This story is not about Vince Young.
You already know that story. I told it a million times.
Vince Young is the guy who walks into the huddle at the Rose Bowl, 4th-and-5. Everything on the line. Whole dang country watching, all 10 guys in the huddle looking him dead in his eyes, like.…
What’s the temperature of VY right now?
What’s his vibe?
Is he nervous?
And honestly, VY is scared as shit.
But he can’t be showing it. Vince Young is the guy who looks at them dudes in that moment, the biggest moment of all their lives, and says, “Let your nuts hang.”
This story is not about Vince Young.
Vince Young is the dude who took the shotgun snap, looked left, looked right, saw the seas part. Run, Forrest, run. Like we on the sandlot. Touchdown. Jump over the cameraman. National champion. Whirlwind. BET. MTV. Jay Leno. Agents. Managers. Managers on managers. Whole life changes.
Lord have mercy, did it change.
But I’m telling you now, this story is not about Vince Young.
Vince Young is the guy who gets on a plane to Las Vegas the day after the Rose Bowl, walks through the lobby of the MGM Grand, gets escorted to the secret elevator, to the secret floor, to the super-secret BALLERS room — I’m talking the super-secret ICONS suite, the kind of thing you only see in the movies — and he sees some dude eating a plate of food in the corner.Vince Young is the guy who looks at them dudes in that moment, the biggest moment of all their lives, and says, “Let your nuts hang.”
It’s Tiger Woods.
Another dude is sitting on the couch, just chilling.
It’s Derek Jeter.
Later on, another dude comes by.
It’s Michael Jordan.
It’s the GOAT, in the flesh.
And all these guys actually come over to Vince Young, in the super-secret VIP suite, the kind of room you only see in the movies, wanting to talk to him.
Tiger says, “Fantastic game, Vince. Fantastic.”
Jeter says, “Phenomenal job, young man.”
Eyes so pretty they make you want to cry. Walking and talking like Jeter. Really there.
“Just a phenomenal job.”
Then MJ says, “We were all at the game, Vince. We were all there.”
Like it’s a dream. Like maybe Vince Young died or something, and this is really heaven.
You were all at the game?
MJ says, “Oh yeah, young fella. We were all there, watching you.”
And then MJ wipes the smile off his face and says, “Now, why are my people telling me that you don’t want to sign with Jordan brand? Reebok, Vince? Reebok? Shhhiiiiiitttt!”
But this is your last warning, alright?
This story is not about Vince Young.
This is about Bubba.
This is about the Baby Boy.
This is about Vincent.
You never heard this one before.
Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images (background); Courtesy of the Young family (2)
Momma was strung out.
Let’s get that out of the way right now. And let’s also acknowledge that my momma is a beautiful woman and the rock of our family and somebody who beat those demons. Somebody who has been sober for 20-plus years. Round of applause for my momma.
But to appreciate the light, we gotta acknowledge the darkness. And when I was a kid, I saw a whole lot of things a kid shouldn’t see. Sex, drugs, drinking, shootings, stabbings, you name it.
Ten or 11 years old. Somebody banging on our front door. Banging. My momma opens the door, and the guy falls right into our living room, bleeding to death. Shot four or five times. Blood everywhere.
My sister’s boyfriend.
Regular, everyday life.
So I started sleeping by the front door. I used to put a wooden pallet down on the floor and just doze off. If anybody came, I knew what I had to do to protect the women of the house. My dad wasn’t around, so what was I supposed to do? I got my momma, my grandmother and two sisters in there.
Nothing else to do. I had to protect them.
My uncle was strung out, too.
Twelve years old. He stole something from somebody. They start chasing after him, shooting. So where does he think to run? He runs into our house, slams the door. What they do? They start shooting rounds right into our house. I’m peeking out the window of my bedroom, and the dudes are standing right in our front yard. I remember thinking, Maybe if I go out there and let them get me first, at least my sisters could get away.
They ran out of bullets, I guess. They left. You don’t have time to think when it’s going down. You’re just a kid. You’re just in shock. Then it’s over. And you don’t ask why. Ain’t nobody to ask but God.
Welcome to Houston.
Courtesy of the Young family
There was a time when I was trying to be hard. In middle school I wasn’t acting right. It was my way of dealing with the situation. I wasn’t selling drugs, I wasn’t in the streets like that, but I was just … drifting. All I saw was people getting shot, people going to jail. What I’m supposed to do? Can’t be soft.
