The big man stood over his son's crib and tried to explain why he was afraid to lift the baby from the blankets. This was in the winter of 1976, when Charle Young was a Pro Bowl tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles and his firstborn, Charles II, was two weeks old. The father hadn't yet picked up his son and held him. On this January momma the baby's mother, Colleen, listened from the next room.
Son," she heard Charle whisper, Dad's going to pick you up now. And I want you to know I waited awhile to do this because I needed to figure out how to cradle you in my arms without crushing you. I won't let you fall." And with one soil hand he held the child in front of his face.
Fatherhood is forever, and it is the blink of an eve. A baby, as small as a palm, abruptly grows into manhood while his father is off chasing greatness. A child looks like his daddy down there among the blankets and rattles, and isn't that cute; One day he really looks like his daddy. For three men of football—Young, Joe Gibbs and Merlin Olsen—fatherhood might mean the passing along of greatness, and as with most fathers, it involves expectation, absence, wonder and love. A bond both unique and ordinary.
Young was the prototype tight end, Gibbs was coach of the Washington Redskins, and Olsen was one fourth of the Los Angeles Rams' Fearsome Foursome, not to mention all of Father Murphy. Among them they have four Super Bowl rings, a college national championship, 17 Fro Bowls, three TV series, one Daytona 500, three successful businesses and lest we forget, one grand marshalship of the Tournament of Roses Parade "The world will tell you those are the most important things in life," says Gibbs "They're not."
October 9, 1994
Young understood as much that morning in Philadelphia when his baby looked back at him from the palm of the same hand he used for those receptions made timeless by NFL Films. Olsen understood it when he watched his son stand on the line of scrimmage at a high school football game, hands on hips, awaiting the offense—Ram number 74 in a time warp. ("I was looking in a mirror," says Merlin.) And Gibbs understood it when, after more than 20 years of coaching players in the ways of organized hurt, that same violence was suddenly directed at his two sons.
There's something else these fathers share besides the rings and trophies and overlapping war stories (Young played briefly with Olsen for the Rams, Gibbs coached Young at USC, Olsen worked Gibbs's games on television): Each has a son playing football at Stanford. Coy Gibbs is a fierce, if undersized, senior linebacker, starting for the fourth consecutive year; Nathan Olsen, also a senior, is a company man playing his third position without complaint; Charles Young II won the free safety job last year as a 17-year-old true freshman and is now rotating in the defensive backfield after recovering from knee mi surgery.
They are as different as three athletes could be: Gibbs the iconoclast, spouting Rush Limbaugh in a Stanford history class just to hack off the liberals; Olsen the pacifist, trudging from offense to defense and back to offense in the same practice without uttering a word in anger; Young the prodigy, with one of the highest grade point averages among Stanford football freshmen and with his dad's self-assurance, broadcast at a slightly lower volume. Each young man is also his father's conscience, a reminder that careers end but children continue and that it is much simpler to invent the H-back than it is to steer a son through adolescence.
Each is also a reminder that a man can succeed at both sports and fatherhood, but not always easily. "The fathers who have been there" says Stanford coach Bill Walsh, "they're sensitive and alert to developing the other side of the brain, so to speak. They know there's another facet to all this." Three fathers, three sons, three facets.
Charlotte, N.C.: At a clapboard eatery with stock cars (photos) decorating the menu, stock cars (photos) decorating the walls and two stock cars (real ones) decorating the roof, the founder of Joe Gibbs Racing pauses over mesquite chicken on a bagel and puts his hands in his lap. "Let's say grace," he says solemnly. "Father, bless us and take care of our friends.... Take care of Coy...."
Coy Gibbs is a continent away from his father, and he can take care of himself, as opposing ballcarriers will attest. "Great short-range explosion and a real miserable disposition," says Stanford defensive coordinator Fred vonAppen. These Coy needs, because at 5'11" and change and 210 pounds, he is absurdly small for a Division I-A linebacker.
Coy also makes his presence felt off the field, where Stanford's liberalism and Coy's right-wing Christian roots collide head-on. "Coy is ultraconservative, and he doesn't shut up," says Nathan Olsen. "Around here that's not politically correct." It's not true that Gibbs is planning a Palo Alto Rush Room, but it's fair to say that his politics glow like highway flares on the Stanford campus. "I have a set of morals I believe in," says Coy, "and I'll argue to the death for them."
