Stopping Makes Sense
Vince Young might not be cut out for the NFL—and that's OK.
A week before NFL training camps opened in late July, an Indianapolis Colts defensive lineman named Quinn Pitcock delivered a message to his employer: I quit.
A third-round draft choice out of Ohio State in 2007, Pitcock played in nine games as a rookie and was expected to see regular action this season on a team with Super Bowl aspirations. The money wasn't bad, either. Pitcock had a three-year contract worth $1.267 million. By all accounts, there was no glaring reason for his departure. He wasn't chronically injured or dodging a suspension or sinking on the depth chart. He just didn't want to play football anymore. "It was firmly his decision to walk away," says Joe Flanagan of BTI Sports, the agency that represents Pitcock.
That a gifted 24-year-old athlete would voluntarily abandon a career in the glamorous NFL might make little sense to fans. After all, who wouldn't jump at the chance to play pro football—let alone to grab one of the eight-figure contracts that veteran starters often earn? Ask a player, though, and you'll likely get a different reaction. I'm willing to bet that more than a few Colts privately admire Quinn Pitcock for having the stones to walk away from the NFL—and wish they had them, too.
Professional football is an absurd proposition. Players collide, physicist Timothy Gay reports, with a force equivalent to the weight of a small adult killer whale. Injuries are constant, and players live with the knowledge that they may wind up crippled, depressed, or with Alzheimer's disease in their 50s. Coaches are merciless jerks. Contracts aren't guaranteed; you can be fired any minute. The media say a lot but know little. Fans scream and curse. The surprise isn't that a player like Quinn Pitcock quits the NFL. It's that it doesn't happen more often. "When I tell people that I left after five years on my own, you should see the looks on their faces," says Ed Cunningham, an offensive lineman with the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks from 1992-'96 who's now a college-football analyst for ESPN. "Well, hey, man, it sucked. It was not fun. And oh, by the way, I was getting beaten up every single day at work."
That unhappy reality is rarely acknowledged in public by active players, but it's there. And there might be no better—or more troubling—case study of the hidden stress of life in the NFL than the drama unspooling around Vince Young, the third-year quarterback for the Tennessee Titans.
Last week, Young had to be prodded to return to the team's season opener after throwing an interception; missed a scheduled MRI on a knee he injured later in the game; mentioned suicide after leaving home without a cell phone but with a gun; and was questioned by Nashville police after going AWOL for four hours. Young's mother told the Tennessean that her "baby boy" had grown tired of criticism over his performance, and the newspaper said Young had told friends he didn't want to play anymore. (In the spring, Young told a writer he considered quitting after his rookie season. He also reportedly asked to sit out the second half of a playoff game last season.)
Later in the week, Young was telling reporters that everyone had overreacted, that he wasn't depressed, that football remains his "dream." Tennessee's head coach, Jeff Fisher, who is regarded in the league as laid-back and player-friendly, said many of the details getting reported were wrong. Everything is "fine," he said, and Young just needs to focus on rehabilitating his sprained knee ligament, which is expected to keep him out two to four weeks.
The spin control is understandable. An unstable Vince Young is bad for the image of the NFL and bad for the financial and competitive future of the Tennessee Titans, who already have paid him more than $20 million. It's also bad for the agents, marketing managers, companies, family members, and friends with a vested interest in the Vince Young brand, which includes Vince Young Foods (smoked ribs, brisket, sausage), the Vince Young Football Camp, and Vince Young Gear—all prominently displaying the Vince Young logo, which would look great as a hood ornament on a Vince Young luxury car. Everyone associated with the business of Vince Young needs Vince Young in a Titans uniform.
But it's not unreasonable to wonder, as his mother has, whether Vince Young the person might be better off without football—or would, in fact, already be out of football had he not been made into a brand before becoming an established NFL player. When I spent a summer in an NFL locker room, I learned that the emotional and psychological pressures of pro football are painful for almost all players, barely tolerable for some, and unbearable for a few. I don't know Vince Young personally and don't know whether he falls into the last group. But he does demonstrate some of the major signs of stress—and distress—of life in the NFL.
Performance, of course, is every player's sword of Damocles. Fans and media supply their vocal opinions. When Young balked at returning to the field, he had just been serenaded by a chorus of boos from home fans. Afterward, idiot columnists weighed in. Public opinion about Young's NFL talent is opposite what it was when he led the University of Texas to a national championship in the 2005-'06 season. Read some typical opinions here. Or just Google "Vince Young sucks."
What fans or media say shouldn't matter—after all, their role isn't to view players as actual human beings—but to some athletes, it does. More burdensome are the daily critiques from coaches on the practice field and in meeting rooms, which do matter. After every game, players are "graded out" on multiple details of technique and execution. Young's internal reviews can't be good. In 2007, though the Titans made the playoffs, he finished 26th in the NFL in passer rating and threw just nine touchdown passes against 17 interceptions.