The troubled former Lions receiver’s behavior has left everyone who knows him dumbfounded. Is it mental illness, head trauma, drugs—or just a young man lost in his own world?
From now until the opening of training camps, The MMQB will run a series of our Greatest Hits from the site’s first year. From August 13, 2013, Robert Klemko on troubled former Lions receiver Titus Young. Since this piece ran, Young has missed multiple court dates while he is hospitalized for an undisclosed mental condition...
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Judge Andre Manssourian allows the defense to approach the bench to answer a question uttered often in certain Southern California circles recently: Where’s Titus Young? The lawyers confer privately with the deputy district attorney, then veteran attorney Altus Hudson rushes from the courtroom to make a phone call. Forty-five minutes later, the same routine is repeated. Then, two hours after Young’s lawyer had entered the courtroom at 9:30 a.m. in a dark suit and brown leather shoes, the iron-voiced Orange County judge says he’ll again suspend a warrant for Young’s arrest.
“This is the last time,” Manssourian says. “I am satisfied that Mr. Young is not trying to take advantage of not being in custody or defy the court’s rulings, but I am going to have to get him here in the courtroom.”
Outside the courtroom, Hudson says Young is in treatment—then pauses and corrects himself. “Undergoing treatment.”
The subject of off-the-record whispers at Manssourian’s bench for three consecutive missed appearances now, Young is required to show up in the courtroom on Aug. 27 or be subject to arrest. He’s meant to answer for the latest blow in a self-destructive barrage that ruined a promising NFL career: his arrest for an alleged break-in at a home in San Clemente, Calif., the weekend of May 11 and the assault of the officers who came to arrest him. Young spent 27 days in jail before being released on bail on June 10. The incident came on the heels of two arrests in a single day earlier in May, the first for suspicion of DUI (for which Young was booked and released) and the second for suspicion of burglary, after he allegedly scaled a wall and attempted to retrieve his impounded car. Young was released on $5,000 bail on those charges.
Will Titus Young show up in two weeks? It’s anyone’s guess. Will Titus Young ever play football again? The jury’s out. What set him on this precipitous decline? That’s hard to say. But the clues lie along the road he took from Los Angeles to Newport Beach, with stops in Idaho, Michigan, St. Louis and Texas.
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“We did all the things kids that grow up in Los Angeles do,” says Mike Agustin, a teammate of Young’s on the University High football team in the mid-2000s. “We partied, we smoked; nothing serious.”
Titus, like much of his crew, needed discipline; they got it from coaches E.C. Robinson and Lee Lowe. Robinson, a former probation officer, built a winning program at Uni with the aid, Agustin says, of a long wooden stick, striking the ankles and calves of players who were late, players who misbehaved, players who were high. “Coach Rob didn’t play [around],” he says. (Asked about his big-stick approach, Robinson laughed and called it “more of a myth than truth.”)
Robinson’s teams hit hard, sometimes with their heads. After a summer of sneaking into football camps with coach Lowe, Young wanted to make a statement in 2006, his senior year. He’d built buzz among recruiters as a fearless safety and a speed receiver. Young was particularly amped for the season opener against rival San Pedro. “I remember the game like it was yesterday,” Lowe says. “[Titus] said, I don’t need no picks, I got to let ’em know. He was sitting them on their ass, but it was all helmet to helmet. He was hitting guys so hard, like a scholarship was on the line. He was like a torpedo. Knockout shots.”
Says Robinson: “Titus loved to hit with his head.”
Young was a scud missile on defense and a showboat on offense. He would line up at wide receiver and tell an approaching cornerback with a grin, Get up here son. I’m about to dog you. In one game he returned a kick for a touchdown with just a few seconds remaining, finishing with a front-flip into the end zone that earned him a one-game suspension. Reckless, outspoken, sociable and supremely talented, Young signed to attend Boise State, which was in the midst of its rise to national prominence. Better yet, Jason Robinson—two years his elder, his former quarterback at Uni and coach Robinson’s son—was on the Broncos’ football team and would be his roommate.
