On the first day of the Baltimore Colts' training camp, Westminster, Md., July of 1968, Ordell Braase, the huge old war-horse, a survivor of 12 years in the National Football League, was walking along with George Young, a chubby and bespectacled fellow, who was the newest member of the organization. At the age of 37, Young had been hired by Don Shula as a personnel assistant, and, at camp, he was going to double as a gridiron candy-striper, assisting the assistants. For 16 years Young had been a high school history teacher, coaching adolescents in the fall, but never working with college players, much less with God's gift to play-for-pay.
"Well, George," Braase said, being as polite as he could in his condescension, "this really must be something for you, jumping all the way from high school to the NFL. Quite a change, huh, George?"
Young remained silent and continued walking, but the expression on his face registered disagreement. Braase took wary note of Young's countenance, and it obliged him to think deeper about football and life. After walking a few more steps in silence, Braase ventured a thought, "Yeah, I guess you're right, George. We just drink more beer up here, don't we?"
Satisfied, Young merely nodded, and kept on walking toward his first professional practice.
The novitiate was brief: In two more years, Young was line coach for Baltimore's 1971 Super Bowl champions; in barely a decade he became general manager of the league's flagship franchise, the New York Giants; in 1984, by vote of his colleagues, he was acclaimed The Sporting News Executive of the Year. After a disastrous 1983 season, in which an injury-wracked Giant team went 3-12-1, New York qualified for the 1984 playoffs and beat Los Angeles before bowing to San Francisco, the eventual Super Bowl champion. During his years with the Giants Young has made superb use of the draft, something the Mara organization had consistently failed to do. Young's first-round picks have included quarterback Phil Simms, linebackers Lawrence Taylor and Carl Banks and defensive backs Mark Haynes and Terry Kinard, all key performers on this year's powerful team.
Young's rise is all the more amazing inasmuch as pro football is such an inbred society. Clemenceau once observed of British aristocrats that they all looked alike, just one out of 10 was very smart...only you could never remember which one. You see, Young does not look like everybody else. He has always been obese. In 1979, the Mara brothers, owners of the Giants, interviewed dozens of trimmer, stylishly dressed types for the general manager's position before complying with commissioner Pete Rozelle's suggestion that they at least give Young a hearing.
Nick Schloeder is one of Young's best friends and a roommate at Bucknell. Schloeder, a teacher at Gilman School in Baltimore, doubles as an assistant for U.S. Senator Paul Sarbanes. Like so many others who have been influenced by Young, Schloeder is not the least bit astonished at his friend's success. "I've never been surprised by George's ability to do any job," Schloeder says. "I've only been surprised that in this world of blow-dried hair, he's been allowed to do these things."
In Baltimore, where Young grew up, the euphemism for his size was heavyset; nowadays more gentle words such as big, large and king-size are commonly employed. George's father, who was Irish, ran a neighborhood stag bar, but Young never drank in his life, or smoked, either. Instead he ate. All of his vices, all of his excesses were directed to his dinner plate.
Since 1984, Young has dropped 70 pounds, but even in his reduced state, you would not call him trim. In a sport-shirt world, he invariably dresses in a coat and tie. On those rare occasions when Young breaks down and goes insanely casual, he keeps the top button on his leisure shirt snugly buttoned. Also, Young has been bald all his adult life and forever myopic. Everybody loves the story about the time George fell on a helmet instead of the ball when someone yelled fumble. It's a tale that sniffs strongly of amiable apocrypha, but in fact it truly did happen once, at Bucknell, when he was a freshman in 1948, in an evening game when a white football was used. Bucknell also wore white helmets. And not only did Young fall on a helmet instead of a ball; there still chanced to be a head in the helmet he fell on. Linemen have forever been told that if they do happen upon a fumble, grab it tightly lest nimble-fingered opponents extract it from their grasp. So Young pressed the helmet even tighter to his folds. "But it was attached!" Schloeder shrieks. "It was attached to a body!"
Not surprisingly, Young became one of the first athletes to wear contact lenses. He made Little All-America at Bucknell in 1951, and was drafted the next year in the 26th round by the Dallas Texans, formerly the New York Yanks (R.I.P.); he just missed making the final cut. A number of pro teams invited Young to try out the next year but he had begun teaching by then, and his playing career was behind him. "My nature is student or teacher," he says. "When I was a high school teacher, and a student myself at night, that was when I had the best of both worlds." As manager of his high school basketball team, he took it upon himself to scout the opposition. Even when he had become personnel director of an NFL team, he would head off every summer for a week of clinics with high school and college coaches. In night school, he picked up two master's degrees. And so, when he finally decided to leave teaching and take the job Shula offered, Young and his wife agreed he would not really be leaving education, only taking a sabbatical from it—and, in effect, that remains the case 17 years later.