A terrible mistake has been made. Redshirt freshman Ryan Palmer has intercepted a pass thrown by junior quarterback Vince Young during a summer workout for Texas players, and instead of casually flipping the ball back to the offense, Palmer has turned upfield, palming the ball at arm's length and whooping as if he had just clinched the Big 12 title. It is an oppressive summer night in Austin, and players are wearing only shorts and T-shirts, sweating rivers. No pads. No helmets. Ordinarily, no contact. But Palmer is weaving through teammates who are already huddling for the next play, and the 6'5", 230-pound Young is sprinting toward him. Young turns slightly and drops his shoulder into Palmer's chest, the sound of the hit like a butcher slapping a side of beef. Palmer lands on his back, his feet flipping skyward.
Younger players stare in wonder. Older ones nod knowingly. "That's Vince," says junior cornerback Aaron Ross. "Just doesn't let up."
So now Palmer knows. "I'm comin'," says Young. "I'm always comin'."
Texas is comin' too, riding on Young's broad back in pursuit of its first consensus national championship since 1969. In less than two full seasons as the Longhorns' starter, Young has passed for more than 3,000 yards, rushed for more than 2,000 and accounted for 43 touchdowns. Numbers don't illustrate that Young is also the most kinetic quarterbacking presence in college football since Michael Vick ran wild at Virginia Tech. Last fall he rescued three games from defeat and salvaged countless plays with his spontaneous athleticism, leading Texas to an 11--1 record and a 38--37 Rose Bowl victory over Michigan in the Longhorns' first BCS bowl appearance. "He has unique abilities," says Texas coach Mack Brown, "and great heart." With Young under center, plays are never dead, games are never over.
Oklahoma State knows. Last November the Cowboys whipped and humiliated Texas in front of its home crowd in Austin, running up a 35--7 lead with 1:21 left in the first half. But before the next 25 minutes of action had ticked off the game clock, Young had led the Longhorns to 49 consecutive points, putting his Vin-sane signature on the victory by slaloming 42 yards for a touchdown on a broken play with 6:57 still to go. "I should have called timeout," he says now, rewatching the tape and noting that tailback Cedric Benson was lined up on the wrong side. "But I didn't, so I just tried to make a play." Young closed the 56--35 victory with a school-record 12 consecutive pass completions.
Kansas knows. One week after the Oklahoma State comeback, Texas appeared to be dead and buried again. The Jayhawks led 23--20 with a little more than a minute to play and had the Longhorns in a fourth-and-18 hole at the Texas 45. Then Young scrambled out of a collapsing pocket, darted right, made Kansas linebacker Nick Reid miss terribly in the open field--"I gave him a little two-step," says Young--and ran out-of-bounds after a 22-yard gain. Five snaps later he hit Tony Jeffery with a 21-yard touchdown pass to win the game.
Michigan knows best of all. In the Rose Bowl, Young rushed for 192 yards and four touchdowns, and passed for 180 yards and another score. He brought Texas back from a 31--21 deficit in the last 10 minutes, beginning with his 10-yard touchdown scramble after escaping Michigan defensive tackle Patrick Massey, who had spun him 360 degrees in the pocket. "How in the world ...?" intoned venerable ABC announcer Keith Jackson after Young crossed the goal line.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Chris Simms, a senior at Texas when Young redshirted, watched the Rose Bowl on television, enraptured by the performance of his former understudy. "I knew he had ability," says Simms, "but he's doing things nobody else in college football can do."
And Young, 22, does even more. During the off-season in Austin it's Young who keeps the keys to the practice-field gate. It's Young who'll tell a joke when tension needs to be broken. ("He'll even do a little dance now and then during stretching, just to crack everybody up," says junior tailback Selvin Young.) And at the team's first meeting in preparation for the 2005 season it was Young who, upon seeing players behaving as if they were in a nightclub still celebrating the win over Michigan, shouted, "Hey, y'all! Rose Bowl's over!"--turning the room stone silent and everyone's attention to the future.