Coy's older brother, J.D., 25, works for his father as vice president of marketing at Joe Gibbs Racing in Charlotte, changes the left-side tires on Dale Jarrett's Chevy Lumina along the NASCAR circuit and races late-model stock cars on rural tracks—all of which Coy would like to do himself. This is why he will leave Stanford after the last football game this season and go home to work with his father. "I'll go to UNC Charlotte after the season," he says. "I made a commitment to play football at Stanford; I didn't make a commitment to finish school."
Sometimes his strong will has not been to his advantage. When he was a sophomore at Madison High in Fairfax, Va., Coy came back from a knee injury only to suffer another one, which caused him to be benched in the final game of the season. Sitting next to his father on the car ride home, he cried for the entire trip. "It was one of the biggest heartbreaks we've ever had," says Joe Gibbs.
For his senior year Coy transferred to DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville, Md., a 45-minute drive from his home in Vienna, Va. He filled a glove compartment with $75 tickets for driving in a lane reserved for car pools, and for the first four weeks of football season he lived in a hotel near DeMatha. The payoff was participation in a program that sent 16 players to Division I-A or I-AA schools...and Coy to Stanford, on the other side of the country.
Coy's decision shook his family, even though Stanford was the only I-A program that offered him a scholarship. "But I've learned never to tell Coy what to do," says his mother, Pat. As a college assistant and recruiter, Joe Gibbs had always told parents to keep their sons close to home. J.D. played at William & Mary, in Williamsburg, Va., 3½ hours from D.C.
As a football player Coy has come into his own at Stanford. "He's mean, and that's why he's good," says tight end Tony Cline (son of former Oakland Raider and San Francisco 49er defensive end Tony Cline—this genealogy thing is epidemic at Stanford). Besides being small, Coy must spring from a right knee with a shredded posterior cruciate ligament, yet he was second on the team in tackles last season with 92, and is first this season with 28 through the first four games. The game is his joy. "I love all the players here," he says. "I wouldn't trade football for anything."
Coy's move to Stanford made Joe realize that he would never get back the hours he lost to coaching, and this hastened his retirement in March 1993. Joe recalled an autumn night in his heyday with the Redskins when he arrived home and trudged up the stairs to Coy's room. "When they were little, it was my job to put the kids to bed," says Joe. "I leaned over to kiss Coy good night, and he had a beard. I said, 'Good gosh, what happened? He was a baby yesterday.' " What happened was long nights spent building Super Bowl champions. Joe gave Coy summers at training camp and Sundays on the Redskins' sidelines, but while he concentrated on football, the child became a man without him. "I knew our lifestyle was abnormal," says Joe. "And I left football not long after that night."
Now each weekend the father flies from North Carolina to share a Friday dinner with his son and to watch him play on Saturday. "It means a lot to him," says Coy. "It means a lot to me, too."
Don't fear for the son's diploma. Coy Gibbs's understanding of education in the '90s, when a college degree can lead to stuffing soft tacos, is rooted in common sense. "Education is what you make of it," he says. "It's helped me to come here, it's helped me grow. But [Stanford] is all about using the right word at the right time." He plans to finish his education at UNC Charlotte yet return to Stanford to graduate, in his own time, at his own pace.
Oh, and he has no NFL fantasies. "I'm not living in a dream world," he says. His world is back home, with his family.
Palo Alto: The running joke at 3333 Park Blvd., where Coy Gibbs and Nathan Olsen lived last year in undergraduate squalor with Cline and Jimmy Klein (yup, another one, the son of former Ram and San Diego Charger tight end Bob Klein), was that Olsen could always be found sunk in the couch. "Nate would be happy anywhere, as long as there's TV," says Gibbs. That seems only natural for a kid whose dad was not only a football hero but also a television actor.
But the one thing Olsen will never be found watching is reruns of Little House on the Prairie, in which his father appeared for four years. "I really don't like that show," Olsen says. "Every show, someone dies or something tragic happens. That show is such a downer."
Upon hearing this news, his father nods resignedly. "I suspect Father Murphy [a Little House spin-off] was more Nate's type of show, more of an action show," Merlin Olsen says.
This aversion to Little House is one of Nathan's two brushes with rebellion. The other occurred during his junior year at San Marino (Calif.) High when his father volunteered to coach the defensive line, which included Nathan. "I loved it when my father gave me stuff at home, but I didn't really like it when he came to practice," says Nathan. Merlin's work with the teenage linemen was hands-on, including, in Merlin's words, "ripping an occasional forearm." But it took the intercession of Nathan's mother, Susan, to quiet his apprehension about his father's direct involvement. She says, "I told him, 'Nathan, don't you think your dad knows more than a high school coach?' "
Well, actually, no. Merlin retired from the Rams in 1976, when Nathan was three years old. "To me," recalls Nathan, "my father was an actor." But Nathan's summary of Merlin's coaching episode shows his character. "It made our team better," he says, "so it was the right thing to do."
