When Vince Young prays before a game, he asks God to tap Steve McNair on the shoulder, to let him know he's loved and to let him know it's game time. Like any good quarterback Young has an unusual ability to feel the presence of people he cannot always see, so as he crouches under center, he'll tell you, he knows running back Chris Johnson is lined up behind him and McNair is behind him too. "He's standing in the pocket with me," Young says of McNair.
They met when Vince was 16 and his uncle, Ivory Young, took him to McNair's football camp in Mississippi. Ivory attended Alcorn State at the same time as McNair, but it turned out that McNair had more in common with Ivory's nephew, another African-American quarterback from a single-parent home. McNair counseled Young through high school and college and basically bequeathed to him the quarterback job in Tennessee. He spent 11 years with the Titans, then was traded to Baltimore two months after Tennessee drafted Young third overall in 2006, and left the game following the '07 season. McNair would spend his retirement watching his protégé play his position for his team.
Then Young was injured at the beginning of the 2008 season, benched through the end and forgotten in the aftermath. He needed guidance more than ever, but on the night of July 4, 2009, the man he called Pops was shot and killed in Nashville by an alleged mistress who then apparently committed suicide. The mourning Titans, a team that had the best record in the AFC in 2008 and brought back 20 of 22 starters, began the season 0--6. After the last loss, a 59--0 dismantling at New England, coach Jeff Fisher showed up at a charity event in Nashville wearing a Peyton Manning Colts jersey because he "wanted to feel like a winner." The following Sunday, Young returned to the starting lineup, and he led the Titans to five straight victories before they fell to still-undefeated Indianapolis on Sunday. Even so, Tennessee is on the fringe of the muddled AFC playoff picture, with its next three games at home. If that comeback has been stunning, Young's has been even more so.
He grew up with a father, Vincent, in and out of jail, a mother, Felicia, on and off of drugs. He was nicknamed Crack Baby in his Houston neighborhood and slept with the doors open because his house had no air conditioning. He sometimes read by candlelight because the electricity was out and filled empty barrels with water from an outdoor hose so his sisters could take baths. At age 6 he was hit by a van while riding his bike, suffering serious internal injuries. In high school he fought with gang members. But he could handle all that. What got to him were the interceptions. "I couldn't stand it," Young says. "If I threw an interception, I'd try to knock the dude's head off."
On Sept. 7, 2008, at LP Field he threw two of them. The second came in the fourth quarter, with the Titans leading the Jaguars, and it prompted a round of boos from the home crowd. When the Jags punted the ball back, Young did not budge from the bench. Fisher claimed Young's hamstring was bothering him, and the quarterback later explained that he was using the television timeout to collect his thoughts. But his hesitation was a warning of the chaos to come. "You can't be a field general when you're moping," center Kevin Mawae said last week. Young finally jogged to the huddle, but four plays later he sprained his left knee. "It was the first time I'd ever really been booed," Young said. "And it was the first time I'd ever really been injured. It was a depressing moment."
The public had rarely seen Young without a smile beneath his skullcap. He was the playful prodigy who danced on the field at the Rose Bowl before the national championship game, inviting his coaches to boogie with him. Young went 30--2 as a starter at Texas, won Offensive Rookie of the Year with the Titans in 2006 and took them to the playoffs in his second season. He was McNair 2.0, the new face of the franchise.
Today's NFL practically requires that its young quarterbacks come of age in some embarrassing manner—Ben Roethlisberger on his motorcycle, Matt Leinart in his hot tub—but Young was the only one who became the subject of a citywide manhunt. When he missed an MRI on his knee the day after the Jacksonville game, Fisher and a team psychologist went to his house; earlier in the day the psychologist reportedly had heard Young mention suicide. When the quarterback left the house that night with a gun, Felicia called his manager, who notified the Titans, who called the Nashville police. Fisher and the police finally got in touch with Young and met him at the team's practice facility, along with a SWAT team and a crisis negotiator. It turned out that the gun was unloaded, Young had been watching Monday Night Football with a friend, and he had not received the worried calls from his mom because he had left his cellphone at home. Was he down? Yes. Suicidal? No. Humiliated by all the fuss? Definitely.
He served as scout team quarterback for the rest of the 2008 season, watched backup Kerry Collins lead the Titans to a 13--3 record and home field advantage in the AFC playoffs and tried to placate all the family members and friends constantly inquiring about his state of mind. "I'd tell him to hang in there and keep his head up, but he'd sometimes get mad," says Titans tight end Bo Scaife, a teammate of Young's at Texas. Tired of people tiptoeing around him, Young walked into Fisher's office in March and asked, "What do I have to do to earn my job back?" Fisher's response was predictable: study, train, take practices as seriously as games. In essence, the coach said, Be a pro.
The Titans also had work to do. In the off-season one of their scouts called Greg Davis, Young's offensive coordinator at Texas, and asked, "What should we tell Vince?"
Young had been benched in his sophomore year after throwing two interceptions against Missouri, but the following week Davis and coach Mack Brown presented Young with a video of his personal highlights, set to the raves of gushing TV announcers. Brown and Davis understood what few others did: that Young was capable of lifting an entire team but sometimes had to be lifted himself. Davis believed Young needed to recapture the joy he brings to the game. "Maybe this isn't how it's done in pro football," Davis told the scout, "but Vince has to know you care. He has to know he isn't just a pawn."