Like Ryan Palmer learned on a muggy summer night, the guy never lets up.
it's complicated business mining the stimulus of a young man's passion. In Vince Young's case this much is certain: His life changed one afternoon when he was a freshman at Madison High in Houston. Young can't remember if it was fall or winter or spring, just that he was in ninth grade (1998--99 school year) and that his father, a man he had barely known, picked him up at home and took him for a ride in his car. "Just showed up one day," says Young, "and took me driving around."
Vincent Paul Young (father and son have the same name) was just past 40 years old and had spent much of his adult life incarcerated, convicted at least six times over the previous 16 years for offenses ranging from auto theft to possession of a controlled substance. His wife, Felicia, with whom he had three children including little Vince, says he left the family home for good when their son was four. "I don't know what the point was of him coming by that day," says Vince. "There was no message. We just talked. He told me a little bit about why he did this or that in his life. Maybe he just wanted to be around his son for a minute. Like we were father and son.
"But, man, he inspired me that day," Vince continues. "He inspired me to feel like this was somebody I didn't want to be. I didn't want to do the things he did. I want to graduate from high school and college, and I want to have a wife and kids and a family, and I want to be there for them. I want to be different from him."
Vince grew up in the home of his maternal grandmother, Bonnie King, in the Hiram Clarke neighborhood of southwest Houston. "He didn't grow up in a ghetto, but there's trouble not too far away," says Ray Seals, Young's football coach at Madison. "A lot of kids in that neighborhood go bad." In the single-story, four-bedroom house, Vince was surrounded by women: Bonnie, Felicia and his sisters, Lakesha (four years older than Vince) and Vintrisa (one year older). Not only was his father absent, but his mother also was often not around; Felicia worked evenings as a home health aide and stayed out late with friends. "I always held a steady job, but I did a lot of partying," she says. "I'd be out drinking and smoking with my friends, being crazy Felicia." Bonnie worked nights as a nurse but called home frequently to check on the three children and then brought them breakfast before they went to school. Lakesha and Vintrisa alternated between picking on Vince and protecting him. "In the end we all watched each other's backs in the neighborhood," says Vintrisa. "And Vincent, he just never made bad choices, never got to running around with the wrong people."
Vince shakes his head. "Grace of God, man," he says. "Grace of God."
That, and sports, too. Vince was nearly a grown man, physically, at age 12 and a dominant player on youth baseball, basketball and football teams. Two men helped him develop as an athlete. Ivory Young, an older cousin who played basketball at Alcorn State, guided Vince to high-level AAU basketball teams, keeping him on the road and out of Houston during the idle weeks of the summer. And Vince's uncle Keith Young, a former high school and small-college quarterback, taught his nephew the rudiments of the position.
Vince became Madison's starting quarterback as a sophomore--"With his talent, we decided to let him learn on the job," says Seals--and the Marlins went 33--6 over the next three seasons. The tailback was Courtney Lewis, who went on to Texas A&M and has rushed for nearly 1,800 yards over the last two years. "We had speed, we had power and we had Vince," says Lewis, who remains one of Young's closest friends.
During that time, Ivory Young asked an old friend from Alcorn, quarterback Steve McNair, who had played in Houston with the Oilers before the team became the Tennessee Titans, to come watch Vince play. "He reminded me of myself, only bigger," McNair says now. As a senior in November 2001, Vince passed for three touchdowns and ran for three more in leading Madison to a 61--58 victory over North Shore High of Galena Park in a Class 5A regional semifinal. In December the Marlins advanced to the state semifinals, Madison's best finish.
The consensus No. 1 recruit in the nation, Vince narrowed his choices to Miami and Texas. The day the Longhorns won the recruiting battle, Vince won over the Longhorns' coaches. Sitting in his grandmother's living room, he told offensive coordinator Greg Davis that he was not only willing to redshirt but also wanted to redshirt behind Simms and Chance Mock. "After Vince told me he wanted to sit out, with all the hype he was getting," says Davis, "I went out to the car and called Mack, right there by the curb, and told him, 'This is the guy you've been looking for.'"
occasionally Vince's father saw him play and read accounts of his games in the paper. But just past midnight on Nov. 8, 2000, when Vince was a junior at Madison, his father was arrested by Fort Bend County sheriffs on the University of Houston's West Campus after he and an accomplice had taken a television set, a VCR, a computer and a laser-disc player from a university building in which Young had worked as a janitor. In a statement to police six days later Young said, "I needed money for child support because I am already on back payments.... I told [his accomplice] my situation, and we agreed to go to the University of Houston campus to get some things so I could turn it into money.... I was desperate for the money." Young had kept a key from his janitorial job and used it to enter the building. In July 2003 he pleaded guilty to burglary and, because of his long criminal record, was sentenced to 16 years in jail.
