Goodnight Sweet Vince

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I’m not sure why, but I have this distinct memory of Vince Young bounding into the end zone from the ten yard line at the 2006 national championship game, clock running out, soaring in slow motion over every USC defender, its entire sideline, every bent-billed frat guy’s three-series parked on The Row, its overstuffed-white-turtleneck cheer squad, NCAA scofflaws Reggie Bush and Pete Carroll watching the sell-by date expire on their dynasty and the relevance of USC as a college football juggernaut for the decade to come poured out with it.

(In real life, it went like this.)

Vince Young, 22, deconstructing the game, capeless and peerless and fearless and flying through all space and time like five-bladed razors do across men’s faces and cutting computer hair under the digital epidermis in the ads and sticking the landing like Kerri Strug, a flamingo in ankle tape branding the end zone forever with horns.

Confetti cannons went off. A man in a car salesman’s suit materialized from behind the goal post and handed him a crystal trophy that looked like it was the future home of about a half-dozen stamped out cigars on the mahogany desk of some caricature of a nervous Texas oil mogul on a Coen brothers’ set. Time ticked backwards like on a school clock during seventh period econ and then lurched forward three months for Vince Young to surface as the third selection in the NFL Draft.

I recall sportswriters and commentators molding this sort of black hybrid mythical video game quarterback from Young’s round, welcoming face. The pocket presence of Culpepper. The mobility of Vick. The creativity of Cunningham. The nose for winning of Doug Williams.

It was as if the pundits, both former players and scribes, both black and white, were bent on creating roboblack back. Simply saying he could scramble like Steve Young and grow large in the pocket like Drew Bledsoe (more accurate analogies) was beside the point. Black quarterbacks should be compared to black quarterbacks and whites to white was the prevailing wisdom shortly after this century’s turn.

As color line comparisons in the NFL have begun to fade or at least blur at the quaterback position, perhaps in part to the emergence of Colin Kaeperinck and Russell Wilson, both of mixed race, Vince Young is the one to thank for starting to move the dialogue beyond the color of the skin to, especially in the case of Kaepernick, the tattoos upon it.

He did this by breaking barriers on the field. As a rookie, he earned the starting job under center for Tennessee by October and led his team to a come-from-behind victory against New York in November, making it back-to-back last-minute heroics the next weekend against 10-1 Indianapolis.

He set the rushing record for a rookie quarterback and was named the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year and started that year in the Pro Bowl in place of injured Philip Rivers. After a sophomore season highlighted with a playoff appearance (a first-round loss to San Diego) but marred with a quadriceps injury—one which would eventually usher in the beginning of the end of his career—Young looked poised to return for a third season and wrest the mantle of the NFL’s best, black or white, from stalwarts Manning and Brady.

Instead, on September 9, 2008, Young hurt his knee in the first game of the season, unbeknownst to the boo-bird Titans fans who just thought their guy simply came to the season unprepared. Post-game, Young left his home without his phone and went missing on an alleged suicide mission. He was gone from the spotlight but right in the middle of it for an interminable four hours until Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher and the police wrangled him and brought him into the team facility. Only Vince Young knows where he went or what he did—and why, that evening. Perhaps he sought out the devil himself and cancelled his contract or lost his fiddle, because his career on the field was never the same, nor was the public’s perception of him off of it.

This is where the 2 a.m. lights went up for Young. He blinked to temporary sobriety, craned back his neck and took a good look at the girl in his arms and decided he didn’t want to dance any more.

LeBron James had a telling white flag press conference last week. The Spurs had taken both his knights and one of his bishops in game three and moved into check after game four on Miami’s home court to send the series back home to San Antonio for a game five victory lap. James, who has 50 million reasons in endorsements alone not to be effusive behind the mic in times of tumult, had a rare lapse of judgement (or perhaps an even more rare moment of clarity and honesty).

He has been a brand and an industry for more than a decade and that is from basketball. He’s got dozens on the payroll and thousands, maybe even tens of thousands more, from the marketing exec to the 12-year-old stitching his shoes, whose livelihoods depend on his grin and his pre-game poof of chalk dust.

A lot to ask from someone whose only job is to put a round ball through a hole with eagerness and consistency.

“I’m in a good place in my life,” he said. “It’s basketball. I understand it’s the media and the sport is the greatest sport in the world. I love it. It’s done so many great things for me, but it’s just basketball.”

Did you hear that? The veil lifted. The facade gone. Everyone can stop acting like 12-year-old boys now and leave the room and go back to your families and your jobs and caring about what’s right in front of you. Is your kid getting a good breakfast before school? Is your boss having to ask you things twice, three times? Is your wife happy or does she hate the fact she has to drive everywhere in the Pilot? Elephants are still being poached. Genocide is still happening. There are drugs and guns and diabetes in our schools. There are bad guys, right now, conspiring against you. Maybe not the you that’s participating in Facebook’s giant database stockpile or the you that’s you you find clever on Twitter, but you—the very you sitting right there reading this and scrolling down with a meeting reminder popping up on your screen. Yes, that you, the real you.

The you LeBron is talking to. Are you listening? What he’s saying is: This is his job. He doesn’t come to where you work and pretend to care what you do …so…

Why should you?

And that, to me, is what Vince Young realized in those four hours of solitude. The next game, Kerry Collins took over under center and led Tennessee to a 13-3 regular season. Young, for all intents and purposes and regardless of the performance of his back-up, was done.

Four Septembers later, Young had burned through $34 million and then defaulted on a $2 million high-interest payday loan—yes, apparently legendary quarterbacks are the ones who go to those places. In January of this year, he filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in Houston. On Saturday, June 15, after having not taken a snap for three years in the NFL and without ceremony or fanfare or boom mics or canon confetti, Vince Young announced he was pushing away from the table. Retired.

So which one is it? Which man are we to believe in? Do we believe the man we think we see in memory, hoisting a championship trophy and wearing the too-big shirt and the hat with all the shiny stickers? Do we believe in a color-barrier-breaking streaking comet who in his preening prime grinned and licked his fingers as the shot panned from the feet to the torso to the chin and moved the South and its still-hissing undercurrent of ambiguous racism just an inch or two farther down the road? Do we believe in unfulfilled promise and frittered millions and decisions we know nothing of but to second guess?

Or do we believe in what we see: a two-dimensional figure who once played a sport and realized, after long enough—or perhaps after taking a four-hour walk or staring into the endless vastness of a slowly spinning camera lens for as many times as a human can bear and still feel human, that that’s all there is and that isn’t that much. Then comes the gambler’s itch to flush everything with it, especially the money, and start over.

Start over as just a person, and work his way up from there.

Vince Young has said he will return to UT. His jersey is retired there and he will walk once more the streets of Austin, earning an honest paycheck, disappearing in the queue at Franklin Barbecue and being treated mostly like a mortal, like a man. And maybe—maybe that’s all he was ever looking for in that end zone.

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