In 2007, before Young set off to Idaho, a fellow Uni student interviewed him on camera in a three-minute video later uploaded to YouTube. Young was asked about his early discipline problems in high school, his eventual suspension, and how he had turned his young life around and earned a college scholarship. “I was tired of being the bad person in the dean’s office,” Young says in the video, wearing a white T-shirt and sagging jeans. “Every time I’d go to the dean’s office, I’d always wish I was somebody else. I’m trying to be like myself.”
At Boise, Young excelled as a freshman, catching 44 passes for 639 yards and five touchdowns, but he began missing workouts and disagreeing with instructions. Assistant coaches phoned Robinson and Lowe to ask, “How do you deal with this kid?” In October 2008, Broncos coach Chris Petersen suspended Young for the remainder of his sophomore season. That appeared to be a wake-up call: Young straightened up, was reinstated for 2009, and had 150 receptions over his final two seasons. He finished as Boise’s alltime leader in receiving yards, with 3,063. Entering the 2011 NFL draft, Young was a promising prospect with a character flag.
Mike Ornstein sought him out that winter. A one-time Raiders exec, Ornstein had represented Reggie Bush and other prominent NFL players as a marketing agent (and would later in 2011 run afoul of the law in a case involving the sale of memorabilia and Super Bowl tickets). Young committed to his marketing services, and Ornstein remembers the 21-year-old as smart and personable, visiting Ornstein’s house on several occasions, playing video games with Ornstein’s high-school aged son and introducing Ornstein to his girlfriend. Occasionally, Ornstein says, Young was rude or dismissive, but nothing worth noting. “He grew up in a nice family,” Ornstein says. “He grew up in South Central, but he’s not a thug. He was an all-around sweet kid.”
In April 2011, Young was drafted 44th overall by the Lions, who were looking for a speed receiver to take some heat off their star, Calvin Johnson. For a season, that’s what they got. Acrobatic and a fearless route-runner at 5-11 and 175 pounds, Young caught 48 passes for 607 yards and six touchdowns as a rookie. But during that season his personality morphed. He grew quieter around teammates and less disciplined on the field. In Week 13 he was benched after committing a costly unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in a 31-17 loss to the Saints. Privately, Young demanded that he get the ball more often from quarterback Matt Stafford. “He would say things, and we would argue behind closed doors, and then when we came out it was all good,” says veteran wideout Nate Burleson, who joined the Lions in 2010. “He wanted to be the No. 1 receiver. I told him he had to wait his turn.”
That fall the league, through its office of player engagement, reached out to Young to offer counseling, at the request of a person in Young’s inner circle, but Young declined that and subsequent offers. Then on May 21, 2012, during a Lions' offseason workout, Young and defensive back Louis Delmas got into a disagreement; Young took a swing at Delmas while he wasn’t looking and was banned from the team’s facility. He returned to Los Angeles after that and pled his case to his peers. At a July 4 barbeque he contended to Lowe that he was a better player than Johnson. “We had an argument,” Lowe says. “I’m like, Dude, what are you talking about? And he was like, They can’t guard me. I’m open all the time. My routes are better, I’m faster, my swag is better. Part of it was funny, but the other thing is, he really believed that.”
During the summer of 2012, Young spent much of his time at Uni, working out with the high schoolers whom he supplied with cleats and gloves through his Adidas partnership. He would race players for the cleats off his feet; once, when the fastest one, Justin White, almost beat him, Young demanded a rematch to set the record straight. “He was happy, he was a jokester,” White remembers. “He was cool with me. Everyone liked being around him.”
Upon returning to Lions HQ in Allen Park, Mich., Young was even more the outsider. In November 2012, amid a season of growing discontent between Young and the coaches, he intentionally lined up in the wrong spot and ran the wrong routes in a game against the Packers. Detroit, struggling through a stretch in which it would lose its final eight games and finish 4-12, benched him for the rest of the season. “It’s hard to say when he started to change,” says Burleson. “There wasn’t one moment. You don’t want to make assumptions when somebody is dealing with something that is, in a sense, invisible.”
Two weeks before the Super Bowl, an incensed Young tweeted, “I never been selfish but if I’m not going to get the football i don’t want to play anymore.” Two weeks later, and with two years left on his four-year, $4.6 million contract, the Lions severed ties with Young.