“Hey, go beat this person up. I’ll give you $100.”
Sound pretty good when you’re hungry.
But even back then, people saw potential in me as an athlete.
Even when I was around that stuff, people were always telling me, “Vince, take your ass home, man. We got this.”
But I couldn’t see a way out, really.
In fact, I still don’t think you’re getting it.
Thirteen years old. Spring break coming up. These two gangs had it all set up. The Browns and the Six Nines, I think it was. I don’t even know why, but it was about to pop off at lunch. Everybody knew it. Back in the day, you didn’t need no excuse. The gangs were crazy back then, even in middle school. Not just the real gangs, but everybody. Cliques, teams, whatever. Everybody was about to fight. Girls, boys, everybody. I’m talking Royal Rumble.
So everybody gets to the cafeteria during lunch period, and a couple minutes go by, people are getting their lunch trays….
And it goes down.
Somebody throws a chair.
Dick Dowling Middle School was a war zone, bro.
Look, I don’t know what fights were like at your middle school, but I’m telling you it wasn’t like this. Whatever little bullshit food fight you got in your mind, turn the volume up to 100. It was people getting their ass whupped. Chairs, tables, trays, blood on the floor, people slipping on the blood, dudes knocking over the vending machines, throwing soda cans, taking the money out, teachers throwing punches, security guards throwing punches, fire alarms going off, police sirens … chaos.
Man, somebody set a teacher’s dress on fire.
On fire.Chairs, tables, trays, blood on the floor, people slipping on the blood.
She was running down the hallway screaming for the fire extinguisher.
I’m talking chaos. Not one of them stories you tell when you’re with your boys, laughing about it. I’m talking scary, scary, scary. When you’re in the middle of a war, what can you do? You go to war. So I went to war on some dudes I didn’t like.
When the cops showed up, they started putting people in handcuffs. They weren’t playing. I got cuffed. They took us over to this little holding area and started questioning us. Then finally they say, “O.K., that’s enough. We’re calling ALL Y’ALL MOMS.”
I’m thinking, Ohhhhhh, shit.
Whatever cliché you have in your mind about my mother, that wasn’t her. No matter how much partying she did the night before, she’d wake up at 6 a.m., pick my grandmother up from her graveyard shift, and then drive us to school. Every morning. She never missed. Sometimes I would look at her like, How in the world are you still standing?
She was a woman who had her demons, but she loved her babies more than anything, and she wanted them doing right, doing good. So when they had me cuffed, I wasn’t scared of going to jail. I wasn’t scared of the police. I was scared of my momma.
So she finally gets to the school and she sees me sitting there in the cuffs, and I’m thinking she’s about to beat my ass in front of everybody. But she just turns to the cops and says, “Take my son out of those handcuffs. I’ll deal with him.”
And they listened. Think about that for a second.
They uncuffed my ass! They knew she was the law, man.
We went out and got into her car, and that was the moment that changed my life. She all but disowned me right there. She didn’t sugarcoat it. She said, “Son, let me tell you something. Your ass is going to end up dead, crippled, or in jail if you keep living this lifestyle.”
That life was all I was seeing around me, though. In the moment, when she said it, I kind of brushed it off. It didn’t sink in right away. So we got home, and she gave me the whupping off my life, and then she gave me my real punishment. I had to rake up the leaves in our front yard every day that I was suspended from school.
It don’t sound bad, I know, but we had this big oak tree out there, and it was the fall, so it was like an all-day job. One day I was out there raking, and my school bus came rolling down the street, and all the windows were down.
All my homeboys hanging out the windows, waving and laughing at me.
All the girls hanging out the windows, pointing at me.
I’ll never forget somebody yelling, “Aaaahh-haaaa! Vince gotta do the leaves!”
Man, the way kids say Aaaahh-haaaaa! You know what I’m talking about? Everybody laughing. I don’t know why, but that messed me up. I was humiliated. I just felt like … I don’t know….
I’m never going to be anything.
I’m never getting us out of here, you know?
That’s actually when my mom’s words hit me. I thought about that conversation in the car. I thought about everything she was going through. I thought about all the shit I was seeing in my neighborhood. And for whatever reason, I was like, “O.K., I get it. I have to make a change. Let’s try something different.”
As a 36-year-old man, it sounds like nothing. Sounds simple, don’t it? When you’re a 13-year-old kid growing up in the environment I was in, it’s not so simple. It’s more like a fucking revelation, man.
