Lawrence Jackson remembers what it looked like to see Vince Young on film.
“He looked like he was floating,” the former USC defensive end said. He looked invincible.
Young didn’t feel invincible.
“I wasn't invincible at all,” he said.
USC running back LenDale White remembers the person Young reminded him of from the sideline.
“Superman,” White said.
Young didn’t feel like Superman.
“Instead of us thinking that we were superheroes ... we came together as a team,” Young said.
Players on both sides of the 2006 Rose Bowl, which was the national championship game, above all remember how calm Young seemed, rapping in the locker room, chatting with the marching band, cracking jokes in the huddle.
Young said he didn’t feel calm. Before the biggest play in the game of a lifetime, Young wasn’t thinking about scrambling to the right pylon. He wasn’t thinking about the call, a play named Menu 2. He was trying not to shake. He was thinking only: Don’t drop the snap.
“I was nervous the whole game,” he said.
“But,” Young added, “I play better when I'm nervous.”
To this day, people still stop Vince Young on the street. They want to be near him. Young was the NFL’s rookie of the year and went to two Pro Bowls in a six-year pro career, but they talk only about one game.
The table was set for Young’s for-the-ages performance weeks before, at the Heisman Trophy presentation in New York. USC stars Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush were other finalists, and Leinart remembers the atmosphere being a little tense. The ceremony, Leinart said, always carries a weird vibe. There are lots of nerves. The two USC players’ interaction with Young is recalled as cordial but brief.
When Bush won and Young did not, Young cried. “Yeah, I was a little upset because I wanted to bring it back home with Ricky [Williams] and Earl Campbell,” Young said.
From New York, Young called a few teammates.
"Get the boys ready," he told All-America defensive end Rodrique Wright.
"We're not losing," he told safety Michael Huff.
Young was motivated by the snub. Wright remembers being a little happy when Young lost because he knew Young would be angry.
But Young and Texas didn’t really need much more motivation. The Longhorns had been focused all season. During the offseason, if a player missed a “voluntary” workout, teammates would delay practice until the player could be found. Then everyone would punish themselves with a grueling workout. With one exception: the offending player. He would have to watch his teammates suffer.
Later, during the season, the team settled disputes in what they called “The Storm”: Lock the locker room, strap boxing gloves on the parties involved, and have it out.
Whether the Heisman snub provided an extra boost is open to debate. Young could have binged on ESPN leading up to the game, taking in coverage that was mainly concerned with whether USC was the best team of all time, to grow his thirst for revenge. He did not.
“All week long, me and Vince were roommates, and all we did was watch cartoons,” running back Selvin Young said. “We didn't even look at ESPN.”
The two Youngs watched a marathon of classics: Tom and Jerry, Looney Tunes and Goof Troop.
During the game, Vince Young looked as if he were playing a game of two-hand touch. Actor Matthew McConaughey, a huge Texas fan, has noted often that Young made funny faces at him in the locker room. And when the marching band played a new song before the game, Young walked by to chat and offer a compliment.
After one unremarkable early run, USC’s Jackson came face to face with Young for the first time. Jackson tried to talk smack.
“He turned around and said, ‘Hey, cool daddy, it's just a game,’” Jackson recalled. “And he tapped me on the butt. He had this glow to him when he talked.”
Selvin Young (no relation to Vince) said it was probably a front. The quarterback, he said, often dealt with nerves by deflecting. He’d challenge a teammate or just act excessively silly.
Vince Young rushed for 200 yards, passed for 267 and accounted for three touchdowns against the Trojans. In the days and weeks after, he appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno and partied at the MGM Grand with Derek Jeter and Tiger Woods.
But the evening of the Rose Bowl ended for him as if he were a Little Leaguer after a night game. Young did not hit the town. He was famished. So he and his mentor, NFL quarterback Steve McNair, went to get some food. They went to Roscoe’s. The night he tasted immortality ended with him tasting chicken and waffles.
Few people got to see these quiet moments. One image from that night has stuck with Selvin Young.
Back at the team hotel, someone had ordered a limo. Some players were going club hopping. Selvin Young and a friend made a pact: They’d spend five minutes at each club, dance with a different girl. But first, they were waiting for Vince.
“He's trying to come, but he just can't,” Selvin Young said.
Vince Young made it out of his hotel room, then fell on his face. His leg cramped up. His neck did too. His back seized. He was completely spent. He cried out for someone to bring him pickle juice. Young’s mother tried to massage the knots. McNair stretched him out.
“I left him right there on the floor, and went and jumped in a limo and went and partied,” Selvin Young said.
Vince Young remembers just being very tired. He crawled into bed, closed his eyes and began the rest of his life.
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand