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“You Can’t Take a Day Off”: Inside Bryce Young’s Pursuit of Excellence

It’s all happening according to plan for the Alabama quarterback: He recently won the Heisman Trophy and will try to lead the Crimson Tide to a national championship

Zeke Peña

Editor’s note, January 4, 2022: In November 2021, we profiled Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, who won the Heisman Trophy in December and will lead the Crimson Tide in the national championship game against Georgia on January 10.

A couple more drives, a couple more minutes. Rewind, fast-forward. Rewind, fast-forward. There are hours of game film to dissect. It’s late at night in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and the young man who shoulders the city’s dreams is not asleep. He’s mesmerized by the movements on the screen.

Bryce Young needs to catch one last glimpse of film before he shuts his eyes. Never mind that no one has asked him to. Or that he has already watched plenty throughout the day, with his teammates, with his coaches; he wants more.

He is attentive to detail when he watches film, same as when he plays. On the field, Young approaches the line of scrimmage almost knowing what’s about to happen, based on his initial look. He can see the play before the play—his mind moves quicker than his feet. And when he watches himself back on tape, as he does most nights, Young doesn’t see what the 100,000 fans in Bryant-Denny Stadium and the millions around the country see every Saturday: that he is one of the most accurate and prolific quarterbacks in college football. Instead, he sees his mistakes. Would-haves, should-haves.

Young moved out of Alabama’s dorms earlier this season for more privacy and more distance from the eyes that follow him, the ears that perk up for sound bites. The attention that comes with leading the Crimson Tide is new to the sophomore and first-year starter—attention that only grows with every touchdown he throws and every award-list mention. Young is among the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy this season. Last weekend, he threw for 559 yards in Alabama’s win over Arkansas, breaking the school’s single-game passing record, which had stood for more than half a century. He’s also reportedly earning nearly seven figures through his various endorsement deals, which are made possible by the NCAA’s new name, image, likeness (NIL) policy. He looks every bit the star quarterback, with a face built for magazine covers: chiseled jaw and immaculately white teeth; soft brown eyes and an infectious, dimpled smile. The 6-foot, 194-pound quarterback is a celebrity—a generational talent who can now profit off his brilliance in ways his predecessors never could.

But he’s still 20 years old, and he often deflects the attention that comes with being in his position. Sometimes when he’s stopped and asked to sign autographs with requests such as “QB1!” or “Heir to the throne!” he smiles uncomfortably, almost embarrassed. He’ll politely ask, in a soft voice, if he can write something else, something more team-oriented. Because that’s his focus: his team’s success.

The no. 2 Crimson Tide have lost one game this season, to then-unranked Texas A&M. The 18-time national champions play Auburn on Saturday, and no. 1 Georgia the following week in the SEC championship game; they likely need to win both if they’re to return to the College Football Playoff.

Young is often found in Alabama’s practice facility. He is always laboring on something, constantly trying to perfect his technique. He wants to show his teammates that he is willing to work with the intensity that he preaches at practice. So he prepares as if he is a roster hopeful, and not someone who is leading the SEC with 38 passing touchdowns.

“You have to approach every day like that,” Young says before heading to weight lifting on an early morning in late October. “You can’t take a day off. You can’t relax.”

Even as an eighth-grader, Young hardly relaxed. He would run up and down the stairs at the Rose Bowl in his hometown of Pasadena, California, pushing himself, dreaming of making it big. He was undersized then—much as he is now—and when he’d tell coaches or classmates that he played quarterback, he would almost always receive a shocked “Oh! Really?” in response.

Even then, though, Young’s arm was undeniable. His release was exceptionally quick; the ball just sprung out of his hand. He had a natural feel for the game, and an exact internal clock that went off just when things were about to break down. His body control, change of speed, and spatial awareness set him apart. He simply moved differently. Sometimes it looked like he was playing basketball: crossing people over, head-faking, seeing the play happen before it happened.

Though Young saw football as his future, basketball was the sport that always had his heart. Mike Teller, his longtime trainer at the SecreTrainer basketball training, says Young could have been a legitimate Division I hoops prospect. He ran point for Teller’s club team, BTI, and was a good enough shooter to be nicknamed “B Money.” He prided himself on his tough defense and putting everyone in the right position. “He was a born leader,” Teller says. “He would pick his teammates up, always keeping them confident.”

