On the first day of the Baltimore Colts' training camp, Westminster, Md., July of 1968, Ordell Braase, the huge old war-horse, a survivor of 12 years in the National Football League, was walking along with George Young, a chubby and bespectacled fellow, who was the newest member of the organization. At the age of 37, Young had been hired by Don Shula as a personnel assistant, and, at camp, he was going to double as a gridiron candy-striper, assisting the assistants. For 16 years Young had been a high school history teacher, coaching adolescents in the fall, but never working with college players, much less with God's gift to play-for-pay.
"Well, George," Braase said, being as polite as he could in his condescension, "this really must be something for you, jumping all the way from high school to the NFL. Quite a change, huh, George?"
Young remained silent and continued walking, but the expression on his face registered disagreement. Braase took wary note of Young's countenance, and it obliged him to think deeper about football and life. After walking a few more steps in silence, Braase ventured a thought, "Yeah, I guess you're right, George. We just drink more beer up here, don't we?"
Satisfied, Young merely nodded, and kept on walking toward his first professional practice.
December 16, 1985
The novitiate was brief: In two more years, Young was line coach for Baltimore's 1971 Super Bowl champions; in barely a decade he became general manager of the league's flagship franchise, the New York Giants; in 1984, by vote of his colleagues, he was acclaimed The Sporting News Executive of the Year. After a disastrous 1983 season, in which an injury-wracked Giant team went 3-12-1, New York qualified for the 1984 playoffs and beat Los Angeles before bowing to San Francisco, the eventual Super Bowl champion. During his years with the Giants Young has made superb use of the draft, something the Mara organization had consistently failed to do. Young's first-round picks have included quarterback Phil Simms, linebackers Lawrence Taylor and Carl Banks and defensive backs Mark Haynes and Terry Kinard, all key performers on this year's powerful team.
Young's rise is all the more amazing inasmuch as pro football is such an inbred society. Clemenceau once observed of British aristocrats that they all looked alike, just one out of 10 was very smart...only you could never remember which one. You see, Young does not look like everybody else. He has always been obese. In 1979, the Mara brothers, owners of the Giants, interviewed dozens of trimmer, stylishly dressed types for the general manager's position before complying with commissioner Pete Rozelle's suggestion that they at least give Young a hearing.
Nick Schloeder is one of Young's best friends and a roommate at Bucknell. Schloeder, a teacher at Gilman School in Baltimore, doubles as an assistant for U.S. Senator Paul Sarbanes. Like so many others who have been influenced by Young, Schloeder is not the least bit astonished at his friend's success. "I've never been surprised by George's ability to do any job," Schloeder says. "I've only been surprised that in this world of blow-dried hair, he's been allowed to do these things."
In Baltimore, where Young grew up, the euphemism for his size was heavyset; nowadays more gentle words such as big, large and king-size are commonly employed. George's father, who was Irish, ran a neighborhood stag bar, but Young never drank in his life, or smoked, either. Instead he ate. All of his vices, all of his excesses were directed to his dinner plate.
Since 1984, Young has dropped 70 pounds, but even in his reduced state, you would not call him trim. In a sport-shirt world, he invariably dresses in a coat and tie. On those rare occasions when Young breaks down and goes insanely casual, he keeps the top button on his leisure shirt snugly buttoned. Also, Young has been bald all his adult life and forever myopic. Everybody loves the story about the time George fell on a helmet instead of the ball when someone yelled fumble. It's a tale that sniffs strongly of amiable apocrypha, but in fact it truly did happen once, at Bucknell, when he was a freshman in 1948, in an evening game when a white football was used. Bucknell also wore white helmets. And not only did Young fall on a helmet instead of a ball; there still chanced to be a head in the helmet he fell on. Linemen have forever been told that if they do happen upon a fumble, grab it tightly lest nimble-fingered opponents extract it from their grasp. So Young pressed the helmet even tighter to his folds. "But it was attached!" Schloeder shrieks. "It was attached to a body!"
Not surprisingly, Young became one of the first athletes to wear contact lenses. He made Little All-America at Bucknell in 1951, and was drafted the next year in the 26th round by the Dallas Texans, formerly the New York Yanks (R.I.P.); he just missed making the final cut. A number of pro teams invited Young to try out the next year but he had begun teaching by then, and his playing career was behind him. "My nature is student or teacher," he says. "When I was a high school teacher, and a student myself at night, that was when I had the best of both worlds." As manager of his high school basketball team, he took it upon himself to scout the opposition. Even when he had become personnel director of an NFL team, he would head off every summer for a week of clinics with high school and college coaches. In night school, he picked up two master's degrees. And so, when he finally decided to leave teaching and take the job Shula offered, Young and his wife agreed he would not really be leaving education, only taking a sabbatical from it—and, in effect, that remains the case 17 years later.
"George is as invulnerable as any man I know, and certainly any man in the NFL," Schloeder says. "He doesn't worry about being general manager of the New York Giants, because he knows he can be just as happy going back to high school, teaching history and coaching the jayvees on the side."
