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At Madison High in Houston, Young's coach was Ray Seals, who counseled him on everything from gangs to recruiters. At Texas it was Brown, with whom he still talks or texts every other day. The relationships were personal, bordering on familial. "We sometimes spoil kids at this level and help them deal with problems that don't have to do with football," Seals says. "But a lot of these kids don't have dads at home. You try to fill that void." Young thought of his coaches almost as fathers. Fisher, by comparison, was a boss.
"It took me a while to get used to that," Young says. "In high school and college there is a lot of love. They help you become a man. In the NFL they make you be a man.
In the final week of June, Young went to see McNair. They met at the former Titan's restaurant in Nashville, Gridiron 9, and Young vented. "I want to play so [much]," he said. McNair told him, "It will come back again. Be ready." A week later McNair was dead, and Young's complaints about playing time could not have seemed more insignificant. He and Fisher embraced at the funeral, united in their grief. McNair's last bit of advice—"Be ready"—became a soothing and inspiring mantra.
Young told strength coach Steve Watterson, "If you see me being lazy in the weight room, let me know." He told his longtime girlfriend, Candice Johnson, "If you see me being lazy in our relationship, let me know." Young and Fisher grew closer, but Collins was still the starter as the season opened, and Young spent the first six games wearing an earpiece on the sideline. "Some people thought it was an iPod," linebacker Keith Bulluck says. "It wasn't." Young was listening to every offensive call, and when Bulluck asked him what the Titans were about to run, Young relayed the name of the play and how to execute it. "If the safety comes over," he'd tell Bulluck, "we have to check down."
After the debacle at New England, which matched the worst loss in the league since the AFL-NFL merger, Tennessee called on Young. Owner Bud Adams, who had lobbied to draft Young, told reporters he ordered the change. Fisher maintains the decision was collaborative. As offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger prepared Young to start against Jacksonville—yes, Jacksonville again, at LP Field again—he warned, "The biggest key is going to be how you handle adversity." Before the game Heimerdinger gave Young instructions on what to do after his first interception: "You're going to be upset, and I'm going to be upset. So I'm going to go one way and you go the other, and we'll meet back at the bench a couple of minutes later."
Young did not throw an interception in that game, a win over the Jags, or in his next one, a win at San Francisco. He had one in his third game, against Buffalo, but an unfamiliar calm came over him. "It didn't kill me the way it used to," he says. His teammates were watching. "He is not as demonstrative," Collins notes. "He's not as emotionally connected to the ups and downs." The Titans beat the Bills handily, and the 86-year-old Adams celebrated in his luxury box by throwing a series of middle fingers into the air. Few noticed the gesture Adams had flashed just before he flipped the bird: hook 'em horns.
Young no longer has the tape the Texas coaches prepared for him after that Missouri game, but on Thursday nights during the season he often watches the 2006 national championship game against USC "to remind myself who I am." Now he is part leader and part jester, just as he was in Austin. He'll wear his jersey backward at practice, handcuff his offensive linemen with tape, hide Bulluck's laptop in the locker room, turn off the lights and croon R&B. The Titans' offense even includes echoes of the one Davis designed for Young, putting him in the shotgun, moving the pocket, running some option. It helps Young that he plays alongside Johnson, who is leading the league in rushing. And it helps Johnson that he plays alongside Young, who has completed 62.9% of his passes since his return and divides the attention of eight-man fronts. Young's throwing motion is as awkward as ever. The difference, Heimerdinger says, is better footwork.
Even if the Titans fall short of the playoffs, they will have accomplished something just as significant: rediscovering a potential franchise quarterback. NFL teams want their QBs to operate as efficient machines—make the call, make the read, make the throw—but emotion will always be a critical part of Young's game. After an interception on Sunday he flung his helmet down, mainly because he'd banged his knee on the play but perhaps also because rookie receiver Kenny Britt stopped his route. Young sat alone on the bench, but when the Colts punted the ball back, he clapped his hands, then drove the Titans 66 yards, finding Britt for a touchdown pass.
Britt also scored on a pass from Young the week before, with no time left against Arizona, the culmination of an unforgettable 99-yard drive that included three fourth-down conversions. After his finest moment as a pro Young rushed to his guests in the stands, Tyler and Trenton McNair. He can never replace Pops, but he took McNair's young sons to their school's Dear Dads breakfast this semester, accompanies them to Dave & Buster's on Friday nights and leaves them tickets whenever they want. He is not looking for a father figure anymore. He is one.
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