An Angel In His Pocket

With the memory of his late mentor to guide him, Vince Young has rediscovered the joy of football and reclaimed his career
December 14, 2009

When Vince Young prays before a game, he asks God to tap Steve McNair on the shoulder, to let him know he's loved and to let him know it's game time. Like any good quarterback Young has an unusual ability to feel the presence of people he cannot always see, so as he crouches under center, he'll tell you, he knows running back Chris Johnson is lined up behind him and McNair is behind him too. "He's standing in the pocket with me," Young says of McNair.

They met when Vince was 16 and his uncle, Ivory Young, took him to McNair's football camp in Mississippi. Ivory attended Alcorn State at the same time as McNair, but it turned out that McNair had more in common with Ivory's nephew, another African-American quarterback from a single-parent home. McNair counseled Young through high school and college and basically bequeathed to him the quarterback job in Tennessee. He spent 11 years with the Titans, then was traded to Baltimore two months after Tennessee drafted Young third overall in 2006, and left the game following the '07 season. McNair would spend his retirement watching his protégé play his position for his team.

Then Young was injured at the beginning of the 2008 season, benched through the end and forgotten in the aftermath. He needed guidance more than ever, but on the night of July 4, 2009, the man he called Pops was shot and killed in Nashville by an alleged mistress who then apparently committed suicide. The mourning Titans, a team that had the best record in the AFC in 2008 and brought back 20 of 22 starters, began the season 0--6. After the last loss, a 59--0 dismantling at New England, coach Jeff Fisher showed up at a charity event in Nashville wearing a Peyton Manning Colts jersey because he "wanted to feel like a winner." The following Sunday, Young returned to the starting lineup, and he led the Titans to five straight victories before they fell to still-undefeated Indianapolis on Sunday. Even so, Tennessee is on the fringe of the muddled AFC playoff picture, with its next three games at home. If that comeback has been stunning, Young's has been even more so.

He grew up with a father, Vincent, in and out of jail, a mother, Felicia, on and off of drugs. He was nicknamed Crack Baby in his Houston neighborhood and slept with the doors open because his house had no air conditioning. He sometimes read by candlelight because the electricity was out and filled empty barrels with water from an outdoor hose so his sisters could take baths. At age 6 he was hit by a van while riding his bike, suffering serious internal injuries. In high school he fought with gang members. But he could handle all that. What got to him were the interceptions. "I couldn't stand it," Young says. "If I threw an interception, I'd try to knock the dude's head off."

On Sept. 7, 2008, at LP Field he threw two of them. The second came in the fourth quarter, with the Titans leading the Jaguars, and it prompted a round of boos from the home crowd. When the Jags punted the ball back, Young did not budge from the bench. Fisher claimed Young's hamstring was bothering him, and the quarterback later explained that he was using the television timeout to collect his thoughts. But his hesitation was a warning of the chaos to come. "You can't be a field general when you're moping," center Kevin Mawae said last week. Young finally jogged to the huddle, but four plays later he sprained his left knee. "It was the first time I'd ever really been booed," Young said. "And it was the first time I'd ever really been injured. It was a depressing moment."

The public had rarely seen Young without a smile beneath his skullcap. He was the playful prodigy who danced on the field at the Rose Bowl before the national championship game, inviting his coaches to boogie with him. Young went 30--2 as a starter at Texas, won Offensive Rookie of the Year with the Titans in 2006 and took them to the playoffs in his second season. He was McNair 2.0, the new face of the franchise.

Today's NFL practically requires that its young quarterbacks come of age in some embarrassing manner—Ben Roethlisberger on his motorcycle, Matt Leinart in his hot tub—but Young was the only one who became the subject of a citywide manhunt. When he missed an MRI on his knee the day after the Jacksonville game, Fisher and a team psychologist went to his house; earlier in the day the psychologist reportedly had heard Young mention suicide. When the quarterback left the house that night with a gun, Felicia called his manager, who notified the Titans, who called the Nashville police. Fisher and the police finally got in touch with Young and met him at the team's practice facility, along with a SWAT team and a crisis negotiator. It turned out that the gun was unloaded, Young had been watching Monday Night Football with a friend, and he had not received the worried calls from his mom because he had left his cellphone at home. Was he down? Yes. Suicidal? No. Humiliated by all the fuss? Definitely.

He served as scout team quarterback for the rest of the 2008 season, watched backup Kerry Collins lead the Titans to a 13--3 record and home field advantage in the AFC playoffs and tried to placate all the family members and friends constantly inquiring about his state of mind. "I'd tell him to hang in there and keep his head up, but he'd sometimes get mad," says Titans tight end Bo Scaife, a teammate of Young's at Texas. Tired of people tiptoeing around him, Young walked into Fisher's office in March and asked, "What do I have to do to earn my job back?" Fisher's response was predictable: study, train, take practices as seriously as games. In essence, the coach said, Be a pro.

The Titans also had work to do. In the off-season one of their scouts called Greg Davis, Young's offensive coordinator at Texas, and asked, "What should we tell Vince?"

Young had been benched in his sophomore year after throwing two interceptions against Missouri, but the following week Davis and coach Mack Brown presented Young with a video of his personal highlights, set to the raves of gushing TV announcers. Brown and Davis understood what few others did: that Young was capable of lifting an entire team but sometimes had to be lifted himself. Davis believed Young needed to recapture the joy he brings to the game. "Maybe this isn't how it's done in pro football," Davis told the scout, "but Vince has to know you care. He has to know he isn't just a pawn."

