Friday, May 31, 2013

Rebel Without A Clue

As sports towns go; Detroit is no place for a diva. The city and it's surrounding areas are anything but glamorous and frankly that's just fine with the people who live there. A generation's worth of "wasteland" jokes at the city's expense have bred a strange combination of humility and ferocity into the regional psyche. Growing up in Detroit automatically grants you a graduate degree from the school of hard knocks and a lifelong understanding that it's not what you say, but what you do that really counts in life. This attitude is never more apparent than it is in how we choose our sporting heroes. To truly win our love an athlete has to exhibit a sort of quiet dominance; he must be both the best player and the best person in the game at the same time. In this way we cheer for the talent of a Sergei Federov but we save our worship for the dedication and leadership of a Steve Yzerman. This isn't just a hockey thing either; the Detroit Tigers current "big 3" of Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder are loved here as much for their (now) low-key personalities as their otherworldly talent.

This is a harsh standard that few athletes can measure up to but the bar is never higher around here than it is for a member of the Detroit Lions. The standard for excellence in honolulu blue is set by none other than the ultimate anti-diva: Barry Sanders. For 10 glorious seasons Sanders was the most dangerous offensive player in the NFL and the only reason the Lions were relevant at all. No matter the down or distance Sanders was always a threat to score; often with a mesmerizing series of spins, jukes and superhuman dekes that would ruin the body of mere mortals. It wasn't just Sanders' all world talent that endeared him to Lions fans however; he was our hero because of his work ethic, relentless determination and respectful if not outright humble personality. Barry Sanders worshiped at the church of football and he left the task of building the church of Barry Sanders to the fans and media. Ask any Lions fan why he loves Sanders and I guarantee that before long he'll mention Barry's ritual of quietly handing the ball to the referee in lieu of a touchdown celebration as a key selling point. It's not enough to dominate, when you represent the 313 area code, you're expected to act like you've been there before; even if you haven't. This is why Calvin Johnson will go down as a legend in Detroit sports even if he never catches another pass for the Lions; we see some of Sanders in Megatron but more to the point we see some of "Detroit" in him and it makes us whole. This town has neither time nor love for a selfish, "look at me" type of athlete and so it's really not surprising that Titus Young's career as a Lion was an unmitigated disaster.

Young's NFL career began with much fanfare and the promise of greater things to come. To this day, Titus has the kind of deep speed that keeps defensive backs awake at night; he's not "track fast" so much as quick, explosive and tremendously gifted in the art of gaining separation from defenders. He can also change directions on a dime, exhibits exceptional hand-eye coordination and enough leaping ability to come down with the ball against taller athletes. In his senior season at Boise State, Young caught 71 passes for 1215 yards, 9 touchdowns and an eye-popping 17.1 yards per catch. He also flashed his versatility in the Broncos gimmick-a-minute offense with 14 rushing attempts for 94 yards and an additional touchdown for good measure. Of course Young was a bit of a smurf at 5'11" and a mere 174 lbs but he was also tremendously tough; in 4 years with the Broncos he never missed a game due to injury. Titus did however miss some games; 10 of them to be exact when he violated team rules and was suspended by coach Chris Peterson for much of the 2008 season. At the time the public story was that the violation involved a minor (presumably Young) in possession of alcohol but the truth was considerably more disturbing. Young had apparently arrived back on campus in 2008 with a major attitude problem and when he began missing team meetings, cutting classes and didn't appear to know the playbook Peterson brought the hammer down hard. Things got so bad that at one point the coach even suggested to Titus that a quick transfer to a new school and a fresh start for all parties involved might not be a terrible idea. Naturally, little of this was public knowledge heading into the draft but the information would have been available to NFL scouts who are paid to dig up exactly these types of stories.

If the real reason why Titus was suspended in 2008 bothered NFL scouts they made little effort to show it. By most accounts Young had been humbled by the experience and become a model football player in the two years since. Of more concern seemed to be Young's goofy personality and tendency to draw attention to himself with excessive touchdown celebrations. The term "character questions" came up in every public scouting report but nobody bothered to mention that he was considered "uncoachable" at Boise State until his Jr season.  In retrospect these were early warning signs that Titus Young would not survive in a town like Detroit. At the time however, most scouting reports chose to focus on his athletic gifts and tremendous confidence despite whispers that Young was notably self-absorbed. The fact that he had an exceptional Senior Bowl and Pro Day certainly didn't hurt either. So it came to pass that the Detroit Lions drafted Titus Young in the 2nd round of the 2011 NFL draft with the 44th overall pick to generally positive reviews from both their fans and the media. As hard as this may be to believe now, I don't recall anyone crucifying the Lions for selecting Young over Randall Cobb on that day either.