Nathan has made Stanford better too, at the cost of continuity in his own career. As a sophomore two years ago, he was moved from defensive lineman to blocking fullback. Then last spring Olsen was moved to inside linebacker, perhaps his most natural position. But this is his last year of eligibility, because a potential red-shirt freshman season was wasted when he was sent into the third quarter of a 28-21 loss to Colorado. "That was ridiculous," says Coy Gibbs. "I think I would have come up with a pulled hamstring right on the spot. But Nate has handled it incredibly well."
Says Olsen, "The coach called my name. I wasn't about to say no." This selfless acceptance of team needs bespeaks a player from another era. Phil Olsen, Merlin's 46-year-old younger brother, who himself logged six years in the NFL, says, "If you could take Nathan back to 1958, he would be a phenomenal defensive lineman. The prototype has changed. I'm not sure if Merlin came along now, he would have the same success. It's unfair, because Nathan truly loves the game."
In that, he is truly Merlin's son. During summers spent on Bear Lake along the Idaho-Utah border, in a cabin built by Nathan's great-great-grandfather, Nathan and Merlin fish and golf together almost daily. And that woodland setting brings us back to Father Murphy. "Oh, I liked that show a lot," Nathan says. "Much more upbeat."
Seattle: During a brief pause in a high school track meet at a suburban community college, Charle Young turns from his seat in the bleachers to answer a greeting. "I saw you play many, many times," a man says admiringly. "And, by the way, how did your daughter do?"
"She qualified," says Young without emotion. What he means is, qualified for the finals of the 100-meter dash. The daughter in question is 15-year-old Candace, a freshman at Seattle's Garfield High who later took four firsts at the state Class AA championship meet and soon will be sought by every powerhouse in college track. The word qualified does not begin to describe her talents.
Charles Edward Young, father of five, is the man who promised that he would "revolutionize" the position of tight end...before he played a game in the NFL. ("I did revolutionize it," he says now.) He was, by turns, a young superstar (Eagles, '73-76), a traded outcast (Rams, '77-79), an inspirational leader on a Super Bowl champion (49ers, '81) and an elder statesman (Seattle Seahawks, '83-85). "In a locker room full of unusual people, Charle was truly unusual," says Merlin Olsen. For Young, life is not a game, with rewards for fast finishes. Life is a struggle, with rewards for survival.
"Struggle is good, because it enables you to fly," says Young. He speaks like this all the time. He is an imposing man who challenges listeners with cryptic parables. He is the president of Forbes-Young Enterprises, a small Seattle-based athletic shoe company, and he supports a track team that travels nationally, competing in junior meets.
His message to his children—Charles II, 18; Candace, 15; twins Cerenity and Chanel, 14; and Chancellor, 8—combined challenge and promise: "There is no one else in the world like you. I did my thing, you're going to do your thing." And when his oldest son approached him in the eighth grade and asked for his permission to play football, Charle said, "If you want to play, that's fine. But balance it with education."
Done deal. Charles Young II spent three years at O'Dea High in Seattle, where he was student body president, fifth in his graduating class (with a GPA of 3.86) and a track and football star. "An awesome kid," says O'Dea track coach Andy Slatt. "Any school he went to would have been lucky to have him." He chose Stanford after also visiting Washington. Notre Dame and USC (where his father was a star on the brilliant Trojan teams of the early 70s).
Charles II finished his freshman year at Stanford with a 3.6 GPA and would like to major in engineering, an enormous challenge given the demands of playing football. And he would like to graduate in four years, not five or six. "Just because I play football," he says, "I don't want to be a dumb jock." He slipped nicely into a Stanford program in need of speed and power, which at 5'11" and 195 pounds, and with a 4.40 time in the 40, he has in good supply. When Walsh, who coached Charle with the 49ers, first saw Charles at a practice, he thought, "That's Charle Young. Same style, same gait." Accordingly, Charles was moved from wideout to safety last season, but on Nov. 5 he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He underwent surgery but rehabbed quickly enough to compete for the safety job this fall. He is now No. 2 on the depth chart.
He used to follow Jerry Rice and Sterling Sharpe and Andre Rison, to learn about playing wide receiver. Now it's Deion Sanders and Ronnie Lott he watches, to learn to excel at safety. "How do you expect me to get better if I don't study?" he says.
Who better to study the past than the children of football history?