Instead of pursuing basketball, Young used what he learned on the court to play football with a unique kind of court vision, levelheadedness, and graceful agility. And that combination attracted one college coach to Young very early.

When Young was in eighth grade, his quarterback coach Danny Hernandez received a call from Kliff Kingsbury, then–head coach at Texas Tech. Hernandez, who has trained Young since he was in sixth grade, was handling much of his recruitment, and he’d sent Kingsbury some game film.

“How many offers does this kid have?” Hernandez remembers Kingsbury asking him.

“None, Coach,” Hernandez said. “Hopefully you’re the first.”

“You know what, I absolutely love Bryce,” Kingsbury said. “I have to see him live. If you can get him here, and he looks anything like he looks right now, I’ll pull the trigger.”

Kingsbury, now the coach of the Arizona Cardinals, had the foresight to see how offenses were evolving in college and the NFL. He understood the attributes that elite quarterbacks needed to possess to be successful—after all, his QB at the time was Patrick Mahomes. And he saw in Young what few college coaches at the time did: incredible talent, mobility, and accuracy—and that Young’s size could be an asset, not an impediment. “Kingsbury was definitely in the minority,” says Kevin Pearson, Young’s coach at Cathedral High, where Young competed as a freshman and sophomore before transferring to Mater Dei High School.

So Young and his father, Craig, went to Lubbock. Bryce was excited. This was his chance. He ended up making every throw, and Kingsbury offered him that day, his first offer. It was one of the happiest days of the eighth-grader’s life. Craig drove him to a steakhouse to celebrate. Young couldn’t stop smiling in the backseat. He was so excited that a college wanted him, just as he was.

Some coaches who had seen Young’s film from his Inland Empire Ducks club team were more hesitant, though. Through Young’s freshman year at Cathedral, he’d hear a similar refrain:

“I like him, but we gotta see if he grows.”

“He’s not going to be able to see over the line.”

“He’s got a great arm, but we have to wait to offer until we see him throw live.”

“He might need to change positions.”

Bryce participated in various national camps, trying to convince coaches that he could perform at the highest levels. As a preteen, he was often placed in secondary “B” groups in camps. It didn’t help that, as almost always the shortest player there, he’d be swimming in the oversized T-shirts every participant was given to accommodate the bigger players. He’d outwork and outthrow his competitors and finally be moved to the “A” group by camp’s end.

He was always willing to challenge himself against the best competition he could find, to prove himself. When he was younger, he’d work out with local college stars Marqise Lee, Robert Woods, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Paul Richardson. Chris “Frogg” Flores, Young’s longtime coach, was training those local standout players and he organized the workouts. Once, Flores asked Young to throw an 18-yard comeback to Lee, who was playing at USC at the time. The first time, Young missed the mark. Lee was frustrated. “What is this kid doing?!” He wasn’t going to take it easy on Bryce, telling him: “Hey, B, next time just pick it up. Don’t be shy. Even though you’re out here with us, sling it. If you say you a QB, just throw it.”

Young didn’t look flustered. “I got you,” he said. “Run it back.”

The next time? “It was not better,” Lee says, laughing. “It was terrible.”

But the third time? Young hit it right on the nose. That earned him respect with the stars he was throwing to. “He was grinding,” Lee says. “He was doing the work that needed to be done.”

Young was never overly frustrated. He seemed calm and unbothered. He almost had to reassure the adults around him that it would work out. “A lot of that has to do with having faith,” says his mother, Julie. “We’re a faith-based family. He prayed about it.”

And he believed in the work he was putting in. “He always had the attitude: I gotta take care of the stuff I can control,” Hernandez says. That meant how accurate he could be, how technically sound he could be.