Young is incarcerated in a medium-security prison outside Richmond, Texas, 45 minutes southwest of Houston. At 47 he is one of the oldest inmates in the unit, a trusty who is afforded more freedom than most. One morning this summer Young sat across from a reporter, the men separated by dense wire mesh above and below a thick pane of dirty glass. Young smiled when told that his son resembles him. There was little else for him to smile about. "I wanted to be a better person, but I just got caught up living that fast life," he said. "I'm disappointed in myself, being in here, but life goes on. I'm trying to do what it takes to be a better citizen."
He said he keeps a scrapbook of newspaper and magazine clippings detailing Vince's career. On Saturday mornings in the fall he lines up at the prison recreation center before it opens at eight, so that he can get a good seat in front of the television. "Even when the Longhorns are playing, you've got people who don't like sports," Young said. "Sometimes you get problems." He writes letters to Vince but sends them to his own mother, Betty, who lives in Houston, and to Felicia.
Young was told that his son resents him. "You can't blame him for that," the father said. "I just know our relationship could be better if I was out there with him. I'm doing this interview so people will know how his dad feels about him. I always wanted to set a good example, but like I said, I just got caught up."
What would he do, Young was asked through the mesh, if he could meet with his son now? "I'd hold him, hug him, tell him I'm sorry and I love him as a son," said Young. "I want him to know it hurts me to be here, not seeing his games." He paused and rubbed a hand across his face. He nodded at the reporter's notebook and said, "I'd appreciate it if you'd write all that down."
the women in Vince's life hope he will someday make peace with his father. "Dad knows he can't make up for all those years," says Vintrisa, who writes to her father once a month. "Vincent is eventually going to understand, and everything will work out."
Felicia says, "We have all fallen in life. Ain't nobody perfect but Jesus." Now 48, she says her partying days ended on July 27, 1996 ("When God called me," she says), two months after Vince's 13th birthday. She telephones her son every morning at five o'clock and reads a piece of scripture into his voice mail so he can listen to it when he awakens.
Still, it's difficult to imagine a reconciliation between father and son. Vince has, indeed, tried to not be like him. As a teenager he protected his older sisters from unwanted suitors. "Vincent was big," Vintrisa says, "and if some guy was around we didn't like, Vincent would just give him that She's my sister look, and that guy was gone." He gave away both sisters at their weddings. Vintrisa, now divorced, called her little brother's cellphone on June 19 to wish him a Happy Father's Day because, she says, "I always thought of him as my father."
As part of Vince's college course work, he spent the early part of this summer working as a teacher in a program for at-risk children ages 12 to 14. A week after his obligation ended, he returned to C.D. Fulkes Middle School in Round Rock, just north of Austin, and surprised his former students.
"Can you stay?" shouted 13-year-old Sara García.
"Why do you want me to?" asked Vince.
"Because you're funny," she said.
Kattie Edmonson, project coordinator for the program, says, "Vince was the first one here every morning and the last one to leave. He worked in the classroom like he was a regular teacher. He never raised his voice, but he kept their attention. He told them all, 'Guys, right here in this school is where it all starts.'"
Says Vince, "I was blessed with a lot of talent. I'm also trying to be a strong, humble man."
Sitting in a film room in the Texas football building, 160 miles from his father's prison, Vince says that every day he thinks about the void in his life. "I've been hurt so much by not having my father around," he says. "I've heard teammates talk about all the things they learned from their fathers. They all had great relationships with their fathers. I just sit around sometimes thinking, Man, I wish I had that."
