If Dad Were Around...

Why black athletes need fathers more than coaches.

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While growing up in Houston, Vince Young endured some trials and took some perilous detours on his way to stardom and riches. His mother had her bouts with drug addiction. His Pops was absent, mostly in jail. The streets were calling.  His talent saved him from the statistics.  He surfaced as a college football star and Pro Bowl rookie quarterback. Mystique dripped off the dude's chin-strap.  Young is barely 25, a transcendent talent, with bulging pockets and semi-iconic fame. But this same dude recently contemplated retirement and exhibited suicidal behavior.  Something personal is at work, and you can't help but think, "Man, Vince really needs a father." 

His mother, Felicia, asked us to "pray" for her "baby boy," after the broken and dejected athlete disappeared in his car with a gun earlier this month, and police were called to find him. It has all been painful to watch. Vince's mixture of skill, jocularity and lack of pretense enthralled me as a fan and journalist.  His 2006 Rose Bowl performance against USC was the preeminent college football performance of his generation. I dug the fact that he was a dude who would do the "chicken-head" for a touchdown celebration.  And his "can't nobody tell me nothing" line, smirked at the end of a 2007 60 Minutes profile, was as innocent as it was cavalier. Now his cocksure façade is starting to crumble.

And we've seen it before. Six years ago, Randy Moss (a Minnesota Viking at the time) got into a legal dust-up with a traffic cop. When he got out of the clink, Mike Tice set it on him.  An excerpt from a Sports Illustrated article painted this scene: "Moss said he was angry that Tice never asked how he was doing when he showed up after being released from jail. 'All you did was yell at me,' Moss said to Tice. 'All I wanted was a hug, and you wouldn't even hug me.'  This man doesn't need a coach, Tice thought, starting to get misty-eyed himself. He needs a father. Also in that meeting Tice told Moss, "You will never live a normal life."

Almost two out of three black children grow up in single-parent homes, usually helmed by do-it-all moms.  The NFL and NBA are predominantly black leagues, meaning that the world of professional sports cuts a very real, stark, microcosmic image of how the absentee-father dynamic plays out.  It's exacerbated by the inevitably complex and confrontational lives led by these young, rich, highly scrutinized men. Fathers—good ones—are more than mentors or advisors or big-brother types.

Suggesting that these young athletes would benefit from having a present and active father since childhood is not to say that they'd never make bad decisions or have bouts of rogue behavior. And it is definitely not to indict their mothers and the yeoman effort they've put in. But let's be real: Terrell Owens could use a Pops.

"If the mothers are truthful, they'll tell you, too. They'll say 'We've done the best we could to get them to become adults; but there's no way we can get them to be men." That's what Sam McNabb told me.  Yeah, that McNabb—Donovan's dad.

The presence of McNabb's dad is evident in how he's handled his career. Scrutiny and controversy have dogged him for years. Rush Limbaugh tagged him as a race darling, Terrell Owens gets on television every other week tacitly reproaching his character, an NAACP columnist derided him for becoming a pocket-passer, his HBO Real Sports comments about the pressure on black quarterbacks drew a disproportionate amount of ire. He's faced career-challenging injuries, and he plays in Philly.  Yet my man Donovan always seems poised.  He exhibits a steel and resolve akin to politicians, prepped by handlers.  His handler is his Pops.

When Donovan has a problem, Sam McNabb told me, "We'll talk about it as men, man-to-man."  There is absolutely no substitute for that relationship.  Pops McNabb spoke quite eloquently about the different stages of parenting.  There's the intimidation stage during the childhood years, when a parent uses the fear of consequences as the main tool.  The activation stage comes during adolescence, when parents try to motivate children through words and reason. 

"But when your boy becomes a man," he said. "You move into the counseling stage."  That's when every young man needs that strong, wholesome advice on how to navigate life which is full of vices and pitfalls, adversity and disappointment.


Roland Warren refers to some of the behaviors we see in some athletes as "muted manhood"—the fragility under pressure, the problems submitting to male authority, the cartoonish desire for attention.

Warren is a husband, a father and the president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, an organization whose mission is to combat father absence and promote responsible fatherhood. The NFI has established relationships with both the NFL and NBA (Hall of Famer Mike Haynes and former Pro Bowler Mark Brunell sit on the NFI board). Warren says athletes are fine when things are going well, but the muted manhood can cripple them during times of trial.

"Fathers, harking on experience, play a unique role in modeling and communicating to their sons the responsibilities that come with manhood, but also how to frame failure and loss," he said.

When I see YouTube clips of Stephon Marbury doing dove dances on a local NYC news station or "Ocho Cinco" Chad Johnson, No. 85 of the Cincinnati Bengals,  making random, emotional appearances on SportsCenter or LeBron telling his mother to "sit your a$$ down" or Terrell Owens standing behind his agent Drew Rosenhaus like a dependent puppy or a young Allen Iverson bristle under his coaches; I wonder if they would look less rudderless, had they had an established paternal hand, ushering them through or past these situations.

Vince will likely pull through.  But whatever hurt he's dealing with remains. In that 60 Minutes profile he said he loved his father, "but I don't like what he did."

Those pained words indicate the void that absent fathers leave. There's a difficult road ahead for Vince. He's gimpy and benched, indefinitely, in favor of the marginal and tenured Kerry Collins. He's also the object of cynics, skeptical of his ability to man-up. Every young man operating under these conditions could use the support, wisdom and example of a father. Vince is no different.

Vincent Thomas is a columnist and feature writer for SLAM Magazine.  He is also a frequent commentator on ESPN.

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