Ahead of his junior year in 2018, Young transferred to powerhouse Mater Dei in Orange County to continue to challenge himself. And he would be tested, given that he’d have to replace National Player of the Year JT Daniels and help the Monarchs defend their national title

The transition was difficult at first. Young worked all hours of the day, between practice, class, studying, training, and lifting. Sometimes it seemed overwhelming. “There were times I felt like maybe he was losing his joy for football,” says Craig, his father. But Bryce dug deep. The joy was still there. And, eventually, he flourished into a five-star recruit and the no. 2 player in the nation. He looked levels ahead of his competition, throwing for more than 4,500 yards and passing for 58 touchdowns his senior year.

Though he transformed into a superstar, securing offers from every major program in the country, Young still traveled a different road than many of his past and present peers. Nationally, most quarterbacks at his level have tended to be white. Young was the first Black quarterback in Mater Dei history, and Orange County, where the powerhouse is located, is 71 percent white.

“I don’t think it’s any more different than any other African American male in our society. I think it’s always there to some degree,” Craig says. “There’s always this kind of unspoken kind of pressure, and that’s just the world we live in.”

Young originally committed to USC in July 2018. But Steve Sarkisian, Alabama’s offensive coordinator, kept reaching out. In one of the toughest decisions of his life, Young decommited from USC. He felt Alabama was the best place for him to compete at the highest level—to measure himself against the best and to compete for championships. He saw the kind of QBs that came out of Alabama—NFL-caliber passers like Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa—and he yearned to be a part of that culture.

In late July 2021, nearly three weeks after an interim policy was put in place to allow NCAA athletes to profit off their likeness, Alabama coach Nick Saban spoke at the Texas High School Coaches Association’s annual convention. In a room full of top high school and college coaches, Saban said that Young was approaching “ungodly numbers” in terms of the money he was making.

“It’s almost seven figures,” Saban continued. “And it’s like, the guy hasn’t even played yet. But that’s because of our brand.”

Young is part of a generation that is redefining what it means to be an elite player at a high-profile program. He’s one of the first players to be able to openly make money while still playing in the NCAA, and he’s signed several NIL deals—his father manages them with a marketing team at Creative Artists Agency. Bryce generally tries to stay out of it and lets his father handle the details. His focus has been on football—on leading Alabama to a national title. “Everyone on the team knows, obviously, I’m not going to do anything that interferes with anything on the field or takes time away from what I need to dedicate to stuff on the field,” he says. “My mind, while we’re in the season, isn’t on anything NIL-related at all.”

There are some parts of these newfound business opportunities that Young does enjoy, though. He has his own podcast, The Bryce Young Podcast. When he records, he looks comfortable. Natural on the mic. He aspires to work in sports media or broadcasting after his playing days are over.

The podcast allows him to have a space where he can speak freely. He can practice honing his voice, navigating how much he wants to share and how much he wants to withhold. And, of course, it allows him to be paid for his labor, something his nonathlete classmates have been allowed to do with jobs and internships for decades.

Many up-and-coming quarterbacks are now watching how Young handles the moment, how Alabama handles the moment. NIL’s costs and benefits seem to vary from person to person, school to school. Some, such as Young, have been successful with it; others, not so much. “There’s no structure to it,” says Jamie Howard, father of Walker Howard, the no. 4 QB in the 2022 class, who is headed to LSU.

Jamie heard Saban’s comments about Young: “I think that was definitely a kind of recruiting tactic,” Jamie says. He would know: He played quarterback at LSU in the early ’90s. He thinks NIL is long overdue. He remembers the cafeteria being closed at 8 p.m. and teammates going hungry at 10:30 p.m. and not being able to afford food. Still, he worries how this next generation of player sponsorship deals could affect team culture.

That’s something high school coaches are thinking about, too. “With NIL, is that causing problems for athletes in the collegiate world? Well, there’s a lot of people that say yes, and that it has distracted younger players,” says Bruce Rollinson, Young’s former Mater Dei coach. “But not Bryce.”

Bryce insists NIL doesn’t consume his thoughts. When he’s in the booth, recording the podcast, he looks at ease. His dad, who has been there at times while he records, can sense his son’s joy, getting into his flow. It is a power that so many other quarterbacks before him were unable to wield. For years, they’ve had their stories told by others.

In a way, that’s part of what NIL is about: not just capitalizing financially, but owning one’s own voice, one’s own story. Storytelling, after all, is only as good as the teller.

