The Manning camp, the Heisman House and Bryce Young’s star-filled, NIL-fueled offseason

  • Covers the SEC.
  • Joined ESPN in 2012.
  • Graduate of Auburn University.

Alabama quarterback Bryce Young sits courtside at Madison Square Garden to watch the New York Knicks host the Milwaukee Bucks. It’s less than 24 hours since Young won the 2021 Heisman Trophy and to the once-aspiring point guard, who still practices his handle and gets up shots in his free time, this feels like another dream come true. He could reach out and touch MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. He could turn to his left or right and see faces from the entertainment industry. There was Shay Mitchell and her 34.2 million Instagram followers. There was Spike Lee and Ben Stiller and Michael J. Fox. “The Garden was crazy,” Young recalls.

The game passed by like a blur — the Knicks lost, of course — and he left through a side entrance reserved for anyone sitting courtside. He was in awe, standing in a holding area filled with celebrities. One by one, their drivers would pull up and they’d head outside, the exit door swinging open, followed quickly by the flash of cameras and the buzz of excited fans.

Then a security guard said to sit tight as they brought out metal barricades.

“Are you ready to go?” the man asked. “We’ll have some guards around.”

“Uh,” Young said, unsure if the guard was talking to someone else. “What do you mean?”

That’s when it dawned on him — he was the only one left and the crowd was still waiting. He peeked outside and saw people holding posters with his face on it.

“It’s definitely one thing to have the love and support of the state of Alabama and the city of Tuscaloosa, just knowing how close the community can be,” he says. “But knowing that it stretches to somewhere different, a different part of the country, especially somewhere like New York, is so big. It was really a surreal moment for me.”

It turned out to be the first of many surreal moments as Young crisscrossed the country these past few months, rubbing shoulders with actors, directors and football players he grew up idolizing. And as the first Heisman winner to capitalize from name, image and likeness opportunities before leaving college, he did so while balancing school and family and a junior season that will determine whether he’s worthy of the No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL draft. He may get his first test Saturday when the Crimson Tide travel to Texas (Noon ET, Fox).

Young admits it all has the potential to be overwhelming. But he says there’s a hierarchy he keeps, and “football is first.” The Heisman might have amplified his fame, but it wasn’t a finish line. If anything, the trophy has become a symbol of what he says is a failed season after losing to Georgia in the College Football Playoff National Championship game.

Sometimes his dad, Craig, worries his son takes on too much. There’s so much pressure being Bryce Young — the face of college football and NIL and a serious contender to win back-to-back Heismans for the first time since Archie Griffin in 1975.

But then he reconsiders and shakes his head.

“Nah,” he says. “He’s built for it.”

ONE OF 1,350 campers at the Manning Passing Academy notices a familiar face buzz by on the Nicholls State campus in Louisiana one Friday morning in June. A high school freshman by the looks of the peach fuzz shading his upper lip, the wide-eyed teen turns to a friend and whispers, “That’s Bryce Young right there.”

It is, and he’s gone in a flash. It’s 9:06 a.m. and Young is running late — so late he’s literally running from the parking lot onto the grass field where camp has already begun. One of a select group of college counselors, he missed check-in and the first staff meeting yesterday because he had to stay behind for practice at Alabama. And after he and his dad drove all night to get here, he overslept and missed the second staff meeting by an hour and six minutes.

So he’s lost, too. It’s one of the only times in his college career when he’s appeared frazzled. But he never stops smiling, finds his station and dives in, talking campers through a drill designed to teach quarterbacks how to get the ball out quickly on a three-step drop. He spots a boy in an Alabama shirt and says, “That’s my guy. Now don’t miss one.”

Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Anthony Wright looks on from the sideline. His teenage son is here for camp and he’s surprised when a reporter points out Young. Wright watched both Alabama-Georgia games last season — the SEC championship and the CFP National Championship — and was impressed by Young’s arm strength, accuracy and decision-making. But he wasn’t sure it was actually him. “I thought he was taller,” he says.

