Bryce Young is ready for his big moment: How his father guided him there

Alabama quarterback Bryce Young celebrates after defeating Auburn.
Alabama quarterback Bryce Young celebrates after helping the visiting Crimson Tide defeat Auburn on Nov. 27, 2021.
(Butch Dill / Associated Press)
Share

Craig Young’s flight to Indianapolis landed late Friday night. He and his wife, Julie, were freezing in single-digit temperatures on their way to the hotel, the start of a big weekend many years in the making, but he was still happy to take a call from Los Angeles to reflect about his son, Bryce.

“The thing about the pace, especially when playing at Alabama, you don’t really have a lot of time to sit back,” Craig said. “Probably when the season is over we’ll really digest everything that’s happened. But if you are in it, it’s happening in real time, and you go from moment to moment.”

Those moments included sitting in the stands at Texas A&M, watching Bryce lose his first game as the Crimson Tide’s starting quarterback, to taking in the Iron Bowl at Auburn, where Bryce willed Alabama to a comeback win in overtime, salvaging the season. From the triumphant Southeastern Conference championship scene in Atlanta to New York City, where Bryce hoisted the hallowed Heisman Trophy a week later. From Alabama’s victory over Cincinnati in the College Football Playoff semifinals to Monday’s national championship game rematch with Georgia.

When you see how easily Bryce has navigated it all as a 20-year-old sophomore, there’s a temptation to assume this charmed life was destined to be his. After all, he started for two seasons at national behemoth Santa Ana Mater Dei High and matriculated his way directly into the greatest college football dynasty of all time in Tuscaloosa.

Advertisement

Right now, as a new year of maneuvering begins across Southern California’s cutthroat world of grassroots football, there are undoubtedly parents who are looking for a checklist to create the next Bryce Young, hoping to simply fill in the boxes that will guarantee a meteoric rise for their family, too.

But, if they take the time to chart the actual path that Bryce took from Pasadena into college football lore, they will find there is no tidy blueprint to make the kind of magic inherent in the Rose City kid.

Craig Young used his intuition, drawn from his own football journey that never took off and a career as a mental health specialist, to straddle the line between invested and obsessed.

“Craig is very calculated and he moves with grace,” said Malik James, who coached Bryce in 7-on-7 at Premium Sports. “He’s not the typical quarterback dad. He’s mild-mannered. He pays attention but stays behind the scenes. He and his wife just kind of let their son do his thing. They don’t step on any toes.”

Alabama quarterback Bryce Young poses for a photograph with his parents after winning the Heisman Trophy on Dec. 11, 2021.
Alabama quarterback Bryce Young poses for a photograph with his parents after winning the Heisman Trophy on Dec. 11, 2021, in New York.
(John Minchillo / Associated Press)

Says Kevin Pearson, who coached Bryce his first two years of high school at L.A. Cathedral , “Quarterback dads are the kookiest, craziest type of dads in any sport. But Craig is just not that guy.”

Advertisement

Anyone who watched the Heisman ceremony or has listened to an Alabama broadcast this year knows Bryce’s inspirational story. He was doubted all his life, despite how clear it was that he had a natural feel as a quarterback and point guard, strictly due to his height.

While Upland’s DJ Uiagalelei was built like a linebacker and being bombarded with scholarship offers as an eighth-grader, Bryce had just one, from Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury.

Craig, a proud UCLA graduate, had to watch as Chip Kelly waited to offer Bryce because he projected as too short. But Pearson said Craig did not allow himself to get angry, and Bryce hardly even seemed to use it as motivation. They just stayed faithful that God had a plan for his gifts and never stopped working all the angles.

“You can still be involved and in control without being overbearing or without being a helicopter parent or being a jerk,” Craig said. “How did I do it? It’s a bunch of trial and error. It’s having an absolute belief in your son. It’s doing the research. I learned as much as I could about the position, the trajectory of the position, what it takes to be really good.

“But I also never completely gave my son to any of those guys, whoever we worked with. I was at every practice, every workout, in constant dialogue with them. But I was not in the way of them doing the technical work with Bryce. I always allowed coaches to coach. I was paying them for their expertise. My strengths were macro, devising the plan. But I’m not a quarterback coach.”

