The big man stood over his son's crib and tried to explain why he was afraid to lift the baby from the blankets. This was in the winter of 1976, when Charle Young was a Pro Bowl tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles and his firstborn, Charles II, was two weeks old. The father hadn't yet picked up his son and held him. On this January momma the baby's mother, Colleen, listened from the next room.
Son," she heard Charle whisper, Dad's going to pick you up now. And I want you to know I waited awhile to do this because I needed to figure out how to cradle you in my arms without crushing you. I won't let you fall." And with one soil hand he held the child in front of his face.
Fatherhood is forever, and it is the blink of an eve. A baby, as small as a palm, abruptly grows into manhood while his father is off chasing greatness. A child looks like his daddy down there among the blankets and rattles, and isn't that cute; One day he really looks like his daddy. For three men of football—Young, Joe Gibbs and Merlin Olsen—fatherhood might mean the passing along of greatness, and as with most fathers, it involves expectation, absence, wonder and love. A bond both unique and ordinary.
Young was the prototype tight end, Gibbs was coach of the Washington Redskins, and Olsen was one fourth of the Los Angeles Rams' Fearsome Foursome, not to mention all of Father Murphy. Among them they have four Super Bowl rings, a college national championship, 17 Fro Bowls, three TV series, one Daytona 500, three successful businesses and lest we forget, one grand marshalship of the Tournament of Roses Parade "The world will tell you those are the most important things in life," says Gibbs "They're not."
Young understood as much that morning in Philadelphia when his baby looked back at him from the palm of the same hand he used for those receptions made timeless by NFL Films. Olsen understood it when he watched his son stand on the line of scrimmage at a high school football game, hands on hips, awaiting the offense—Ram number 74 in a time warp. ("I was looking in a mirror," says Merlin.) And Gibbs understood it when, after more than 20 years of coaching players in the ways of organized hurt, that same violence was suddenly directed at his two sons.
There's something else these fathers share besides the rings and trophies and overlapping war stories (Young played briefly with Olsen for the Rams, Gibbs coached Young at USC, Olsen worked Gibbs's games on television): Each has a son playing football at Stanford. Coy Gibbs is a fierce, if undersized, senior linebacker, starting for the fourth consecutive year; Nathan Olsen, also a senior, is a company man playing his third position without complaint; Charles Young II won the free safety job last year as a 17-year-old true freshman and is now rotating in the defensive backfield after recovering from knee mi surgery.
They are as different as three athletes could be: Gibbs the iconoclast, spouting Rush Limbaugh in a Stanford history class just to hack off the liberals; Olsen the pacifist, trudging from offense to defense and back to offense in the same practice without uttering a word in anger; Young the prodigy, with one of the highest grade point averages among Stanford football freshmen and with his dad's self-assurance, broadcast at a slightly lower volume. Each young man is also his father's conscience, a reminder that careers end but children continue and that it is much simpler to invent the H-back than it is to steer a son through adolescence.
Each is also a reminder that a man can succeed at both sports and fatherhood, but not always easily. "The fathers who have been there" says Stanford coach Bill Walsh, "they're sensitive and alert to developing the other side of the brain, so to speak. They know there's another facet to all this." Three fathers, three sons, three facets.
Charlotte, N.C.: At a clapboard eatery with stock cars (photos) decorating the menu, stock cars (photos) decorating the walls and two stock cars (real ones) decorating the roof, the founder of Joe Gibbs Racing pauses over mesquite chicken on a bagel and puts his hands in his lap. "Let's say grace," he says solemnly. "Father, bless us and take care of our friends.... Take care of Coy...."
Coy Gibbs is a continent away from his father, and he can take care of himself, as opposing ballcarriers will attest. "Great short-range explosion and a real miserable disposition," says Stanford defensive coordinator Fred vonAppen. These Coy needs, because at 5'11" and change and 210 pounds, he is absurdly small for a Division I-A linebacker.