For a while, the Titus Young experience worked out all right in Detroit; he caught 48 passes for 607 yards with 6 touchdowns in his rookie season and eventually supplanted Nate Burleson as the number 2 option behind Calvin Johnson in the Lions passing game. Even then however, there were more whispers that painted an entirely different picture. Young was lazy they said, he didn't work hard enough in practice they said. The whispers spoke of a player who lost interest when he wasn't in the game and sometimes just when he wasn't the primary target for a given play. Of course nobody could accuse Dominic Raiola of whispering when he very publicly screamed at Titus to "grow the fuck up" in the Detroit locker room after a loss to the New Orleans Saints. The team-captain and noted curmudgeon was upset because Young had just taken a 15 yard misconduct penalty while the desperate Lions were on the 2 yard line. More importantly the penalty was both stupid and selfish; Young punched a Saints player in full view of the refs for reasons that were never entirely made clear. After the game Young offered the first of many revealing apologies to Lions fans by saying "I kind of let my emotions get the best of me. I really wasn’t thinking of anything but myself at that time." In hindsight it could be said that Titus was damned by his own words but at the time the incident was largely ignored in the face of Young's clearly burgeoning talent. In the words of Tomy Petty; the future was wide open. The only problem was that Titus Young would turn out to be a rebel without a clue.

What happened next should have spelled the end for Young's career as a Lion. In May of 2012, Young sucker punched team leader and starting strong safety Louis Delmas during off-season workouts at Allen Park. In retrospect this incident was notable for a number of reasons, none of which are particularly flattering to Young or the Lions organization. For starters it called into question Young's decision making process on a fundamental level. Inter-squad scuffles are not unheard of during training camp scrimmages but who attacks a teammate in non-contact offseason drills? Additionally the nature of the assault revealed blemishes in Young's character; apparently he and Delmas were arguing just prior but Young waited until Delmas was no longer looking to unleash his assault. In a blue collar town like Detroit these were seen as the actions of a "punk" and a "coward"; it didn't help that Delmas had already endeared himself to the Detroit faithful by exhibiting the qualities of toughness, leadership and worth ethic that we so admire. Finally the incident revealed an uncomfortable truth about the Detroit Lions when they responded not by cutting, trading or suspending Young but by "withholding" him from voluntary workouts for an entire week. The message was clear; Barry Sanders doesn't live here anymore and talent trumps character in the New Lion Order.

In light of the Lion's sudden shift to the dark side, perhaps the team's crash from playoff participant to 4-12 train wreck was entirely predictable. While some of the slide can be blamed on injuries and a more difficult schedule, the 2012 Lions were also plagued by disciple problems, morale issues and a circus like atmosphere that certainly didn't help. At the center of the storm was once again Titus Young, now calling himself Sr after the birth of his son Titus Young Jr in the offseason.  Rather than realizing his enormous potential, Young regressed mightily in his second season. In the first 5 games of 2012 Young's contributions were almost non-existent and his frustration with his role in the offense was readily apparent in his body language on the field. He rebounded in week 7 with a decent effort against the Bears before having one of his finest games as a pro against Seattle on October 28th. Young literally caught everything Stafford threw at him with 9 catches on 9 Targets for 100 yards and 2 touchdowns in one of the Lions few feel good wins of the 2012 season. For one singular moment the Lions illogical, unrelenting faith in Titus Young appeared justified; and then, in the blink of an eye Titus Young was literally gone.

On November 22nd, 2012 the Lions benched Titus Young for gross insubordination after it was revealed that Young had purposely lined up in the wrong spot and run the wrong routes on multiple plays in the previous week's loss to the Packers. As if that wasn't strange enough Young apparently did so because he felt he was a better primary option in the Lions offense than Calvin Johnson; who was in the process of setting the NFL record for yards by a WR in a single season in 2012. Two indifferent weeks of practice and one of the strangest news conferences in NFL history later, Titus Young would be placed on injury reserve; he would never play another down of football for the Detroit Lions again. As the weeks went by details of Young's strained relationship with team-mates and coaches began to emerge, finally culminating in coach Jim Schwartz revealing that Young was scheduled for knee surgery "if he shows up". Around about this same time Young went on his now infamous series of disjointed Twitter posts where he:
  • Suggested that he wasn't selfish but that if he wasn't going to get the football he wouldn't play anymore
  • Declared that he had never run the wrong route, he just put himself where the ball was going to be
  • Refuted those who called hm greedy, saying he would play for a dollar while simultaneously suggesting he was a Hall of Fame level talent
  • Fought with Lions fans about his faith and his talents as a football player
  • Demanded that the Lions stop threatening to release him and simply do so.
On February 4th, 2013 and after a war of words that demeaned both Jim Schwartz and the entire Lion's organization, Young was granted his wish in the form of an unconditional release from his contract.

