Vince Young and Ricky Williams: A Tale of Two Athletes
Note: Vince Young was signed by the Green Bay Packers on August 5.
Vince Young isn’t the only 30- year-old former University of Texas student who’s been unable to find work for the better part of the past year, but he’s certainly the most famous. The former Texas quarterback, who achieved a degree of college football immortality after leading the Longhorns to the 2006 BCS Championship, has been unemployed since last August, when the Buffalo Bills terminated his contract before the start of the 2012 NFL season.
Young’s current purgatory is an unexpected detour in a career that began with overwhelming anticipation. As the third overall pick in the 2006 draft, Young began his career with the Tennessee Titans, where he quickly earned the role of starting quarterback. His NFL debut was heralded by fans with everything but trumpets, especially in Texas, where outrage that Young’s hometown Houston Texans had passed him over with the team’s first draft pick took years to subside. National sports media were no less excited. ESPN’s Skip Bayless wrote, “I’ve seen the light and the future: Vince Young,” and Bayless wasn’t the only pundit compelled to speak of Young in quasi-religious terms.
The rapturous reception was short-lived. During his tumultuous tenure in Tennessee, Young butted heads with the Titans’ strong-willed then-coach Jeff Fisher, and faced concern regarding his mental health. In the fourth quarter of the opening game of the 2008 season, cameras caught Young with his head hung low on the sideline after throwing an interception; backup quarterback Kerry Collins entered the game in his place, and at Fisher’s post-game press conference, reporters asked five times whether Young had been reluctant to return. Fisher cited a hamstring strain. The next day, the influential sports blog Deadspin ran a story under the headline, “Did Vince Young Quit On The Titans?” The story got even weirder the following night, when Fisher called Nashville police and told them he was worried about his star quarterback, reporting that Young had mentioned suicide to the team’s therapist; she believed he had a gun. Young was later located at a friend’s house, watching Monday Night Football and eating chicken wings. Young then drove to Titans headquarters, where he was met by crisis negotiators and members of a SWAT team. An unloaded gun, legal in Tennessee, was found in his glove box.
“There was never nothing about no suicide,” Young recently told ESPN’s First Take. “I just wanted to get out of the house and relax and get away from everybody.” Despite the lack of any evidence other than the team therapist’s account, the idea that the young quarterback was emotionally if not mentally unstable stuck.
After that 2008 opener, Young spent the rest of the season on the bench, freshly stigmatized as a quitter with depression issues. He returned to the lineup midway through the 2009 season after his replacement, Kerry Collins, had led the team to a 0-6 record. Young helped the Titans end the season with a respectable 8-8 record, marking the first time in NFL history that a team starting 0-6 went on to win more than six games in the same season.
Even so, it was clear that the team had given up on the quarterback: Owner Bud Adams announced at the end of the 2010 season that the Titans would try to trade Young, and after takers failed to materialize, he was released to free agency. He signed a one-year contract with the Philadelphia Eagles to back up starter Michael Vick and played off the bench in three games. At the end of the 2011 season, Philadelphia declined to renew his contract, and Young suddenly found himself not just unemployed but virtually unemployable. He spent a few months in training camp with the quarterback-hungry Buffalo Bills before being released, and whiled away the 2012 season suggesting via Twitter that teams without an established starter should give him a call. All of this despite a 31-19 record as an NFL quarterback—a better percentage than 21 of the 32 starting quarterbacks currently in the league.
By the spring of 2013, Young had been out of the NFL for an entire season. He was back living in Austin, finishing a bachelor’s degree in education at the University of Texas and trying to find football work. He’d taken the unprecedented step in March, seven years after he’d entered the league, of participating in drills at the Texas “Pro Day,” a public workout that players—typically pending graduates—perform for NFL scouts. By April he was wearing a suit on ESPN, explaining to First Take hosts Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith why he deserved a second chance.
“Redemption” is a word we use a lot when we talk about sports. Type it into an Amazon search for sports books and you’ll get 63 results with “redemption” in the title. There seem to be few transgressions that we’re unwilling to absolve if they’re followed by triumphant feats of athletics.
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick spent three years in prison for running a dog-fighting ring, but his jersey started selling again only once he atoned by having a remarkable season on the field. In the eyes of many fans, former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis only really acquitted himself of a 2001 murder charge by winning the Super Bowl this past February. Nike generated controversy this year for an ad campaign featuring fallen-from-grace golfer Tiger Woods and the words “Winning Takes Care Of Everything.” CNN wrote of accused rapist Ben Roethlisberger’s “Road To Redemption” before the quarterback’s 2011 Super Bowl appearance—the implication being that he could achieve absolution for his alleged sins if he could just hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
But to have a chance at redemption, an athlete first has to have the opportunity to play. When Vince Young talked to ESPN’s Bayless and Smith on the morning of April 3, he had to explain why he believed he deserves that opportunity.