Every 20 minutes or so, another group of campers cycles through and Young teaches the drill again. First, he shows them the by-the-book method: Drop back three steps, turn your feet, hips and shoulders toward your target, and fire. That’s how Peyton and Eli Manning would do it; they’re out here somewhere, along with dad Archie and brother Cooper. Then Young lets the campers in on a secret: When he knows he’s going to throw left across his body, he cheats his footwork, popping his left foot out on the third step and opening his chest and shoulders up early so he’s already facing his target and can get the ball out even quicker.

Later, he acknowledges, “This isn’t the cookie-cutter way.” He says he encourages kids, “Hey, give it a shot and if you do and say, ‘Wow, that doesn’t feel right,’ then maybe it’s not right for you. That’s completely fine.'”

If anyone knows how to follow your instinct, it’s him. He’s been a naturally gifted thrower since he was a toddler tossing toys out of the crib. His mom, Julie, had to duck otherwise she’d get a missile to the back of the head.

His dad laughs at the memory, but it’s with a hint or irony because coaches have always tried to change what made his son special. Maybe it’s because he was never tall and never played quarterback according to tradition — at barely 6-foot, he’s more quick-twitch point guard than stoic field general. They said his mechanics were all wrong. They said he scrambled too much. They said he couldn’t be accurate while throwing on the run.

Mater Dei High’s staff in Southern California thought the same way at first. During an early practice, head coach Bill Rollinson listened to his offensive line coach bark, “Bryce, you’ve got to step up in the pocket. You’ve got to slide with the protection.” Then the running back coach chimed in, “You’ve got to get the back.” Rollinson got so fed up that he gathered his assistants. “Let’s establish something here, fellas,” he said. “I don’t want anyone talking to Bryce Young.”

This was what Craig calls the “Let Bryce be Bryce” moment. Rollinson and his staff came to understand Young wasn’t freelancing. He ran only as a last resort. When he buzzed in and out of the pocket, he was actually baiting the pass rush and buying time for his receivers, using a natural feel for spacing he developed from playing basketball. And who cared if he threw off-balance as long as he was accurate? As a senior, he completed 72.6% of his passes for 4,528 yards, 58 touchdowns and six interceptions. ESPN ranked him the No. 1 quarterback in the 2020 class, and after initially committing to USC, he flipped and signed with Alabama.

After backing up Mac Jones as a freshman at Alabama, Young took over as the starter last season and an odd thing happened: Despite playing well right away, throwing 10 touchdowns and no interceptions during his first three games, the criticism flipped and a vocal contingent of fans and media questioned why he wasn’t running more often. It was absurd, of course, and a complete misunderstanding of his game. Just because you’re a mobile quarterback, Young says, doesn’t mean you’re a running quarterback.

“My entire life people have been saying, ‘This is the way you’re supposed to throw. This is what you’re supposed to do with your feet. This is the way you should approach something before the game,'” he says. “And I don’t think people are wrong. I just think everyone has a different perspective. What may work for one person or multiple people may not work for the next person or myself.”

So Young stayed the course. He ran enough to keep defenses honest and, in the process, he set school records for passing yards (4,872) and touchdowns (47), won the Heisman and led Alabama all the way to an SEC championship, a playoff win in the Cotton Bowl and a spot in the CFP National Championship game.

And yet there are questions about whether all that will be enough once the NFL gets its hands on him. Whenever he moves on — whether it’s next year or the year after — will they fret over his size and mechanics like so many others have before? Will they try to change him?

HE’S A 10-MINUTE drive from the Pasadena, California, home he grew up in, but he might as well be a world away. On a clear day, Young can look out — down the hill that separates the middle- from the upper-upper-class, across the park and over the freeway — and see the neighborhoods where he played catch with his dad.

But he’s up here now, on a warm morning in mid-July, standing in the lush backyard of a multimillion-dollar estate that is serving as the set of Nissan’s Heisman House commercial. His mom and dad are sitting underneath a tent alongside his agent, watching a bank of televisions and giggling as Young runs lines. The director asks, “Can he mutter under his breath, ‘Ooh, I made it.'”