Young shakes his head. "The NFL's such an impulsive business," he sighs. "The coaches are impulsive. The owners are impulsive. The players are impulsive. The fans are impulsive. The agents are impulsive." There was a long, telling pause. Yes, George?
"I'm not impulsive," he declares—as if the damn thing really needed saying.
Terry Brennan—remember him?—is about Young's age. In 1954, age 26, Brennan was appointed coach of Notre Dame. "You know what crossed my mind when I heard that?" Young asks. "The poor fellow. That's what. You see, unlike teaching, the trouble with the football business is that it's up, up and out. At the time they appointed Brennan, there weren't but three really major football coaching positions: Army, Navy and Notre Dame. And he was 26 and had one of them already. The poor fellow. That had to be his last job." Another long pause. "I wasn't in any hurry."
A few years later, Young left his alma mater, Calvert Hall College, a Catholic school in Baltimore, to coach at City College, which, its name notwithstanding, is—like Calvert—a public high school. There he had an outstanding quarterback named Denny Wisner. "George was going to school at night, studying the Chinese wars," Wisner recalls.
"He said to me: 'Coaching is not the epitome of success.' I said: 'The Chinese wars aren't the epitome of success, either.' He said: 'Yeah, Denny, but you can study them forever.' "
"I never thought anything would come easy," Young says. "And I never take anything for granted. I paid my dues. I labored in the vineyard. And I know who I am."
He was 34 when he married another teacher, Kathryn Reddington, whom everybody calls Lovey, and who once drove her husband to distraction by inquiring, "George, how can you get so excited over a game with just 10 men?" It is with special pride that Lovey notes that, back in Baltimore, when a young man dashes across the street to greet her husband, he is just as likely to have been one of his history students as one of his football players.
After Wisner, Young had another fine quarterback at City, a bright black kid named Kurt Schmoke. He was all-Baltimore, all-this and all-that, and everybody was raving about him. One day Young called Schmoke in and told him he would be much better off forgetting all this Big Ten nonsense. "He could be so honest," Schmoke says. "Here I was, getting all these headlines, and—hey, you're not that good. Everybody else was puffing me up, and here's the one person who's reality, who's telling me what life is all about. And he's the coach." Schmoke listened, chose Yale and is now the state's attorney for Baltimore and is on his way to becoming the city's first black mayor.
Young's teams were known for their basics, their fundamentals and discipline. On game days, players had to wear coats and ties, and there was never a peep out of them. Indeed, at other schools, the players began to inquire why they couldn't wear coats and ties like the City boys. Mike Olesker, now a columnist for The Baltimore Sun, recalled an episode he had seen when he was a student at City, watching Young's team in the closing seconds of an 8-8 struggle:
"I've come down from the student press box, and I'm standing in the mud by the City bench, just beyond George Young, who is calling through the raindrops and the gathering gloom.
" 'Duley,' he cries. 'Duley, Duley.'
"On the field, City's running back, Tom Duley, does not hear him. Young keeps calling his name. At 17, I feel as though I'm standing in the middle of a piece of history: Young will catch Duley's attention, and he will signal some secret play, and Duley will run it in for a victory as the final gun goes off.
"The clock is ticking; the tension is mounting. 'Duley,' the coach cries again, and finally, on the field, Tom Duley turns and looks back at his coach.
" 'Duley,' Young shouts to him. 'Your shirt's not tucked in.' George Young always played by a higher set of rules."
When Young took command of the Giants, he hired Ray Perkins as head coach over candidates more publicized, and then when Perkins jumped to Alabama in '82, Young promptly chose Bill Parcells, the Giants' defensive coordinator, as his successor. It didn't trouble Young that Parcells lacked all the safe credentials and had never been a head coach in the NFL. "Look, if there's one thing I am," Young says, "it's a student of coaches.
"Selecting someone for a job is like getting married. Despite what the romantics say, you're going to be a lot better off choosing someone with more similarities. Then, too often management displays the Pontius Pilate syndrome with their coaches: washing their hands of the men they hired as soon as they start to lose."
A friend once asked Young what the essence of being a good coach was. He didn't hesitate. "You have to have the answer," he snapped back.
At the time, too, charisma was the big word for coaches, as communicator is now. "Yeah, that's all nice," Young says, "but the important thing is, some weeks you prepare to stop a team one way, and the game starts, and they're set up in an entirely different way—and that's when the players are going to come to you. And it doesn't matter whether it's high school or the Super Bowl, they'll just say, 'All right, coach, what do we do now?' And then you have to have the answer. And that's coaching."
But it is more. To many youngsters, no one except a parent is likely to be so important as a high school coach. Especially in today's mobile American society, with divorces so common and boys often brought up in families without a constant male presence, the high school coach may loom larger still.