Young is coming of age at precisely the right time. It’s not just that Alabama has morphed into a quarterback factory, with Mac Jones, Hurts, and Tagovailoa among the latest stars. It’s that the game itself has changed—less under center. Quarterbacks like Young, who can move around and buy time, have become more valuable.

“If he would have been born maybe five years, 10 years earlier,” Craig says, “we might not even be having this conversation.”

There are gargantuan expectations bestowed upon Young as leader of one of the most storied programs in college football history. Being the starting QB at Alabama is a seven-day-a-week, 24-hour-a-day job. “You’re always carrying that weight,” Craig says.

Bryce relishes the responsibility. He doesn’t see it as a burden. Pressure, for him, is a privilege. An opportunity. Pure fun. He is old-fashioned in that sense: happy when he is out of breath, pushing himself past his limit, when nobody is watching. “All of my motivation is internal. Regardless of what’s going around, or what the stakes are,” Young says. “I’m a competitor, and I want to live up to the standards that I hold for myself.

“The hard work and the heavy lifting comes in the work and the preparation,” Young says. “That’s where I feel like everything is kind of determined. That’s where you earn stuff. That’s where you get better. That’s where what you do on the field shows. So, when it’s Saturday, and you’re playing, it’s kind of already done.”

That mentality is why he looks completely calm on the field. “Bryce is really unfazed,” says Evan Neal, Alabama’s starting left tackle. “No matter what situation we’re in, he keeps a level head. He’s always poised.”

Young appears so comfortable, so at ease, that he almost looks detached. But he isn’t. He just separates himself from the emotion of the moment so it doesn’t swallow him. He blocks out expectation, noise, media, doubt. Everything.

Man, we’re just hoopin’, he thinks to himself.

That’s a phrase he and Hernandez, his former QB coach, have said to each other for years. It reminds Young of his first love—basketball—and allows him to keep things in perspective. To remain calm. To remember that the field is still the same. The game is still just a game. He knows if he looks rattled, his teammates will look rattled. “I understand the severity of it. I understand what’s at stake,” Young says. “The results are best for me when I’m relaxed and having fun.”

That’s why once games begin, his muscle memory takes over. His arm knows what to do. So do his hands, which were impressively strong from a young age; he first caught a ball at age 6 months in his crib, prompting Craig to run around the house saying, “We got one! He’s gonna be an athlete!”

Young floats around the field with such elegance, such control, it seems as if he is dancing to a different rhythm to the other players on the field, a slower beat. He surveys his surroundings as a point guard does: never in a rush, but never without urgency. He is almost better when he’s running away from someone; when he’s chased out of the pocket; when a pass seems impossible.

Two weeks ago, Young took his linemen out for dinner, as he does every Wednesday. It has become a tradition. He wants to show them his appreciation and build rapport. They have fun, as they always do, talking about basketball, life, family. “Just taking some time to really be college students,” Neal says, “and enjoying each other.”

Young pays for the meals through one of his NIL deals with Logan’s Roadhouse. “It’s really cool he uses his likeness to help his teammates,” Neal says.

On this recent dinner, it didn’t take long for locals to spot Young. This is usually what always happens: He’s noticed, and then he is asked to take photos. He is a good sport about it, always respectful. But this time, one man, who looked as if he’d had one drink too many, came over. He was a fan, but clearly not in the right frame of mind, recalls Neal. Though Young was sitting with Alabama’s entire offensive line, the man seemed to recognize only Young.

Quick to downplay the attention, Young calmly shook his head and said that these were his teammates. Everyone had a good laugh. Eventually the attention on him dissipated, just as he likes it. “He handles it all extremely well,” Neal says. “He’s just a regular person. We’re all human, and Bryce understands that. That’s what’s so special about him.”

When Young speaks, his voice is warm and sincere. There is a refreshing authenticity to him. He says he’s fortunate to be at Alabama, rather than the other way around. When mentioning getting recognized at Target—or anywhere else in Tuscaloosa—he says that he’s “lucky” to be a part of the community. He’s soft-spoken but pointed with his words. He doesn’t hesitate to articulate his feelings, but there is a cool, practiced distance. At a September press conference, Josh Maxson, Alabama’s assistant athletics director of football communications, said to him: “Have you been practicing press conferences since you were 7 or something?”