Young nails it. Because, let’s face it, it’s not a stretch to feign awe in a scene with Tim Tebow. Between takes, he chats with Derrick Henry and Carson Palmer. Steve Spurrier will show up later, cracking jokes. There’s Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, Robert Griffin III and, oh my god, is that Barry Sanders sitting in the shade? It is.

“I’m just trying to have fun with it,” Young says of the whole acting thing. “Still trying to be authentic, still trying to be myself, but obviously there are lines.”

There are tedious parts of the day, of course. At one point, Young has to learn the proper way to ring a doorbell. Which hand? Which finger? How fast? How hard? The director has a specific vision he can’t quite get across. “More intentional,” he says. “Like you’re ringing a doorbell.” The effect is the same every time — ding-dong — as they cycle through a dozen takes.

Young is patient, dutifully taking direction each time. He’s gotten used to it, having filmed another commercial for Dr Pepper the day before and another commercial for No Bull athletic equipment a week earlier.

“Being in front of the camera is so different than anything else,” Palmer says. It’s uncomfortable and “so much more intimidating than it is walking into Death Valley on a Saturday night.”

Or how about going on the road to Auburn during the final weekend of the regular season, losing your best receiver to a targeting penalty and trailing by a touchdown late in the fourth quarter with a playoff spot on the line? Because that’s exactly what happened last November. With 90 seconds left, Young quieted a raucous crowd as he marched Alabama 97 yards to tie the game. Four overtimes later, he sent everyone home with a game-winning pass to John Metchie.

So which induces more anxiety: the Iron Bowl or acting? “Honestly,” Young says, “they’re both not nerve-wracking. They’re both fun.” High-pressure situations only bring out who you are, he explains, and because he’s confident in his preparation, he’s confident in his performance. “So it’s really nothing to be nervous about. Those situations are just an opportunity to make memories.”

Tebow has watched Young closely as an analyst for the SEC Network and isn’t surprised.

“You’ve seen it his entire career,” he says. “He just handles himself and is wise beyond his years, you know? He’s so calm under pressure and you see that in so many big games. You’ve seen it in the time here [on set]. He just doesn’t get flustered. He does such a good job. He’s got that calm demeanor. Such a good, sweet kid … that carves up a lot of defenses.”

Tebow is a fan. So is Palmer. And neither could imagine being in Young’s shoes right now, balancing business, college and football. “It’s a lot,” Tebow says. There’s a documentary in the works, a separate film crew following Young around the set to capture behind-the-scenes footage of him navigating the new world of NIL.

Young rolls with it. He says he has a process to alleviate the stress of being a brand, letting his agent and dad filter business opportunities before they reach him for a final decision. Craig says he’s been surprised by some of the offers his son has turned down — roughly half. If it doesn’t align with his values or requires too many social media posts, it’s a nonstarter. His Twitter and Instagram accounts barely have a pulse compared to most 20-year-olds.

Instead of fishing for likes, Young unwinds by listening to J. Cole or watching Rick and Morty. He’s a sucker for YouTube. He recently fell down a rabbit hole of how bridges are built, which led to an exploration of how tunnels are constructed, with Young marveling at how engineers clear the water to pour the foundation. “I swear I have the most random stuff,” he says, adding that he’s interested in videos about the real estate market and music production.

Craig isn’t surprised, pointing to Young’s upbringing as an only child. A homebody, Craig says, “He’s always been pretty inquisitive and curious about how things work.” And it wasn’t just material things. It was the mind as well, which is no wonder considering his dad’s a therapist, an aunt and a grandfather are psychologists and his mom is a special education teacher. As a sophomore, Young switched his major from broadcast journalism to psychology.

“You learn it’s a very unspecific science,” Young says. “No one perceives any two things the same. We try to categorize a lot of stuff, but a lot of it is spectrums. And I carry that into sports because I think a lot of times people get caught in, ‘You have to do this to be successful. This is what works. This is the recipe.’ But in reality, I feel like it’s about finding what the best version of that is for you and embracing that everyone’s not going to look the same, everything’s not going to be the same. I think people, when they come to terms with that, they can be more comfortable with being different and reach their full potential.”