Young is a vision of professionalism in the video. He wears a muted gray suit, a white shirt and a light-blue tie. His head is clean-shaven, unadorned by his famous skullcaps, and his facial hair is faint and restrained. He looks like someone who emerged directly from a publicist’s office to the ESPN soundstage, which is probably exactly what happened.
Young talked to ESPN about his family—he’s married now, and a father—and the mentors who guided him to a new state of maturity. He rarely made excuses for his past behavior, and when he did, he downplayed the incidents as products of a sensationalistic media, not actual conflicts with Fisher or anyone else. He displayed humility in the face of polite but pointed questions about his relationship with Fisher and about what everyone seems to have agreed to describe as his past “immaturity.”
“I blame myself some of the time, for stepping on coach’s toes, and things like that, and not listening to my coach, and [not] listening to the details of what he was trying to tell me,” Young said in response to a question about his relationship with Fisher, before invoking the word “professionalism” like a shibboleth, to prove to any tuned-in NFL general managers that it’s in his vocabulary now. The interview was a performance intended to demonstrate the distance between the emotionally and mentally “immature” Young of the past and the humble, self-aware player he’s ready to become for any NFL team willing to give him the chance.
Vick, Roethlisberger, Lewis and others had the chance to redeem their off-field failings through on-field excellence. But there are other athletes, like Young, for whom the road to redemption is bumpier. These are athletes whose sins are not off-field transgressions, but failures of performance, players who find fans, coaches and the media reluctant to give them another chance. Fans can forgive even rape charges if the alleged rapist puts up strong-enough stats, but a label like “quitter” can haunt a player his entire career. Letting down fans and teammates on the field is grounds for excommunication, and only the most exceptional athletes can overcome that stigma.
Is redemption tied to how one falls from grace? How does an athlete who is perceived to have failed his team redeem himself in their eyes?
To answer a question like that, you have to look to an athlete whose extraordinary talent and character earned him a second chance with fans who’d once burned his jersey in effigy. You’d have to look at Ricky Williams.
It’s a bright, mild February afternoon, and Ricky Williams is waiting in front of a nondescript office building in northwest Austin. He’s tapping his smart phone as we approach, and after a quick introduction he leads us inside and through a maze of neutral-toned hallways. He says hello to everyone we pass, offering hugs and handshakes to the people who work in neighboring offices.
Three weeks earlier, Williams’ former team, the Baltimore Ravens, had beaten the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl. Williams had retired almost exactly a year prior. Instead of standing in the middle of the field with triumphant former teammates Ray Lewis and Joe Flacco, Williams was on assignment for ESPN Magazine, watching from the sidelines as the team gathered around the Lombardi Trophy. Williams didn’t seem to mind watching the celebration from the outside. “I knew the Ravens were going to win the Super Bowl,” he says, “and it actually made it easier for me to retire.”
Leaning back in his office chair behind a desk, dressed in a plain black athletic T-shirt and burnt-orange track pants, Williams recalls receiving a text message from Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells just days after the Ravens lost the 2012 AFC Championship. Parcells had been the vice president of football operations for the Miami Dolphins when Williams—whose career, like Young’s, was marked by fitful NFL stops and starts after a much-heralded debut—returned to the league in 2007 following his first, short-lived retirement. Williams had texted Parcells that he was “fired up for next year. We got so close, we’re going to win next year.” Parcells’ reply was short, but influential: “Don’t chase this thing too long. You can make a difference in other ways.” Having visualized the Ravens winning the Super Bowl, Williams says, “I had the feeling of what that would be like. And so the need to go and actually experience it, it wasn’t there anymore.”
But what if he had been a member of that Super Bowl-winning team? What if he, like the Ravens’ Ray Lewis and so many others, had been born again in the redemptive baptism of athletic glory? Would that victory have erased the stigma that Ricky Williams’ name still carries?
Ricky Williams entered the league in 1999 after a record-breaking final year of college football at the University of Texas. He was the top rusher in college football that season with over 2,100 yards, and he broke the NCAA career rushing record. (“Old white men came up to me and said, ‘I was there when you broke the record and I cried,’” he laughs.) He was an All-American and AP’s College Player of the Year. Over his college career, he won the Doak Walker Award twice (presented by Southern Methodist University to the NCAA’s top running back), the Jim Brown Trophy twice (presented by the Touchdown Club of Columbus to the nation’s premier rusher), the Walter Camp Award (given to the college football player of the year by an assembly of NCAA Division I head coaches), the Maxwell Award (presented to the college player of the year by sportscasters and sportswriters), and the granddaddy of them all, the Heisman Trophy. He was drafted fifth overall by the New Orleans Saints after Saints coach Mike Ditka gave up an unprecedented eight future draft picks to secure him. On the cover of ESPN Magazine, Ditka posed in a groom’s tux, while the dreadlocked and tattooed Ricky Williams sported a floor-length wedding dress.