Let’s try something different.
Here’s the thing about football, man. I don’t know how it is for everybody else. I don’t know what they felt like when they put that helmet on in high school and they ran out onto the field. I don’t know if they were nervous or scared or excited, or if they felt nothing at all.
But for me?
Bro, when I put on that helmet? When I was with my boys? When I crossed them white lines? When I had the ball in my hands? When I was scoring touchdowns?
It was the funnest shit ever, bro.
At home, I’m eating syrup sandwiches. I’m seeing my friends get shot. I’m seeing my uncle so high he’s just stuttering. I’m seeing nothing but real life.
But when I crossed them white lines, that was my playground. That was my time to forget about all the stress I was dealing with and just have fun.
Sometimes people call football an escape. I looked at it a little differently. That football field, it was almost like my dormitory. That was mine. It was my room. I lived there. Fully fucking furnished. Everything was exactly how I wanted it.
When I cross them white lines, I’m not poor. My mom’s not strung out. Our lights aren’t getting cut off.
I’m not Vincent, raking up them leaves.
I’m VY. I’m Vince Motherfucking Young, and guess who’s laughing now?
That was the blessing of football. Not just for me, but for all of us.I’m VY. I’m Vince Motherfucking Young, and guess who’s laughing now?
But there was still something missing for me. I didn’t have a dad at my games like some kids, you know what I mean? I always had the women of the family, for sure. That’s who I looked up to to see in the stands after every touchdown. And that was cool, but I was missing that father figure.
Sixteen years old. I get invited to Steve McNair’s football camp.
And that’s Steve MacNair, where I’m from, for the record.
When we think of Steve McNair, the Tennessee Titans aren’t the first thing that comes to mind.
The first thing that comes to mind is Steve in that all-white Houston Oilers uniform, baby blue number 9, looking like a million bucks, running wild in the Astrodome. That’s Steve MacNair. Houston legend, man.
So when I got the invitation to his camp, I was hype. But there was like 50 other QBs at the camp, and I’m thinking, “Alright, how can I say what’s up to Steve? Like, really say what’s up.”
Camp starts, and Steve comes over to say hello to me or whatever.
I’m like, “Steve, man, it’s an honor. I was there that day you first played in the Astrodome.”
He was like, “For real?”
I said, “Yeah, I snuck in through a side door with my boys!”
He thought that was funny, so I told him the whole story. The rodeo is huge in Houston, right? Well, I used to work at the concession stand in the Astrodome selling turkey legs during the carnival. When you’re doing that job, you and your boys know all the side doors. All the loading docks, the exits, everything. So, one day, we put that knowledge to good use. It wasn’t Mission Impossible. It was easy, man. Loading door pops open. Delivery boys in the building, baby! Fresh bread! Bang, we in there.
Oilers vs. Lions, I think it was. Then of course you gotta go seat surfing, because you don’t have tickets. Upper decks are obviously the best. But eventually, you’re gonna get caught. That’s just part of it.
“Excuse me, son. Can I see your—”
Goodbye! You’re already running to Section 600, bro. By the time they’re on the walkie-talkie, you’re moving again.
I vividly remember — and I don’t know if it really went down like this, and honestly I don’t care because it’s this way in my mind — I remember running from security through the concession area and hearing, “Coming into the game for the Oilers at quarterback … number 9 … Steve … Mac … Naaaaaaaaiiirrrr.”
We spent that whole game playing hide-and-seek in the Astrodome. I told Steve that story, and how I used to always watch him on our raggedy TV with the tinfoil for the antenna. Could barely make out anything other than that baby blue number 9 running around like crazy.
Steve McNair became like a father to me. I don’t know why. Couldn’t tell you what he saw in me. Maybe he saw himself. But he completely took me under his wing. There was no ulterior motive. No nothing. It’s still crazy for me to think about.
Courtesy of the Young family
Steve was my hero before he became my pops.
When I was coming up through high school, getting all this attention all of a sudden, I could always call him up: “Pops, what you think? What should I do?”
And any time, day or night, Pops would answer.
In the off-season, whenever he was in town, I was like his designated credit card swiper. At the mall, at the restaurant, at events, it was always, “Give the bill to my son. Oh, you want some shoes? You want a fresh T-shirt? Go talk to my son.” I was like his right hand. Steve would take care of everybody, man. I got to see what he was living. I got a front-row seat to a different life — literally, front seat.