If coaches have struggled to fit Young into a box over his style of play, just imagine how they’ve come to terms with his cerebral nature at a position often associated with a hyper-masculine type of leadership. Time and time again, he’s been asked for more demonstrative behavior — spike the football, curse your teammates when they make a mistake, be the movie version of a quarterback commanding the huddle. It happened in middle school, in high school and even some at Alabama. There was an adjustment period with Nick Saban and Craig is confident they’ve found a happy medium.

Anderson says he’s never actually heard Young raise his voice. Young says that’s not his style.

“It’s just about being authentic, trying to read the room, read the situation, know what’s necessary and maybe insert yourself where you feel it’s necessary but not do it in a way where you’re not being yourself,” Young says. “When you’re trying to be something you’re not or you feel like you’re just reading off a script or saying what you feel like the right thing is, most of the time the message isn’t going to be received as well as if you’re just being genuine and being yourself and being consistent in that. I’ve learned that people grow to have respect for that. And that’s what I’m aspiring to be.”

Craig is proud watching his son come into his own. Surrounded by his football heroes on set, Young doesn’t try to be something he’s not. He’s relaxed and fits in. During lunch on the next-to-last day of filming, he and Murray debate who has better high school football, California or Texas, before a truce is called and they join in singing “Happy Birthday” to Sanders.

It was time to corral all the Heisman winners for a birthday photo after that.

Craig watches from across the room, thinking to himself, “This is like the Avengers assembling.”

Then someone beckons Young to join them, “Come on.”

That’s when it hits Craig.

“I just can’t,” he says, fighting back tears. “At 20 years old, he’s in this illustrious group. These are the greatest of the great, and he’s sitting right there.”

IT’S A MONTH later and Young is in the skies somewhere en route from Tuscaloosa to Atlanta. Flying private with Saban, Anderson and safety Jordan Battle, they’re on their way to SEC media days and the unofficial kickoff of the college football season. Somehow, the Heisman becomes a topic of conversation and Young tries to explain to his teammates what it felt like going to New York and winning the award. It was cool, he says, painting a rosy picture while conveniently leaving out the thorns.

Later, he’ll insist he’s grateful for all the accolades he received — he also won the Maxwell, Davey O’Brien and Manning awards — but there’s a reason he has his parents stash the trophies at their house in Birmingham, an hour’s drive north of campus, out of sight and out of mind. Last season was a failure, he says. “What my goal was, what our goal was as a team, was winning a national championship and we failed at that.”

This is another thing Craig says coaches have misunderstood about his son. They see him smiling and patting teammates on the back and mistake it for not caring or not taking responsibility. It makes Craig want to scream, “You guys have no idea!”

When Alabama lost to Georgia in the national championship in January, Young took it personally. It didn’t matter that he’d lost his top two receivers, Jameson Williams and Metchie, to season-ending injuries or that their inexperienced replacements dropped three key passes. It didn’t matter that the offensive line dissolved in front of his eyes, giving up four sacks. Young couldn’t forgive himself for those two interceptions.

Even Saban gives him somewhat of a pass, though. While he’s glad to hear his star quarterback isn’t satisfied, Saban says, “You can’t lose the two best receivers and both starting corners in the national championship game and think that that’s not going to have an impact. Because it does, alright?”

Craig and Julie visited with their son following the game and could tell how hurt and angry he was. After that, he went radio silent for days and then weeks, replaying every misstep and missed opportunity in his mind. His parents knew where he was and that he was safe. But they respected his process, texting him words of encouragement and scripture without expecting a reply.

When Young finally did come up for air, he was determined. He and a group of veterans addressed the team before spring practice with a stern message: No more showing up late for meetings, no more letting the little things slide. The buy-in last season wasn’t what it should have been, Young says, and it’s up to him as a leader to help correct that.