Williams’ initial tenure in the NFL was an up-and-down affair. He hired rapper Master P’s nascent No Limit Sports as his management agency, and No Limit negotiated a contract that was widely ridiculed for its unlikely-to-be-met escalators, bonuses determined by on-field achievements. He missed 10 games over his first two seasons due to injury. Williams was traded to the Miami Dolphins in 2002 and had a career-best year, running for a staggering 1,853 yards and 16 touchdowns, earning accolades as Pro Bowl MVP and NFL rushing leader. After a second successful year in Miami, he abruptly retired just before the start of the 2004 season, after it came to light that he’d tested positive for marijuana for the third time in his career, and was facing a hefty fine and a four-game suspension.
Williams’ name would be tied to marijuana for the rest of his career. The perception was that, presented with a choice between football and drugs, Williams chose drugs. (He’s said that he smoked marijuana as “some kind of psychotherapy” and a way to “deal with my imperfections,” and early in his career he had worn his helmet during interviews, the tinted plastic screen over his eyes securely in place. He was known as a loner in the locker room and in his neighborhood. Eventually he was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder.)
During his initial retirement, Williams fled to Australia, shaved his dreads and grew a beard. Dolphins fans fed his jerseys through wood chippers or wore them to games with his name covered by duct tape. He hired filmmaker Sean Pamphilon to direct a documentary about his life, Run Ricky Run, which was eventually distributed by ESPN as part of its 30 For 30 series. In 2004, as the Dolphins sued Williams for $8.6 million for breach of contract, he was still searching for something to do with his life. While in Australia, Williams believed he’d found it: He would return to the U.S. and study Indian medicine. “I found this small Ayurveda college in northern California…” Williams says. “Two weeks later I was in school.”
Despite his newly discovered passion for alternative medicine, Williams returned to the Dolphins in 2005, serving out his four-game suspension on the bench behind starter Ronnie Brown. Asked now why he chose to return, he says he doesn’t like to answer “why” questions, because they force him to look back instead of moving forward. “It’s like when I say, when you go to the bathroom, do you examine your crap or do you just flush it. You just flush it, right?” In 2006 he failed another drug test and was suspended for the remainder of the season. He became a yogi, and a member of the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts.
Williams returned to the NFL in 2009, at the age of 32, which is practically ancient for an NFL running back. He played four full seasons before his second retirement—three in Miami, and the final one in Baltimore—averaging an impressive 4.3 yards per carry.
One of the most telling scenes in Run Ricky Run juxtaposes clips of a female Dolphins fan in 2004, after Williams’ first retirement, and in 2009, at the height of his triumphant return. In the 2004 clip she says angrily, “He’s a terrible guy. He should rot in hell.” Wearing a bright orange #34 Ricky Williams jersey in 2009, she laughs at what she’d said five years earlier and tells the camera, “Through all that, I kept this jersey. And now people who aren’t wearing this jersey are on the outside.”
Looking back on his rollercoaster career now, Williams says he believes that the turmoil, if anything, brought him closer to his fans. “To me, it actually creates a tighter bond when there is something that happens where people get mad and then they kind of forgive you and then you come back.” When the athlete on the pedestal falls to earth, Williams says, “there’s more [of] a connection. And so when they get back on the pedestal, it’s not the same thing.”
Williams is thoughtful about these themes. American society, he points out, is “based on a Judeo-Christian philosophy, which is all about redemption. … We are born into sin” thanks to Adam and Eve’s fall, and “the only way we can be happy is a redemptive process.” For Williams, this is a baffling way to live.
“You have to make yourself wrong before you can be right. It doesn’t make sense.”
Ricky Williams’ redemption narrative remains unfinished. Fans wore his jersey again in 2009, but if you tell someone who’s followed his career that you’ve just left his office after an interview, it’s likely that the first question you’ll be asked is, “Was he high?” Suspicions die hard, and the word “quitter” appears like clockwork in Internet comment threads following stories that mention his name. But Williams’ redemption song offers a lot more closure than Vince Young’s.
Young may never play another NFL game. Even if he does, there will be columns of his NFL record that show no statistics. Like Williams, his struggle will forever be punctuated by blanks. And one need look no further than Ricky Williams’ story to see that the way we talk about Vince Young will be marked by words like “quitter,” at least as long as his finger remains unadorned by a Super Bowl ring.
As of press time, no team has signed Young (Note: Shortly after this story went to press, Vince Young signed a one-year contract with the Green Bay Packers that will see him compete for a roster spot through the pre-season). It’s not unlikely that a team might pick him up for training camp, though at this point the odds are against his being given an opportunity to compete for anything more than a third-string job. If it happens—or if it doesn’t—fans may finally find some answers to the question of who we choose to offer a chance at redemption, who we don’t, and why.