Vince's eyes water. "God says we have to forgive. I know that," he says. "We'll have to sit down one of these days, my father and me. But I'm not there yet."
from the first day Vince Young set foot on the Texas campus, there was little doubt he would dazzle teammates and opponents alike with his running skills. Even as he has undergone the customary bulking up through weightlifting, from 200 skinny pounds to a hard 230, he has remained quick and slippery. "Quick and fast, but also very powerful," says Kansas coach Mark Mangino. "It's a pretty tough combination when you're trying to tackle him."
Says Simms, "From Day One, if the pocket was collapsing, he could tuck the ball away and use his athletic ability to do pretty much whatever he wanted. Not many people can do that. I know I can't."
Young won the starting job in the seventh game of his redshirt freshman season, and Texas has since gone 17--2. The coaching staff has modified the pro-style offense to suit Young's talents, adding a quarterback draw, the zone read (in which Young puts the ball in the tailback's belly, reads the outside defender and either gives the ball up or runs with it himself) and several bootlegs. On many plays he's a running back who happens to take the snap.
A hopeful Longhorn Nation--and cynics nationwide--await the day when his passing skills catch up. In two seasons his touchdown-pass-to-interception ratio is an ugly 1 to 1 (18 of each). He throws from off the front of his shoulder, like a shot-putter, and that's when he isn't dropping down to throw sidearm. "We talked about making a lot of changes in his delivery," says Davis, the offensive coordinator, "but Vince is probably never going to have a classic motion."
As Mack Brown points out, "So many young guys come up now through the quarterback camps, where they're taught the perfect motion. Vince never went to those camps."
"I basically taught myself to throw," says Young. "Look around--Brett Favre's arm is on another level, and he doesn't throw from the same angle all the time. I'm just trying to get the ball to the receiver."
There's evidence that he's getting better. After completing 56% of his passes for 971 yards over the first eight games of last season, Young hit on 64% for 878 yards over the last four games. He has ramped up his study of game tape and is focused on improving his footwork and timing. "Velocity is not a problem," says McNair, who works with Young several weeks each year. "It's just a matter of Vince bringing the mental part of the game up to the level of the physical part."
Even as Young becomes a more mature quarterback--"When he was a redshirt freshman, he called plays without confidence," says senior tight end David Thomas--he holds on to the energy that makes playing the position fun, talking harmless trash at opponents and seeking out a big hit early in the game to engage himself. Away from the field he shares an apartment with Selvin Young (no relation). They have PS2 and Xbox consoles at opposite ends of their living room, and when they're finished with those battles they often double up on workouts, first on campus and then in the evening at a health club.
The season is full of promise for Texas, which this year is seeking its first win over Oklahoma since 1999, its first Big 12 title since '96 and its first national championship since President Nixon anointed the Longhorns No. 1 after they beat Arkansas 15--14 in a No. 1 versus No. 2 matchup in Fayetteville in December 1969. More than anyone else, Young will determine whether any of that happens. So he stays late on the practice field, fulfilling his passion and chasing after Texas's birthright. As teammates start walking to their cars, Young is left with only a half-dozen stragglers to work on pass plays. When somebody shuts off the light towers, there's only the quarterback's voice, calling signals and shouting instructions in the dark.
"Hey, y'all! ROSE BOWL'S OVER!" Young shouted at the first meeting of
2005--turning the room stone silent and everyone's attention to the future.
"Man, he inspired me that day," says Vince of the surprise visit by his dad. "He inspired me to feel like this was somebody I DIDN'T WANT TO BE."
"In the end we all watched each other's backs in the neighborhood," says Vintrisa. "And Vincent, he just NEVER MADE BAD CHOICES."
Photograph by Tim DeFrisco
Young is a constant threat on the ground, having rushed for more than 2,000 in two seasons.
Alternately intense and easygoing, Young carries the weight of the Longhorns' hopes on his shoulders.
DONALD MIRALLE/GETTY IMAGES
Young's stupefying one-man Rose Bowl show against Michigan included touchdown runs of 10, 20, 23 and 60 yards.
The elder Young has spent much of his adult life in prison. He writes notes to his son through his wife and mother.
Young's support comes from strong familial bonds with (from left) sisters Vintrisa and Lakesha and mother Felicia.