In the months since his release from the Lions the saga of Titus Young Sr has taken a number of unfortunate, almost tragic turns. He was a Saint Louis Ram for all of 9 days before Rams Coach Jeff Fisher figured out Young was a lost cause. There are conflicting reports on whether his release was the result of a failed physical or his poor attitude; Fisher merely stated "we felt Titus is better suited for another organization." After his second release in less than a month Young managed to fall off the radar until this past May, when a series of bizarre incidents in California returned him to national prominence. First there were reports that Young had been caught shoplifting bottled water, candy and cigars from a convenience store in Laguna Hills on May 4th. The very next day Titus was improbably arrested twice in the same 24 hour period; once for driving under the influence of alcohol and once for breaking into the police impound yard to retrieve his car in Riverside. May 8th brought the news that Young's ex-girlfriend Marjani Maldonado had filed a restraining order against him to protect herself and their son, Titus Young Jr. Apparently she found Young's declaration that "I understand why O.J. killed his wife" more than a little disconcerting. Finally on May 11, Titus was arrested while breaking into a home in San Clemente and scuffling with the police who arrested him during the incident. A few days later his father, Richard Young came forward to reveal that his son was suffering from an undisclosed mental illness; inadvertently revealing that Young is likely suffering from a bipolar disorder and/or schizophrenia based on a prescription for Seroquel. The story was confirmed on May 19th when Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch told reporters that Titus had shared paperwork concerning his diagnosis with him during a chance encounter on a flight to Detroit in late April.

Today, Titus Young sits in a California jail cell facing 11 charges including vandalism, burglary and assaulting a police officer. The judge in his case recently increase his bail from $25,000 to $50,000 dollars after a bizarre hearing in which Young refused to acknowledge the judge or his own father despite being spoken to directly by both men. His lawyer claimed it was Titus' right to remain silent while the judge said he "poses a danger to the community." Frankly it doesn't seem to matter what Young's bail is set at; right now his family is refusing to pay, feeling that Young is better off behind bars and receiving the mental care he clearly needs. In a classic example of covering it's backside, today the NFL revealed that the league reached out to Young as far back as 18 months ago but pulled away when Titus made it clear he didn't want their support. There are no winners in this story and the only hope for a happy ending lies in Titus eventually winning back his self control and piece of mind. The question of whether or not Young will ever play in the NFL again is now largely irrelevant.

Putting the human element aside however, the sad saga of Titus Young does bring up a number of uncomfortable questions about the Lions organization and general manager Martin Mayhew in particular. First and foremost one has to ask; why the Lions would draft a player who so obviously had no hope of thriving in the Detroit sports media market? From his days in high school Young had always be been loud, cocky and borderline self absorbed. He never made any bones about wanting to be the featured option in the passing game and his constant demands for the ball were never going to jibe with a Lion's offense built around Calvin Johnson. I find it highly unlikely that the Lions were completely unaware of Young's real problems in college and if they were that speaks more to general incompetence than some great conspiracy to hide the truth at Boise State. What exactly was the best case scenario when the Lions drafted Young? If Detroit is lucky he keeps his mouth shut for 4 years and then promptly jumps to another team that will make him a number 1 receiver. Even if you're prepared to concede that the Lions simply gambled on Young's immense talent and lost; you still have to ask why the Lions didn't cut bait after he sucker punched Delmas? More disturbingly; when presented with the evidence that the Lions had, how could they not realize that Titus Young was mentally ill and force him to get help? Shouldn't there be some kind of team psychologist looking after these kinds of things? Why would coach Jim Schwartz repeatedly spar with Young in the media and verbally berate a young man who was so clearly not in his right mind? Are the Lions clueless, callous or both?

Like most true stories, the one about the Lions drafting a crazy wide receiver who thought he was better than Calvin Johnson ends with more questions than answers. At the end of the day all I can tell you is that there's no crying in football and when it comes to the Lions, there's always plenty of blame to throw around.

- Sportsball Chic

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