"I always recognized the extent of my influence, coaching in high school," Young says. "As long as you know what you're doing, coaching in high school offers the greatest opportunity and the greatest influence. You're a molder! But, thank God, somewhere in my background I recognized that football is only part of the complete process."
The football coach possesses, perhaps, more responsibility than any other teacher or coach because the sport is harsh and brutal, and because the game—unlike baseball, and more so even than basketball—is a festival by nature, a social event that touches almost everyone in the school's extended family. "Football can set the tone for your whole school," Young says. "It's probably foremost just a matter of timing, that it comes at the beginning of the school year. But I'm convinced, for whatever the reasons, that if you have an unsuccessful football team, your whole school program for that year can be adversely affected—in other sports, in other activities, in the way the school feels about itself.
"But football is a dangerous game for those who play it," he points out. "Now I love the game. It's a good way to lose your aggressions, because it's healthy and it's controlled. But football's not easy. It's a Spartan sport, a game for men.
"There are many boys who should never play football. Sometimes I think I've spent my whole life worrying about other people's children or other people's husbands, but if I had a son myself I'd be very careful in helping him decide whether he should play football. And it should never be played by anyone without the best equipment, the best facilities...the best coaches."
A few years ago in Baltimore County, public forums were being held to discuss whether football should be played by the high schools at all. Typically, Young took it upon himself to attend. "They had all these mothers' clubs and elementary school teachers speaking out against football, and they had no idea what they were talking about. I just sat there listening. They simply didn't understand. It's not football they should be afraid of. It's the people who run it."
Young grew up street-smart in Baltimore's 10th Ward in a tough Irish neighborhood, living over a bakery that was run by his mother's side of the family, catty-corner from his father's bar. It was a quintessential Baltimore area, and, as might be expected from someone who is so consistent in life, Young remains hometown through and through. When the late Joe Thomas, the Colts' general manager, fired Young during a 1974 purge, "Well, now I have to leave Baltimore" was the first thing that went through Young's mind.
Then Shula hired him for Miami, whence he departed for New York seven years later. But the more agonizing decision was in '68 when Young chose to take the sabbatical from teaching and to work for Shula and the Colts.
For some time it had been gnawing at him that secondary public education had come to require "technicians" more than it did teachers. "It's something terribly sad," he says, "that high school coaches are more successful than their colleagues in the classrooms. And no one seems to be able to make the connection that coaches are still allowed to establish standards and demand performance, while teachers are not." Young had begun to talk to Lovey about how it might be time for him to seek a position in some local college's history department.
But by then Shula had met the other successful coach in Baltimore, the one who kept winning titles at City, had given him a temporary personnel assignment and had been so impressed at the way Young had handled that task that—out of the blue—he had offered him a full-time position. George and Lovey discussed the options carefully and decided on football. And that is how, in the prime of his life, George Young set off on a path that made him NFL Executive of the Year instead of a professor of European history.
"I never aspired to this position," he says. "Professional athletes are not always uplifting, and this is not a business of the well-adjusted." He shifts uneasily. "There are a lot of non-football types trying to get in on the act who never paid their dues. This is still a sport, and it's still a boy's game. But money, you see, is becoming the end-all. Oh, of course, I realize this is a business, and certainly it's show business—only not to the extent being claimed. It's these outside people who're telling the players—the holdups...I mean the holdouts—that money is that important, the end. But I don't care who says otherwise, I know that's not the true nature of the football player. The player seeks to play first. Listen, if you don't love to play the game, you're absolutely crazy to get on the field."
Young is at his desk now, the place where a telephone grows out of his ear. The top button of his sports shirt is closed snug. "I act pragmatically," he says. "Oh, I know everybody makes a great deal out of the fact that I made the kids at City wear coats and ties on game days," he says. "But that was not merely symbolic. It had occurred to me that never once had I seen a boy, standing in line to see the vice-principal to be disciplined, who was wearing a coat and tie.
"Nevertheless, as pragmatic as I am, philosophically I'm not a pragmatist because I'm limited by the parameters of my ethics.
"And things—possessions—have never been big with me. Football has been a way of life, but I enjoy many other interests. My friends are very important to me, but I wouldn't have a single one if the definition of a friend was someone who agreed with you. People ask me, Where should I send my child to school? I always answer: Don't choose the one with the best teachers. Choose the one with the best students, because it's competition that makes all of us better, and we are primarily educated by the people around us.
"Myself, now I've gone from public servant to public figure, and I hope, in this capacity, to bring a little bit better image to the game. You see, we owe the public certain things. But I keep hearing the opposite—especially from those non-football types, the ones who never paid their dues. And what they're saying is that athletes have no responsibility to give anything back.
"I come from a background that taught the opposite: that those of us granted the most were exactly those who were also entrusted with the most responsibility. Certainly we have an obligation. My feeling is that if you don't want to accept these obligations, then, fine, don't rise high. Stay back and be paid like everyone else."
George Young tugs at his neck button, stands up and comes round his desk. He is through talking for now; it is time to be on the other side of the desk where he might be a student again.