At Madison High in Houston, Young's coach was Ray Seals, who counseled him on everything from gangs to recruiters. At Texas it was Brown, with whom he still talks or texts every other day. The relationships were personal, bordering on familial. "We sometimes spoil kids at this level and help them deal with problems that don't have to do with football," Seals says. "But a lot of these kids don't have dads at home. You try to fill that void." Young thought of his coaches almost as fathers. Fisher, by comparison, was a boss.

"It took me a while to get used to that," Young says. "In high school and college there is a lot of love. They help you become a man. In the NFL they make you be a man.

In the final week of June, Young went to see McNair. They met at the former Titan's restaurant in Nashville, Gridiron 9, and Young vented. "I want to play so [much]," he said. McNair told him, "It will come back again. Be ready." A week later McNair was dead, and Young's complaints about playing time could not have seemed more insignificant. He and Fisher embraced at the funeral, united in their grief. McNair's last bit of advice—"Be ready"—became a soothing and inspiring mantra.

Young told strength coach Steve Watterson, "If you see me being lazy in the weight room, let me know." He told his longtime girlfriend, Candice Johnson, "If you see me being lazy in our relationship, let me know." Young and Fisher grew closer, but Collins was still the starter as the season opened, and Young spent the first six games wearing an earpiece on the sideline. "Some people thought it was an iPod," linebacker Keith Bulluck says. "It wasn't." Young was listening to every offensive call, and when Bulluck asked him what the Titans were about to run, Young relayed the name of the play and how to execute it. "If the safety comes over," he'd tell Bulluck, "we have to check down."

After the debacle at New England, which matched the worst loss in the league since the AFL-NFL merger, Tennessee called on Young. Owner Bud Adams, who had lobbied to draft Young, told reporters he ordered the change. Fisher maintains the decision was collaborative. As offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger prepared Young to start against Jacksonville—yes, Jacksonville again, at LP Field again—he warned, "The biggest key is going to be how you handle adversity." Before the game Heimerdinger gave Young instructions on what to do after his first interception: "You're going to be upset, and I'm going to be upset. So I'm going to go one way and you go the other, and we'll meet back at the bench a couple of minutes later."

Young did not throw an interception in that game, a win over the Jags, or in his next one, a win at San Francisco. He had one in his third game, against Buffalo, but an unfamiliar calm came over him. "It didn't kill me the way it used to," he says. His teammates were watching. "He is not as demonstrative," Collins notes. "He's not as emotionally connected to the ups and downs." The Titans beat the Bills handily, and the 86-year-old Adams celebrated in his luxury box by throwing a series of middle fingers into the air. Few noticed the gesture Adams had flashed just before he flipped the bird: hook 'em horns.

Young no longer has the tape the Texas coaches prepared for him after that Missouri game, but on Thursday nights during the season he often watches the 2006 national championship game against USC "to remind myself who I am." Now he is part leader and part jester, just as he was in Austin. He'll wear his jersey backward at practice, handcuff his offensive linemen with tape, hide Bulluck's laptop in the locker room, turn off the lights and croon R&B. The Titans' offense even includes echoes of the one Davis designed for Young, putting him in the shotgun, moving the pocket, running some option. It helps Young that he plays alongside Johnson, who is leading the league in rushing. And it helps Johnson that he plays alongside Young, who has completed 62.9% of his passes since his return and divides the attention of eight-man fronts. Young's throwing motion is as awkward as ever. The difference, Heimerdinger says, is better footwork.

Even if the Titans fall short of the playoffs, they will have accomplished something just as significant: rediscovering a potential franchise quarterback. NFL teams want their QBs to operate as efficient machines—make the call, make the read, make the throw—but emotion will always be a critical part of Young's game. After an interception on Sunday he flung his helmet down, mainly because he'd banged his knee on the play but perhaps also because rookie receiver Kenny Britt stopped his route. Young sat alone on the bench, but when the Colts punted the ball back, he clapped his hands, then drove the Titans 66 yards, finding Britt for a touchdown pass.

Britt also scored on a pass from Young the week before, with no time left against Arizona, the culmination of an unforgettable 99-yard drive that included three fourth-down conversions. After his finest moment as a pro Young rushed to his guests in the stands, Tyler and Trenton McNair. He can never replace Pops, but he took McNair's young sons to their school's Dear Dads breakfast this semester, accompanies them to Dave & Buster's on Friday nights and leaves them tickets whenever they want. He is not looking for a father figure anymore. He is one.

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McNair's last bit of advice to Young—"Be ready"—became a soothing and inspiring mantra.

"In high school and college," says Young, "they help you become a man. In the NFL they make you be a man."

PHOTOPhotograph by AL TIELEMANSBACK IN BLUE Young is 5--1 and has completed 63% of his passes since his return to the Titans' starting lineup. PHOTOJOE MURPHY/WIREIMAGE.COM (MCNAIR AND YOUNG)LIKE FATHER A paternal figure to Young for years, McNair (9) all but bequeathed the Titans' job to his protégé. PHOTOSTREETER LECKA/GETTY IMAGESFRANCHISE Young and the Titans remain playoff long shots, but their long-term prospects have brightened.

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