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Still, his potential was beguiling, especially to a team in need of help at receiver. On Feb. 5 the Rams claimed him off waivers, coach Jeff Fisher and GM Les Snead taking a shot with a player they hoped could be a replacement for Danny Amendola, who was expected to leave in free agency. But over the course of several meetings with Rams personnel, Young was off-kilter and unfocused: He told Fisher, for instance, that he wanted to move to defensive back. On Feb. 14, Young left the Rams facility for the airport with a team escort, but when he arrived he couldn’t find his driver’s license. Told he couldn’t board a plane without identification, Young threw a fit, according to Ornstein. “It was a big scene there at the airport,” Ornstein says. “They [the Rams] could see there was something wrong then. If he had gone down there and been his normal self, he’d still be there.”
The Rams helped settle Young’s lost ID problem and got him back to Los Angeles. On Feb. 15 they announced that they had released him.
Ornstein says that in the ensuing days he reached out to representatives of Brandon Marshall, the Bears receiver who sought treatment at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts for a personality disorder. Marshall was able to reach Young but unable to persuade him to check into McLean. Some two weeks after Young was released by the Rams, Ornstein asked Young, his father, Richard, and a cousin to meet him at his modest office in a high rise on the Avenue of the Stars. There, Ornstein laid out his plan to send Young to McLean, but Young grew angry and stormed out.
Soon after, Ornstein says, the family admitted Young to UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Hospital in Los Angeles. Ornstein visited him in early March, several days into his stay. As Ornstein describes the scene, Young was in a bed, surrounded by his parents and sisters, dripping with sweat. He wore sunglasses because his eyes were sensitive to the light, and Ornstein was told he had been sedated. “Something happened that changed him,” Ornstein says, “and it changed him overnight. I went in the hospital and it wasn’t him.” Ornstein says the family sought treatment for Young in Texas, where Young’s father has family. (Richard and the rest of Young’s family declined an interview request for this story through Young’s attorney.) That was the last of Ornstein’s involvement with Titus.
He said, ‘I’m gonna help the Rams out this year. I’m gonna get going,’ ” Robinson says. “I said, ‘Titus, the Rams cut you.’ And he just stared off into space.
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Later in March, in Los Angeles, Young appeared unannounced at the house of his old Uni coach, Robinson, who was not home. “When my daughter pulled up to the house,” says Robinson, “Titus was sitting on the brick wall by my garage. He said, ‘Where’s Coach?’ ”
Robinson’s daughter was phoning her dad when she saw Young wander off the wall and into the busy street, apparently unaware or uncaring. Frightened, she waved him into her car and brought Young to the restaurant where her dad was eating. They ordered carry-out chicken from El Pollo Loco for Young and brought it back to Robinson’s house, where the coach got a glimpse of what his former star player had become. “He said, ‘I’m gonna help the Rams out this year. I’m gonna get going,’ ” Robinson says. “I said, ‘Titus, the Rams cut you.’ And he just stared off into space.”
Robinson took to testing Young’s memory. He could no longer remember winning the team MVP award as a senior, or the speech he gave upon receiving it. Young didn’t remember who Jason Robinson was, much less their days in Boise as roommates. He said he had been to a treatment facility in Texas, and somewhere along the road had been told there was a “spot” on his brain.
“When he left I just cried,” Robinson says. “So I called his [player] agent, Kevin Poston, and told him this kid needs some help. He said ‘Coach, I had him in a facility in Detroit, and he just walked out.' ”
Robinson has not seen Young since that day in March.
During the second week of May, Young showed up at his alma mater looking for Lowe, his mentor and Robinson’s successor as head coach. Lowe remembered Young as a cocky kid—Terrell Owens was his favorite player—with a mouth to match his game. But on this day in May, Young lacked the edge that once defined him. He was jobless and desperate for a third chance in the NFL. “He just got done working out, and he had a faraway look, like he was looking past you,” Lowe says. “For a minute we thought he got a hold of some bad drugs. He was in Detroit. I know how Detroit gets down. I’m like, ‘I hope you’re not doing any of these new drugs.’ And he was telling me, ‘No, coach, I’m not.’ ”
“Then he said, ‘Man if I can get back in the league, s--, I’ll hop the gate if I have to.’ ”
That’s dedication, Lowe thought, although the metaphor seemed odd. Young asked if he could coach the high school defensive backs who were on hand for offseason workouts, but Lowe was wary and knew about the behavior that had gotten Young shoved out of the NFL. “Yeah,” Lowe said. “Maybe next time.”