Seventeen years old. I’m driving this man’s Bentley around downtown Houston. Steve’s passed out in the passenger seat, sleep. I was Uber Black before Uber Black. I mean, picture me — I’m from the 4700 block, Tidewater Drive, the TWT, driving the Benny. I’m rolling the windows down, like, “Y’all see me, baby!”
It still doesn’t feel real to me. Do you understand how much that meant to me?
Not driving the Bentley. I mean, that was cool, yeah. That was fun.
But what meant the world to me was this NFL legend, this MVP, this good man….
… calling me son.
Rob Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images (background); Joe Murphy/NFLPhotoLibrary (left); Courtesy of the Young family
Now, I told you this story was not about Vince Young.
Texas? UT? All the glitz and the glory? That’s Vince Young. That’s VY. That’s just me on my playground. I’ll never forget my momma dropping me off at Jester dorm my freshman year and saying, “This is your life now, son. What are you about to do?”
I mean, the opportunity to be in college, in a stable environment, playing for UT, with all my brothers, in front of 100,000 people … what I’m about to do?
I’m about to go off. I’m about to whup Texas Tech’s ass. Whup OU’s ass. Whup Ohio State’s ass. For sure whup A&M’s ass. Whoever’s lining up across from us.
Sometimes when I’m back in Texas, people come up to me like, “What’s up, O.G.? Man, how come you guys were so electric back in the day?”
They’re looking at me like there was some kind of magic formula or something.
I just explain it to people like this: At Texas, we didn’t just whup ass. We enjoyed whupping ass. There’s a difference. It wasn’t no job. It wasn’t no pressure. It was an opportunity. It was a blessing.
Whupping ass? It was fun.
Courtesy of the Young family
Even the night before the Rose Bowl against USC, we knew the pressure we were supposed to be feeling. We hadn’t won a national championship in 36 years. And USC were some ballers, for sure. As a Houstonian, as a Texan, I knew what the moment meant. But we were just some kids having fun, man. Truthfully. It was like some Night Before Christmas shit. We were excited, man.
Me and Selvin Young shared a hotel room, like usual.
And you know what we did?
We did what we always did.
We stayed up late eating cereal and watching Looney Tunes.
Mannnnnnn, I used to eat so much cereal, I should’ve had a Fruit Loops sponsorship or something.
That goes all the way back to Tidewater, man. My grandmother would not let me touch that TV when The Young and the Restless was on. The whole soap opera block. All the way through General Hospital. I’m trying to eat my after-school cereal and watch X-Men, you know? I’m trying to watch my man Bugs Bunny and the crew, and if I took one step toward that TV, it was—
So, being in college, and having unlimited milk? Unlimited hotel TV? Come on, bro. It was Fruit Loops all day, baby. That was heaven. That’s me, man. That’s Bubba. That’s Vincent.
When the lights come on, and we strap up? When we put the helmet on? When we see McConaughey on the sidelines? When we hear that anthem? Now it’s VY. Now it’s Vince Young.
Excuse my French, but now we gonna let our nuts hang on ’em.
The moment everybody remembers Vince Young for is the 4th-and-5 touchdown.
The moment that Vincent remembers? The moment that Bubba from the 4700 block remembers? That’s different. You probably wouldn’t understand. Maybe it would fall flat for you. Seem like it’s nothing.
But it was when Pops came down to the field after the game, when we were all out there celebrating. Steve MacNair, coming out to see me play in the national championship game. After all those years of just my grandma and my momma and my sisters. Finally had a dad in the stands to watch me, you know?Steve MacNair, coming out to see me play in the national championship game.
Pops pushed his way through security and got down onto the field, and he just tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Boy, you was a whole different animal today.”
I’ll never forget that until the day I die.
You know … everybody always asks me, “Man, what did you do after that game? You musta been on one, VY.”
I think McConaughey even threw a party for us, and I remember all my teammates asking me, “What we doing, VY?”
And I said, honest to God, “What we doing?”
They said, “Yeah, VY.”
I said, “Do you know what I just did? I just went for four hunnid. I’m going to sleep.”
That’s All, Folks.
I went back to my hotel room with my future wife and after about — mmmm, let’s say 12 good, wholesome minutes — I was dreaming, baby.
