For all his amateur athletic life, Vince Young lived under a shower of adulation. He dominated the Texas high school sports scene and captured a state football title before 45,000 in the Astrodome. He went on to become Big Man on Campus at Texas, winning a national championship while playing a game for the ages against mighty USC. It seemed everyone he knew was in his corner, supportive of his ascent, inflating him with the sense he could do no wrong.
When it came to athletics, a rising Young rarely if ever experienced the sting of criticism. He averaged 25 points playing basketball at his Houston high school. He excelled in track and baseball. Young knew only how good he was at everything because that's all he'd ever been told. He was a stranger to athletic adversity. Circumstances never schooled him in humility. Life became a glorious ride, payback for a rough-and-tumble childhood, and nothing changed early in his NFL career. But eventually it did change.
Young ran afoul of coach Jeff Fisher in Tennessee and lost his starting job to Kerry Collins after an injury in 2008. For the first time in a long time, if ever, he was doubted as an athlete. And how, having no knowledge base to draw upon, does one respond to this affront to the ego? The Titans had police hunt him down in 2008 after being told he spoke of suicide in a therapy session. In 2010, after being held out of a game he expected to re-enter, Young flung some of his equipment into the stands.
Doubtless this qualifies as inappropriate and counterproductive behavior. Young was labeled immature. Spoiled. All about himself. But if he was any or all of those things, how much of it had to do with all the adoration heaped upon him all those years? Maybe it's not an excuse. Maybe it's an explanation for the actions of someone who'd never had to cope.
The Buffalo Bills are betting on Young rebounding from those experiences. They introduced him Tuesday as the competition for Tyler Thigpen as backup to Ryan Fitzpatrick. That's what it's come to. The third overall pick in the 2006 draft, Young is with his third team in three years, on his second straight one-year contract, still striving to resurrect his career through the role of reserve.
It's a great story if he makes it all the way back. Yet it's a noteworthy story if he doesn't. At his news conference Young acknowledged that the critics lie in wait.
"My whole thing is that I use it as motivation to silence my doubters," he said. "I have a huge doubter base. I used to feed into that but my biggest thing is not feeding into that. You can't make everybody happy. The only people you can make happy is your family members, your coaching staff and your teammates. The ones you do love. Those are the ones I focus on, everything else I just put too much focus on. I don't really watch it and I don't get to hear it until someone texts it to me or someone tells me. I kind of use that as fuel."
There's no denying Young's athletic abilities. Or that in Chan Gailey he has an offensive-minded head coach who'll play to his strengths. The unknown is whether Young has truly been fortified by past experience and can accept backing up a quarterback less revered than Michael Vick. He insists he's prepared for whatever comes his way.
"It's definitely a learning experience," he said. "As the history goes, you notice guys get more mature in their sixth and seventh year. That's the biggest thing. I have definitely learned how to handle different situations now. I just go to work. That's all you can do."
Those days when he owned the world must seem like a lifetime ago. How they fawned over him back in high school. It seemed his image was everywhere.
"You can't turn on a television in Houston without seeing Vince Young," one of his former high school teammates told the Dallas Morning News in 2005. "You might see him more than the Texans. He was like LeBron James in Houston when he was coming out of high school."
Now Young's just another free agent hoping to hook on with an NFL team but one who knows full well the meaning of adversity.