That evening, when Lowe returned home, he read the news about Young’s recent DUI arrest and the attempt to break into the impound lot. Lowe phoned Robinson, and they tried to come up with explanations for Young’s behavior. They remembered the San Pedro game, back when they knew less about the risks of leading with the head. Lowe began phoning former players to see if they still had copies of the video of that game. Robinson and Lowe also recalled Young’s confessions of “seeing stars” on multiple occasions at Boise. Though Young was never officially diagnosed with a concussion in high school and they knew of no instances in college, they decided that head trauma was, at the very least, a possible factor in Young’s behavior. (Asked if Young had ever suffered a concussion at Boise State, an athletic department spokesman said it was school policy not to release such information.)
With Young’s world spiraling out of control, his family did its best to help. Robinson says Richard Young told him they attempted to check Titus back into UCLA but there were no available beds. Shortly thereafter, Young was at home when he told his father he had left his cell phone in the car. He went outside to retrieve it but never returned. On May 12, Robinson and his wife were having lunch with their daughter when their son, Jason, rushed through the door in tears. “I said, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ ” Robinson recalls. “He said, ‘Daddy, you haven’t seen the news? They say [Titus] got arrested again, in San Clemente.’ ”
Robinson was puzzled: Why on earth was Young in San Clemente, an hour from his home? Young’s girlfriend and their child live an hour northeast of L.A., in Moreno Valley. San Clemente is an hour south, in Orange County. “If you’re black, you don’t go to Orange County,” Robinson says. “Especially not San Clemente.”
In the days after Young’s third arrest in a week, Titus’s father told the Detroit News that his son suffers from a brain disorder stemming from compression in the front of his skull due to concussions. He wasn’t taking medication prescribed to him, so for his own health and safety the family let him spend 27 days in jail rather than bail him out. Richard pointed specifically to a concussion suffered during Young’s rookie season, though Young was never on an injury list for a concussion during his pro career.
Facing up to 10 years in jail, Young appeared in Judge Mansourrian’s court for a pretrial hearing on May 24, inside a tan-painted cage for prisoners. He stood silent as Mansourrian questioned him and as his father called out to him in anguish.
The Lions and general manager Martin Mayhew, through a spokesman, declined a request to speak about Young, calling it a “confidential matter.” Jason Robinson, Young’s childhood friend and college roommate, did not return phone requests for comment. Marjani Maldonado, the mother of Young’s child, was granted a restraining order against Young after feeling threatened by him. She declined an interview request. Young’s agent, Poston, did not return phone and email requests for comment. Young’s trainer and former coach, Jerron Tatum, also did not return a phone call.
Those who would speak about Young shared varying concerns, explanations, measures of disbelief and hope for him. Burleson remembers a young player who simply couldn’t find his place in the NFL: “It’s almost a detriment when your competitive nature supersedes your ability to be a good teammate.”
Ornstein questions the league’s protocol for head-trauma sufferers and hopes Young’s case eventually sheds new light on the problem. The league says it offers a number of services to suffering players, including “confidential and independent counseling services.”
Lowe and Robinson are trying to reconcile the boy they knew five years ago with the man they’ve encountered in recent months. They echo the sentiment Richard expressed to media outlets— “That’s not my son”—after the San Clemente arrest. Yes, Young was arrogant, occasionally a troublemaker, always pushing boundaries, they recall, but as long as they’ve known him he was never cruel, never criminal, never so seemingly aimless. “I’m not saying this because I love the kid: He’s never been like that,” Lowe says. “He’s a smart dude, a little bit wild. But that stuff . . . not him.
“I’m happy he finally got some help. I’m just hoping its not too late. I get asked every day, ‘What’s wrong with him.’ I say, ‘I don’t know, but it’s bigger than what you think it is.’ ”
Lowe says he spoke to Young on the phone recently and that Young is out of in-patient treatment and safe with his family, but he describes the conversation as “one-sided.” Young’s lawyer, Hudson, wouldn’t say where Titus is, but his distinction between being “in” treatment and “undergoing” treatment is a telling one. He also says he doesn’t know if Young will report to the Newport Beach courthouse on Aug. 27.