I didn’t realize the magnitude of that game until the next day, when I was on a plane to L.A. to go on The Tonight Show. Then on a plane to Vegas, and all of a sudden I’m standing in front of Jeter and Tiger and MJ, and they’re the ones telling me great game. Whirlwind, man. Surreal, man.
Nothing can prepare you for that. Especially when you’re a kid growing up around what I did? Nothing.
Loren Elliott for The Players' Tribune
You know, I hear people talking sometimes, like, “What the hell happened to Vince Young? What happened with Jeff Fisher? What happened with the Titans? What happened with this dude’s career?”
Lemme tell it to you like this….
And if it don’t make any sense to you, don’t worry about it.
Remember that oak tree I was telling you about? The one in my front yard that was shedding all them leaves that I had to rake up because I was being a dumbass, punk-ass little kid?
Well, that tree was right outside my bedroom window. Sometimes, whenever my momma was having one of her parties, and all her friends were coming over eating all our food, making all kinds of noise — or whenever I was just too stressed out about whatever was going on at school, or whatever was going on in the streets — I would climb out my window and sit up in that tree.
Simple as that.
I’d sit up there above everybody else. Above the front yard. Above the block. Above the neighborhood. Above the arguing and the fighting and the noise. And I’d just think.
Think and dream.
Sometimes my momma would be walking in the yard right below me, yelling out, “Vincent? VINCE? Where you at?”
I’d be up in my tree, man. At peace, you know? Dreaming about what I could be. Dreaming about it just being … different.
You know what I saw?
I know what you probably think I saw.
But, nah, it wasn’t me being an NFL quarterback. It wasn’t me playing for UT. It wasn’t me driving a Bentley. All that is cool. I did that. I lived that.
But, nah, that wasn’t what I would think about up there in that tree. I would see my family, all of us, just being in a different situation. Being able to live a different lifestyle. No more syrup sandwiches. No more lights cutting out.
It wasn’t anything to do with football, really.
It was just about being at peace.
So what the hell happened to Vince Young?
I don’t know. Sometimes it seems like that life was a million years ago, when I was still an NFL quarterback. It really does. Like, “Was that really me? Did that happen in this lifetime?”
Jeff Fisher. Bud Adams. The mistakes I made. The mistakes they made. We could talk about it all day, and I don’t think I’d convince anybody to think any differently than they do now.
You see Vince Young the way you see Vince Young.
The NFL, it’s not fun in the same way that playing with your boys in high school is fun. It’s not fun the same way college is fun. It’s not the playground anymore. Maybe it’s not supposed to be.
Fact is, I had a hard time finding the same joy in the game when I got to the NFL.
And just as a human being, I never really saw the game the same way after Pops died in 2009. What people don’t understand is that I didn’t just lose a mentor or a friend. I lost a father.
Heroes are not supposed to die.
And I still miss the shit out of you to this day, Pops.
That’s a hole that’s never going to go away.
Dominic Silva/The Players’ Tribune
So that’s what the hell happened to Vince Young.
But as far as Vincent Young goes, as far as Bubba goes, as far as the Baby Boy goes, I’m not taking any of those NFL memories to my deathbed.
I’m taking February 2006 to my death bed. New York City. This was a few months before the NFL draft, and I didn’t know where I was going to get picked. There was a lot of uncertainty. Lot of stress. Like I said, whirlwind.
My whole family is out there in NYC with me, and we were coming back from dinner, driving through Central Park. And it started snowing really heavy. Being from Texas, we were just in awe, you know?
Whenever you see Manhattan at night, with the snow coming down, you feel like you’re in the movies.
At least we did.
So I told the limo driver to pull over.
I’m like, “Everybody out!”
We come climbing out of this white limo, in the middle of Central Park, running around in the snow. My sisters are making snow angels. We’re throwing snowballs at one another. Granny gets one right in the back — whap. She’s laughing. She’s coming to whup my ass, though.
We’re all laughing.
It’s all good. It’s all going to be alright.
Snow’s coming down in NYC.
There’s nothing to worry about for a minute.
Look at us, man. We’re just at peace.
That’s what I used to dream about when I was up in that tree, looking out over my neighborhood.
So what in the hell happened to Vince Young?
I don’t know. You tell me.
I know what happened to Vincent from the 4700 block of Tidewater Drive.
He slept in front of the door. He sat up in the tree. He visualized it. He made it happen. He protected his family. He got ’em out.