He hasn’t. He just naturally strikes the balance between humility and confidence, instinctively mentioning his teammates before himself. “He feels like, ‘I’m just like any other kid,’” Julie says.

But he isn’t. And his fame will only grow. “I think he has all the makings of what you’d look for in the first pick of the draft, when he decides to come out,” says Steve Clarkson, renowned QB coach, who first met Young as a seventh-grader. “I think he’s a franchise quarterback.”

Ever since high school, though, Young has tried to blend in. Deflect praise. Act like he’s no more special than any other student. One afternoon, Rollinson spotted Young in the hallway to deliver a piece of good news: “Bryce! You’re the CIF Player of the Year!”

Young kept walking, not acknowledging his coach.

“You hear me?” Rollinson called out.

Bryce turned around. “Yeah.” Then continued walking on.

Another instance, Rollinson found Bryce in the hallway talking to a student. He watched Bryce try to lift the student’s spirits.

“Hey,” Young said, approaching the boy at his locker. “Keep your head up. It’s going to be a good day today.”

Rollinson would notice how, during film sessions, Young would never be seated. He was always standing, working the room, going over to each player. “Hey that was a nice block,” he’d say to a lineman. “Thanks for protecting me.” Then he’d head to a receiver: “Hey, you gotta get over that break. I wanted to get the ball out.”

In early September, Craig, Julie, and Bryce huddled in Bryce’s Tuscaloosa apartment, watching television. A segment came on that featured Bryce, and Craig and Julie were beaming. It was surreal, seeing their son up there, hearing commentators fawn over his skill set, his stats. But when they looked over at Bryce, they noticed he was intentionally not looking at the screen. His head was down, glued to his phone. He refused to take one glance up.

“Bryce,” Craig said. “You’re gonna pretend this wasn’t a whole halftime show about you?”

“Dad,” Bryce said. “All of that’s conditional. I can’t get caught up in that. I have to stay focused.”

Craig was floored. “All of that’s conditional” is a phrase that he has drilled into his son for years.

Craig would warn him that hype and adulation is fleeting: “All of that’s conditional. It’s all dependent upon how you perform, and what your perceived value is, and what you can do for them.

“The minute you don’t have value,” Craig continued, “you will not be treated like this. My point is, you can’t fall in love with this treatment, this attention. You have to fall in love with the process. Fall in love with football.”

Bryce nodded. Understood. That’s what drove him to run up and down the Rose Bowl stairs, always trying to push himself. And it’s what’s driven him now in Tuscaloosa.

Craig would like Bryce to enjoy the moment a bit more and allow himself to celebrate things, such as the recent TV segment, even just for a second, because he knows how rare they are and how quickly they pass. But for Bryce to become the leader he yearns to be, he can’t allow himself to pause. He tries not to think about the past or even the future. He lives snap to snap, Saturday to Saturday.

It’s been that way since the spring. Young played behind now-Patriots quarterback Mac Jones in 2020. That was a position he had never been in before, watching and coming in at mop-up time. It also motivated him. “It was probably flat-out torture for him,” says Rollinson. “If you talked to Bryce, he’d say: ‘Yeah, I was a lot hungrier to be the starter.’” He worked and worked to stay ready for his moment. And expectations were extraordinarily high for him to take over and become the starter this year.

Flores, Young’s longtime coach, attended this year’s spring game. Flores was exhilarated, watching fans swarm Young, asking for photos and autographs.

“Damn, dude,” Flores said to him afterward. “How did that feel? All these people waiting for you!”

“Did you see the throw I missed?” Young said. His lips curled into a frown.

Bro. You just signed 100 autographs. That doesn’t affect you?”

Young shrugged. He looked at the ground, before changing the subject.

Young spends much of his time these days thinking about what a leader is. How they must be unchanging in a constantly shifting season. “You have to be a constant,” Young says. “You have to have the same message, the same energy. A team really leans on that.” It’s something he’s still working on. “I still have a long way to go in that category,” he says. “I’m definitely not where I want to be yet on the field.”

