts, Young cuts a dark silhouette against the white sand. After working up a good sweat, he plops down on a chaise longue and acknowledges that vacation is always over too soon, but says he's looking forward to picking up exactly where he left off last season. "I'll continue to work on my accuracy," he says. "Continue to get the ball out of my hands as fast as I read the defenses. I wanna keep defensive coordinators on the edge of their seats."
When he messes up -- hey, everybody does -- and maybe hears some boos, he'll just deal with it. And so what if he doesn't throw the ball 20 times? Young seems increasingly comfortable with who he is as a player and fully aware of how valuable he is to his team. (He recently switched agents, dropping Major Adams, a longtime family friend, for Tom Condon, who reps Eli and Peyton Manning.) What's more, he has the incentive of this season's Super Bowl in Texas driving him to succeed. He already has an inspirational speech composed for his teammates: "How fun were those last 10 games? Do y'all wanna do that again, or are y'all gonna be sitting home again, planning what you're gonna be doing for Super Bowl weekend?"
If that all sounds like tall talk coming from someone just back from the brink, well, Young hopes people can deal with it. "If you don't speak on it, you won't get it," he says. "So I'm speaking on it. I want to take my guys to the Super Bowl.I want to be in the Hall of Fame. There's a great slogan I'm thinking about using: Say I Won't. Like, say I won't accomplish this or that. Go ahead. Say I won't."
Carmen Renee Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.