He did a full analysis of his own play during the postseason, dissecting every snap. He doesn’t want to get into the weeds or give secrets away, but one thing he says he discovered was he wasn’t always rotating his shoulders properly while throwing on the run. He’s taken steps to correct that.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it,” he says of the loss. “When you work so hard for something and you come so close to ultimately fall short, it hurts a lot. And there’s a lot of time that I look back at it and regret things that I did and wish I could have plays back. But ultimately, you have times where you have to feel it and you have to embrace that feeling of failing. And then after a certain point, you have to flip the switch and you either can let it eat you up or you have to make it constructive.”

Everything he’s experienced this offseason has been fun, he says, whether it was attending the Super Bowl and the ESPYs, meeting the Mannings and the other Heisman winners, or working with kids at camps such as Elite 11 and The Quarterback Retreat. He went to memorabilia shows and Mater Dei held a “Heisman Homecoming” ceremony for him, Matt Leinart and John Huarte. One really cool moment, Young says, happened in March when he was able to connect with the rapper Wale, who he grew up listening to, and gave him a tour of Alabama’s facilities.

“It’s important to try and step back sometimes and enjoy the moment,” he says. “But also understand that everything is conditional. When I start to think that stuff is a given and is supposed to happen, you lose sight of what’s important. All the perks are conditional. It comes with success and it will go when you don’t have it.”

It’s hard not to wonder whether he’s talking about the loss to Georgia, the rest of his football career or both.

Tebow thinks if anyone can win back-to-back Heismans, it’s Young. But there’s a reason it’s so hard. “Everyone’s gunning for you,” Tebow says. “You need the right breaks, the right moments.” For now, Young would rather not talk about the Heisman, except to campaign for Anderson to win it.

Young isn’t interested in talking about the NFL, either. He knows mock drafts are out there, but he says, “It’s stuff I can’t control, so I don’t really put any energy towards it.” Confronted by the question of his relative lack of size, he smiles knowingly. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, he says, “But it’s me. It’s not like I was really tall and then I shrunk.”

It’s been this way his whole life, he says. In peewee football, parents would question whether he should even be quarterback because he was so small. Then, at recruiting camps, evaluators would gush over the taller kids. Young would throw and eventually it would become obvious he was the best quarterback on the field. But every year he had to prove himself all over again.

This year is no different. Young won the award for the best player in college football only nine months ago, and yet when ESPN’s Matt Miller surveyed 12 NFL evaluators for their ranking of draft-eligible quarterbacks, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud received the most first-place votes with five. Never mind that Young threw for more yards and more touchdowns. Stroud is 3 inches taller! Kentucky’s Will Levis, who is also 6-3, received the same number of first-place votes as Young (three), despite throwing roughly twice as many interceptions in 200 fewer pass attempts.

Craig tries to not get worked up about it. Kyler Murray was the No. 1 pick and recently signed a massive contract extension. And when he and Young stood side-by-side in Pasadena, Young was clearly the taller of the two.

“The names change but the constant is Bryce,” Craig says. “He’s fully aware of what the questions are going to be. It’s nothing new. At every level they’ve said his height’s going to catch up with him. And every level he continues to do what he does.”

Tebow says the NFL is changing and becoming more open-minded when it comes to quarterbacks who don’t fit the prototype. Palmer says it’s clear in watching Young battle Georgia last season that he’s capable. Yes, he struggled in the national title game. “But he took a pounding,” Palmer says, “and he kept playing.” What’s more, that shouldn’t erase the SEC championship when Young had four touchdowns and no turnovers against the same Georgia defense stacked with five first-round picks.

Maybe one day, Young will let himself off the hook for one subpar performance. At some point in the future, he imagines, he’ll allow himself to sit back and revel in his accomplishments. Maybe he’ll move the trophies out of his parents’ house and in with him.

But that day isn’t today. His whirlwind offseason was fun, but sitting in Atlanta weeks ahead of the season, he’s itching to put all of the trappings of celebrity aside and play football again.

His life changed since New York, but his main goal never did: win a national championship.

Whatever happens after that, he’s ready.

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