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Vince Young remembers the Titans

The former quarterback talks Jeff Fisher, Steve McNair and that ‘Dream Team’ comment

Vince Young will go down as one of the greatest college football players in history. This we know for sure.

No matter which accolade you choose, the former Texas quarterback was one of the best. The 30-2 career record. The 4,000 yards from scrimmage and 38 touchdowns his junior year. The two Rose Bowl wins, including the national championship game against USC. Fourth-and-5, of course.

But Young’s story didn’t end there. The man they once called “Invinceable” didn’t walk off into the sunset that night in Pasadena, California. His story had just begun.

After leaving Texas, Young was selected third overall by the Tennessee Titans in the 2006 NFL draft, one of the most highly anticipated draft classes in league history at the time, behind defensive end Mario Williams and Heisman-winning running back Reggie Bush. But unlike most franchises that would cherish a can’t-miss, once-in-a-lifetime talent like Young (he was the first quarterback in NCAA history to throw for more than 3,000 yards and rush for more than 1,000 yards in the same season), the Titans brass — outside of owner Bud Adams, who had the final say — didn’t want Young.

Head coach Jeff Fisher and the rest of the coaching staff preferred the supposedly more polished Jay Cutler and Matt Leinart, another former Heisman winner, over Young, who months earlier had downed Leinart’s Trojans in the national championship game.

“I kind of got thrown in the middle of it,” Young says now of the internal front-office dysfunction. “And all I wanted to do was just play football.”

It didn’t help that Young’s scouting report read like an Implicit Bias 101 course description: He couldn’t read defenses, he had more “natural ability” than skill and he didn’t play in a pro-style offense at Texas. He was, in many people’s eyes, less a quarterback and more a great athlete who happened to play quarterback.

Not to mention, the leaked Wonderlic test on which Young reportedly scored a below-literate 6. (Young and his camp have denied that score was accurate. He eventually scored a 16, which is the same score as Dan Marino, for what it’s worth.)

Young said it’s “very disturbing” how the media harped on him during the draft process. “I feel like you shouldn’t have to treat someone like that, and let the guy play the game and play football.”

One scout, though, said that if a team were patient with him, Young had the raw potential to someday take over the league.

“I took that as motivation,” he said of people doubting his ability to play quarterback in the NFL. “And that’s why I really feel like I did have a good career in the NFL, other than what went on between me and my head coach.”

Fisher, who was fired by the Titans in 2011 and the Los Angeles Rams in 2016, notoriously didn’t get along with Young, with the quarterback accusing his coach of leaking private conversations to the media and never quite getting over Adams’ mandate. Fisher declined to comment for this story.

Young said that former Titans quarterback Steve McNair, who was a mentor to Young until his death in 2009, warned him about Fisher when he was drafted. “He dealt with Fisher, so he knew what was going on,” Young said with a chuckle. “He went through the same stuff.”

That stuff included McNair infamously being told by a team trainer that he wasn’t allowed at the Titans’ facilities during a contract dispute in 2006. Even though Fisher was away in Los Angeles — scouting Leinart, no less — Young blames the coach for how McNair was treated.

“[McNair] had done a lot for that organization, and instead of you coming out as a head coach or the GM, you send a middleman and tell me I can’t come into the gate because we’re moving forward and going on and letting you go,” Young said of Fisher. “I thought that was so disrespectful because he deserved way more than that for what he did for that organization.”

Young sent Fisher a letter around 2012 extending an olive branch, leaving his cellphone number in the note. Fisher has yet to respond.

“I forgave him, hope he forgave me,” Young said.

Playing in the NFL was a dream come true for the Houston native. For a kid who grew up poor with an absent father and a mother addicted to drugs and alcohol, football brought much-needed excitement to Young’s life. It didn’t necessarily come easy to him (Colt McCoy, Young’s backup at Texas, reportedly mimicked his predecessor’s routine of practicing overtime with receivers), but it didn’t hurt that 6-foot-5 Young was both taller than most offensive linemen and faster than most wide receivers.

In five seasons with the Titans, Young threw for 8,098 yards and scored 54 touchdowns (42 passing, 12 rushing) while winning 64 percent of the games he started (30-17). Despite having not played since 2011, he has the 11th most rushing yards for a quarterback (1,459) since 2006.

It’s “hard to say one” when choosing the best moment of his career. There’s the national championship game, for sure, but he also (pettily) relishes beating his hometown Houston Texans, who passed on him with the No. 1 overall pick, in just his fourth career start; beating Leinart, whom Fisher wanted to draft, in their lone meeting in the pros; and filling in for an injured Michael Vick in prime time for the Philadelphia Eagles versus the divisional rival New York Giants.

All the good times (two Pro Bowls, 2009 Comeback Player of the Year) were normally offset by confusing displays of immaturity. He threw his pads and jerseys into the stands after one loss and responded poorly to Titans fans booing him when he struggled. He once got into a fight at a strip club.

And then there was the “Dream Team” comment. When the Eagles went on a spending spree ahead of the 2011 season, signing Young and Pro Bowl defenders Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, he referred to the roster, which also included Vick, LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson, as a “Dream Team,” in reference to the 1992 U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team, considered the most talented collection of players in sports history.

He was immediately clowned for the choice of words, more so after the Eagles finished the season 8-8 and missed the playoffs.

“If you say something, they [the media] just blow it out of proportion. They took it the way they wanted to take it,” Young said, adding that he doesn’t regret his word choice.

Young doesn’t mean to blame anyone for all the mistakes he made; he accepted responsibility for his actions a long time ago. He just wishes he had received the assistance, sympathy and forgiveness that other players do from their teams.

“I feel like, to me, there’s a whole bunch of athletes out there that went through more than I went through, and they’re still out there playing to this day,” he said.

If not for the extenuating circumstances in Tennessee, Young said, his career trajectory “would be totally different,” and he’d be playing into his twilight like Tom Brady or Ben Roethlisberger. It’s easy to shake your head at that since he never threw for 20 touchdowns in a season and ended his career with five more interceptions (51) than passing touchdowns (46), but much like his time in Austin, Texas, Young just had it. His five game-winning drives in his rookie season were the most in the league.

Young officially retired from the league in 2014 after unsuccessful stops in Buffalo, Green Bay and Cleveland. In 2013, he graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in education and was later hired by the school in official and unofficial capacities.

These days, he’s doing what he enjoys most: helping others. Besides running his own real estate agency, Young volunteers with the university’s Neighborhood Longhorns Program, which works with the Austin school district to improve grades and test scores of disadvantaged elementary and middle school-age children. He said he wants to help the kids “get out of the low-poverty areas and go see other different things than what they see on an everyday life in their neighborhood.”

When Sports Illustrated asked Young last year whether, after a failed comeback with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League, he was retiring for good, Young was indecisive. Months later, he seems more definitive, with a subtle caveat.

“That’s in the past for me right now,” he said. “Just being more so a voice for the next guys that are out there that may go through anything they’re going through and they need advice.”

Liner Notes

The Undefeated will profile 30 black quarterbacks leading up to the 2018 Super Bowl, which marks 30 years since Doug Williams won the big game

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"