AUSTIN, Texas -- Vince Young produced arguably the greatest performance in the history of college football on its biggest stage when he carried Texas to the BCS title in the 2006 Rose Bowl. But as spectacular as Young was in Pasadena against top-ranked USC, that day still won't feel quite as special as Friday morning when he is awarded his college degree from UT in the school's graduation ceremonies on campus.
"This will rank No. 1 because it is what I came to school for," Young told CBSSports.com Thursday after his workout session in the Longhorns weight room. "I came here to get an education, and to win a national championship. And now, I get to put that smile on my mom's face."
Young wouldn't even try to put a number on the amount of family and friends he'll have cheering him on Friday as he gets his degree in Youth and Community Studies. Among the family members Young rattled off on his list he expected to attend Friday's ceremony included his dad, who really never had been in the player's life before. Many folks who are close to Young and have gotten to know his family well over the years say they've never met the man before.
"It's gonna be pretty packed, I just know that," Young said smiling.
Young's name has been in the news a lot since he left UT for the NFL as the third overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, mostly linked to negative stories.
His NFL career got off to a good start: As a rookie for the Tennessee Titans, he won Offensive Rookie of the Year honors and even made the Pro Bowl, but then it seemed to be one shaky decision after another, many linked to a string of bad financial moves and off-field incidents. He was released by the Titans in 2010 and had subsequent short stints with the Eagles and Bills before being waived last August by Buffalo.
A bright NFL career fizzled and now is on life support. But back in Austin this year, Young's life appears to have settled. He is part-owner in an upscale steakhouse (Vince Young Steakhouse). He's married to his high school sweetheart, and the couple have a precocious 2-year-old son, Jordan. Young also took a full course load toward earning his degree while getting himself in shape, hoping an NFL team will call.
"I've been doing this 31 years and guys (who leave college without their degrees) always say they'll come back, but he had more of a plan," said Brian Davis, UT's associate athletics director for Academic Services. "He said, 'My mom and I talked. This is important to me. This is important to her. I need to finish this part of my life sooner than later if we can.' And he did finish his semester like he was coming back. You have guys that (when they're done playing college football) who just kind of mail it in. Guys that finish strong when they don't have to is an indication that they are very likely to return.
"I couldn't be more proud of him."
Young said he expects to shed more than a few tears Friday knowing the path he and his family have taken to get to this day in Austin.
"I'm about to be the first in my family to graduate," he said. "Just finishing what I started. That's why I'm trying to get back in the NFL. To finish what I started. That is the type of guy I am. I do work hard -- even when the times are good or bad. That's just how I was raised.
"My mom used to be strung out on drugs. The one thing she used to always be able to do, was be in the house to go to work the next morning. I don't know how she got up after she was doing the things she was doing, but she used to be right there making sure we were getting ready for school and she was going to work. I saw that.
"I tell her to this day, 'Ma, you're a strong woman.' She was coming in after being out all night and then she'd pick up my grandma after she did a graveyard shift, where she'd go in at 11 p.m. and be done at 7 a.m. And when (my mom) got cleaned up, that was something I always saw in my mom and my grandmother was that strength to take care of the family and do whatever they had to do. Just finish what you started. That's where I got my fire and my push and to be happy what life gives you."
When Young left for the NFL in 2006, he said he was around 30-plus credit hours short of his degree. Early on in his career with the Titans, Young came back to Austin in the off-season for a full semester of classes. And even that took a controversial twist, Davis recalled.
"I remember watching ESPN and hearing one of the guys sitting there criticizing Vince for being in school," Davis said. "He was saying that (Young) needs to be in Tennessee and getting his guys together doing off-season stuff. And I'm watching this, thinking, 'What a horrible message to everyone.' What (the commentator) didn't know was that we crafted a full-class schedule for Vince where he didn't have a class until Monday at night and he didn't have class on Fridays. He was flying back to Tennessee on Thursday night, working out with the guys all weekend, and then flying back Monday afternoon so he could be with the guys while also being a full-time student. Many guys are held hostage by their contracts that they have to stay with the team in the off-season and so they can never finish."
For many former college stars returning to campus and attending classes with kids a decade younger can be a humbling experience. Some of Young's former UT teammates, who came back to get their degrees, like (former starting defensive tackle) Rod Wright, acknowledge how trying those first few weeks can be. And none of them are as recognizable as Young or have so many stories attached to them -- good and bad -- like the old QB does. Heck, go into any restaurant or bar in Austin these days and there's a pretty good chance that if there's a picture of a Longhorn football player on the wall, it's Young in his No. 10 UT jersey.
That first semester when Young returned to school as a student, the attention for the former All-American quarterback was overwhelming, Davis said.
"When he got to class, everybody wanted his attention," he said. "Girls wanted pictures taken with him. Guys wanted autographs. So he basically announced to his psychology class, 'Look, I'll take pictures and sign whatever you want in the hallway or outside after the class, but this is the professor's class and we're gonna honor that and be students here and not interrupt.' He's always understood that part of it.
"Some of the recent public criticism -- and maybe it's not so recent -- that's been out there probably has required him to have a little more courage, and there's probably some humility that comes with that. But to me, that's the kind of guy he's always been. It's not that he's arrogant or cocky. He just has the confidence in what he can do."
Young said he was approaching graduation day like a gameday especially since he'll have so many people in the stands rooting for him. His plan on Friday: Be at the Longhorns football complex by 8 a.m. to get in a cardio workout before all of his family arrives to witness him graduate from the school he first enrolled in back in 2002. And, if this all isn't enough to make someone get reflective, on Saturday, Vince Young will turn 30.
"It's definitely been a learning experience," Young said. "I've learned, 'Don't let things distract you or define who you are -- even if you do make a mistake.' I'm one of those guys who kept pushing and pushing and pushing. Even if I'm not playing football, I wasn't going to let those mistakes that I did make, define me as a person. I'm 30 now with a wife and family. I'm in a whole other stage in my life now."