Vince Young might not be cut out for the NFL—and that's OK.

The stadium scene.
Sept. 17 2008 3:58 PM

Stopping Makes Sense

Vince Young might not be cut out for the NFL—and that's OK.

Vince Young. Click image to expand.
Vince Young 

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.

Stefan Fatsis Stefan Fatsis

Stefan Fatsis is the author of Word Freak and A Few Seconds of Panic, a regular guest on NPR's All Things Considered, and a panelist on Hang Up and Listen

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.

Titans coaches talk openly about what Young still needs to learn: how to better read defenses, see the field and find open receivers—how, in other words, to be a multidimensional quarterback and not a gimmick who can only run the ball, which remains his best-developed skill and security blanket. That can't be easy to hear. Moreover, as Peter Richmond noted in an article in Sunday's New York Times Play magazine, Young has had to learn a new offensive system this year under coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, who favors more traditional drop-back quarterbacks. "I want him to play the position like other quarterbacks did last year," Heimerdinger said, meaning that Young should run only as a last resort. Early returns are not good: Young's opening-day performance—a game Tennessee won, 17-10, over Jacksonville—ranks him 35th out of 36 quarterbacks in the league, according to a comprehensive stat created by the Web site Football Outsiders. His replacement, 35-year-old Kerry Collins, stands sixth.

Injury is another common source of distress for NFL players. For some players, it can be a ticket out of the league. Young doesn't face that, but his sprained medial collateral ligament is the worst injury of his career. David McDuff, a psychiatrist for the Baltimore Ravens, says injuries can leave players feeling isolated, guilty, and fearful. A lack of experience with being hurt only makes it worse. "It can make your self-confidence plummet," McDuff says. "And I mean fast. Within six hours of an injury."

Then add this to a player's burden: responsibility to a host of other people. Having a mother who discloses her son's emotional state to reporters can't be helpful. Endorsing a debit card and an energy drink, as Young has, might pay well, but the companies count on you to live up to the deal. In our sports-obsessed culture, partying shirtless with a group of friends, as Young did this summer to the delight of celebrity and sports blogs, can require a public apology.

So, Young faced a cocktail of stressers. McDuff says immediate intervention by team officials, health professionals, and trusted family and friends can quell an athlete crisis. But intense publicity can make it seem as if the triggering event "happened hundreds of thousands of times, not once, in the psyche of the public." Young's mental health, dedication, and competence have been questioned for two years now, never more than in the last two weeks.

How the Titans are handling Vince Young's personal issues hasn't been made public. According to a staff directory, the Titans don't have a psychologist on the payroll. But they do contract with a therapist, who met with Young during last week's events. (The Denver Broncos, with whom I embedded as a place-kicker, employ a full-time psychologist who has an office near the locker room, attends practices, and encourages players to talk.) Young didn't attend quarterback meetings last week or travel with the team to Cincinnati on Sunday (a 24-7 victory). And yesterday, Fisher announced that Young had been demoted in favor of Collins, a traditional drop-back quarterback, regardless of when his knee recovers. It would certainly be understandable if Young felt abandoned by his team.

As a culture, football isn't touchy-feely. "Because it's such a testosterone-driven sport, it's very hard to express any weakness at any time to anyone," player agent Peter Schaffer says. "It's like the remedy creates more problems than the actual problem." Or, to put it another way, a player who owns up to his problems might think he'll be perceived as less than tough, threatening his status in the locker room. And it's not as if sportswriters are sympathetic after the fact. In the Tennessean, columnist David Climer advises Young to "get with the program." In the New York Times, columnist William Rhoden links Young's problems to those faced by older African-American quarterbacks. "Young doesn't need a psychologist," Rhoden writes. "He needs a history lesson."

All might not be lost for Vince Young. At 25, he's still got plenty of time to become a great quarterback. The Titans have invested thousands of hours and millions of dollars in him. And plenty of other NFL players have suffered publicly before finding the emotional maturity to survive in the league. (Exhibit A: the Miami Dolphins' worldly and thoughtful running back Ricky Williams.) But there also are plenty of other players who have decided that the sport isn't for them. Some are comparatively anonymous, like Quinn Pitcock and Ed Cunningham. Others are better known thanks to stellar, if short, careers, from the legendary Jim Brown to the superb 1990s running back Robert Smith.

Quitting outright is a dramatic endpoint, to be sure. But it shouldn't be an illogical one. Maybe Vince Young just isn't cut out to play in the NFL. "I'm really much more amazed by the people who continue to grind it out," says Joel Goldberg, who was a psychologist for the New York Giants and other NFL teams for more than two decades. "Honestly, the brighter ones quit."

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