Craig and Pearson met when Bryce was in seventh grade, working with the Cathedral quarterback coach, Danny Hernandez. Pearson watched a little of Bryce’s tape from youth football and saw him workout in person and couldn’t believe the way the ball spun off his hand. Sure, he was small for his age, but he had the stuff that you look for — the stuff that couldn’t be taught.

Advertisement

Bryce Young dives into the end zone to score a touchdown for Mater Dei against rival St. John Bosco.
Bryce Young dives into the end zone to score a touchdown for Mater Dei against rival St. John Bosco.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

When he met Craig, he wanted him to understand something important about the years to come.

“Look, your son is special, and I know you know that,” Pearson recalled saying. “But a lot of people are going to want a piece of him and say they trained him and all that stuff. Don’t let people change his throwing mechanics, the way the ball comes off, to justify getting paid. Because naturally he has a beautiful stroke.”

Given Craig’s priorities, it’s no surprise that stuck with him and the Youngs decided Bryce would attend Cathedral for ninth grade.

That season, Pearson had a tricky situation. He had a three-year starter coming back at quarterback in Andrew Tovar, but it didn’t take him long to see that Bryce was the better player already as a freshman.

Pearson decided he would have Tovar start the game and Bryce would get the first series of the second quarter.

“I was loyal to the kid that was in the program, and Bryce’s family was good with it,” Pearson said. “They are not ‘me’ people. Bryce was never a ‘me, me, me’ guy, and he still isn’t. Most families would not have been good with that. They knew there was a process.”

Advertisement

By the end of his freshman season, Bryce was taking most of the meaningful fourth-quarter snaps. His ascent in the eyes of scouts truly began his sophomore year, when it became undeniable that he was about to become a force and maybe even challenge Uiagalelei’s status as the top quarterback in the 2020 class.

When Mater Dei star JT Daniels decided to enroll at USC a year early, the Youngs jumped at the opportunity — fortunately, with Pearson’s support — for Bryce to transfer and compete against Uiagalelei, who was starring at rival Bellflower St. John Bosco.

“I thought he was very talented, but I wasn’t sure,” said longtime quarterback guru Steve Clarkson. “I was still probably a little skeptical of how good he really was until he went to Mater Dei and won the national championship. What he represents is you don’t have to be the biggest kid. Be dedicated and love your craft, you can be successful. He has a lot of Steph Curry in him. His ability to create off script is off the charts.

Bryce Young led the Mater Dei Monarchs to a Southern Section Division 1 title and CIF Open Division state championship.
(Mark Boster / For the Times)

“Craig played this perfectly in terms of being a supportive dad and letting his son do what he needed to do in the best environments possible for his success.”

Craig did not hesitate when asked about the red flags he looked out for when evaluating potential influences on Bryce.

“Anyone who tried to make him into a robot or carbon copy of what the paradigm was for a quarterback,” he said. “Anybody who tried to make him like one of the QBs in their factory. I realized he had a very quick release, and some people wanted to change his release, make it longer, over the top, do some things that make him throw like everybody else.”

Advertisement

Today, there is nobody like Bryce Young, and those around Pasadena and L.A. who made the cut as Craig’s chosen mentors have gotten to stay along for the ride.

Malik James has been to three Alabama games this season, and last summer Bryce came to the opening of James’ new shoe store in Inglewood, Premium Kicks, as a show of support.

“That just shows you what kind of kid we’re dealing with,” James said.

In December, just days after winning the Heisman, Bryce showed up at Mike Teller’s gym, Secret Trainer Basketball in Pasadena, just to say hi and get some shots up with his middle-school basketball coach.

“He’s so humble, he just walks in, and the other players kind of freak out, but he doesn’t act like he’s big-time at all,” Teller said.

And Pearson, who offered Craig those first pearls of advice, got to be a part of Bryce’s posse at the Heisman ceremony in New York.

“He’s absolutely not swept up in it,” Pearson said. “He’s very uncomfortable when he gets accolades. His dad told him a long time ago that all of this is conditional, the fame and adulation. He’s never attached himself, who he is, to his success in football.”