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Vince Young's down-and-out pattern

Three years after his heroics against USC in the national-title game at the Rose Bowl, the 25-year-old quarterback's fortunes have declined, on field and off. But friends insist he'll be fine.

January 04, 2009|David Wharton

Maybe he knew the good times couldn't last.

It was the fall of 2005 and Vince Young ruled supreme over college football, leading Texas toward an undefeated season and a showdown with top-ranked USC in the national-championship game.

Even then, when it seemed no defense could stop him, the gifted quarterback warned his eventual successor, Colt McCoy, about dealing with success.

"You've got to grow a thick skin," he told the freshman.

McCoy recalls: "That's the biggest thing we talked about. When you're doing great, everybody loves you and when you're doing bad, there are a lot of people who turn on you. You can't listen to either one of them."

Maybe Young could see the hard times coming.

Exactly three years since his shining moment in the Bowl Championship Series national title game at the 2006 Rose Bowl -- remember Young sprinting across the goal line in the final seconds, howling amid confetti that flickered from the night sky? -- a football career hangs in the balance.

The 25-year-old former college superstar and NFL rookie of the year has lost his starting job with the Tennessee Titans amid questions about his ability to handle pressure. There was a bizarre, and much-publicized, incident earlier this season that by various accounts had him sulking, depressed, even suicidal, all of which he has denied.

No matter what happened, Young's reversal of fortune has been swift and dramatic, and something that neither he nor team officials were willing to discuss for this story.

It is left for others to chart the trajectory of his career, the path that took him from then to now.

State of mind

Through the front gate of the Texas football offices, into the lobby, it is hard to walk more than a few steps without seeing a photograph or a trophy, some reminder of the man who some call the greatest pure athlete in school history.

The coaches, who still communicate with Young regularly, insist he has the pride and wherewithal to, as offensive coordinator Greg Davis put it, "come out the end of this cloud."

"I think he's a young man who probably got down," Longhorns Coach Mack Brown said. "He got frustrated."

The situation came to a boil during 48 hours in early September.

Late in the Titans' home opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Young threw his second interception of the day and was booed off the field. He slumped on the bench and did not budge when Tennessee got the ball back.

There was an exchange with Coach Jeff Fisher, who later said they were discussing Young's tight hamstring, after which the third-year quarterback joined his offense on the field. A few plays later, he sprained his knee.

Things turned stranger the next evening when, according to a team statement, "we received a call from people that are closest to Vince informing us that he had left his house in a state of mind that had them concerned; and that he was unreachable." Young kept a gun in his car and had reportedly talked to a therapist about suicide, so the Titans contacted police.

A few hours later, Young turned up at a friend's house and the team said any concerns about his emotional well-being proved "unfounded." But soon after, Felicia Young told The Tennessean that her son was "hurting inside and out" and might quit football.

Another round of clarifications followed, Young insisting that his mother was mistaken. He merely needed time to clear his head and, if anything, was upset about the knee injury.

"I was never depressed," he told reporters, adding: "It's a hard time because I'm a competitor, and I definitely want to be out on the football field with my teammates."

But, according to team insiders, the coaching staff was miffed about Young's sulking and even Fisher conceded that "he definitely needs to work through some things."

That feeling

If it's true that Young was upset at Tennessee fans booing him in the opener, it wasn't the first time he had felt the wrath of a hometown crowd. During his sophomore season in 2004, Texas lost to Oklahoma in the Red River Shootout, then returned home and struggled early against Missouri.

"They booed him, they yelled at him," Brown said. "To think that he is so spoiled that he never got yelled at, was never criticized, in fact I benched him in the middle of the Missouri game."

The Longhorns coaches remain confident that their former protege can rebound if only because they saw him do it in Austin.

As a redshirt freshman, he was pulled during the latter stages of the 2003 Holiday Bowl against Washington State, a game that Texas lost. Walking back into the football offices in January, he announced: "I don't ever want that to happen again. I don't ever want that feeling again."

Young had always been a physical specimen, devoted to conditioning, but coaches told him that he needed to spend more time studying opponents. They say he became a constant presence in the film room.

"From that point on," Davis said, "he started growing into the real deal."

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