He remembers Alabama’s stunning 41-38 loss at Texas A&M in early October. The Crimson Tide were no. 1 then, and the Aggies won on a last-second field goal. It was Alabama’s first loss since 2019.

Afterward, as Alabama walked to its team bus, Young held back his emotion. He wouldn’t show anyone how deeply disappointed he felt. His parents know it’s difficult to talk to him after any loss, but this one stung. He didn’t want to talk to anyone.

When the team finally returned to Tuscaloosa, and Young was back at his apartment, he stared at himself in the mirror. Really looked at himself. And he knew in his gut: “I didn’t do enough for us to win. And as a quarterback, that’s always my job, is to make sure that we end up winning,” he says, “and I failed that night.”

He doesn’t flinch when he says that word: fail. “I had to improve and step up,” he says. “And that comes with more studying, more attention to detail.” He realized the team had to play with more urgency. “We kind of lost that respect for winning,” Young says. “I feel like as a team, all of us, we kind of almost phased into feeling untouchable, and feeling like we didn’t have to respect winning.”

That meant rededicating themselves. “There were a lot of corners we were cutting, a lot of stuff that we were doing that I think we all internally knew was like, OK, that probably is not the right thing to do,’ but I think we had just lost that respect.”

Young couldn’t let his disappointment in himself linger, either. He had to maintain his composure, not ever getting too high or too low. ​​That is something Saban has noticed as well:

“He doesn’t get his feathers ruffled very easily,” the coach said.

Part of that levelheadedness comes from his parents. After the Texas A&M loss, they told him the same thing they tell him after every win: “We love you. You are loved.

“We know the type of competitor you are,” they told him. “We know what you’re going through. We know there’s no words that we can say to make you feel better right now, but understand we have faith in you. Whatever you need in this time, we’re here.”

Hearing that meant the world to Bryce. “There’s very, very few people in your life that are going to love you and care about you and really want what’s best for you and really love you equally regardless of what’s going on,” Young says.

In his fast-paced world, where his latest performance is microscopically judged and his current successes are compared to Alabama’s previous successes, his parents’ love is the one thing he knows isn’t conditional. It’s not dependent on wins or money or awards or sponsors. Young knows that if he decided to quit football tomorrow, his parents would genuinely be OK with it—and they would ask how they could support him.

When all three of them are together, in Bryce’s apartment, they let home be home. They rarely talk about football. Bryce cooks for his parents every Sunday. Cooking is one of his passions—often preparing steak with his favorite appliance, his sous vide machine. (He owns a large fryer, too.)

At the dinner table, he is not Alabama’s starting quarterback. He is just Craig and Julie’s son. A son who must mature in front of millions but is still fearful of spiders. A son who goes out of his way to make sure others are OK.

Recently, he spent time with seventh-grader Reagan Toki, a top 2027 QB and recruit who plays for Flores. Reagan’s father died of COVID in September. Young tried to offer Reagan as much comfort as he could. He wanted Reagan to know that he was loved. “He was so kind to me,” Reagan says. “It meant a lot. He told me to keep my head up. And to just do it for my dad.”

As Alabama’s regular season winds down, Young has tried to reflect more and pause a little bit longer on the good, like the things he’s enjoying. “It’s finding a healthy medium,” he says, “between having fun and being focused.”

One moment comes to mind: one of Alabama’s first night games, back in late September, against Southern Mississippi. Young stood next to his coach on the sideline, talking strategy between the third and fourth quarter. Then the lights went out, and fans quieted. Everyone put their smartphone camera lights on, and a sea of white spots illuminated the deep-black sky.

Young was so moved, he stopped talking for a second. Then he said: “Coach! Wow. … Look at this. … This is actually pretty cool.”

He let out a smile, then craned his neck to look around the stadium. So many people, so many lights. He was just another dot; another speck in time, trying to live it right. We’re not going to be able to do this forever, he thought.

If only he could grab this moment; hug it, keep it close. Keep it from slipping away. But in a blink, it’s gone. The lights return. His coach asks him about a play. Soon enough he returns to the turf. He walks up to his teammates, shoulders back, chin high. He communicates the next play without a trace of worry.

He’s just hoopin’.

An earlier version of this piece misstated Flores’s relationship to Young.

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