University of Miami sophomore Malek Young had already been told his football career was over about two weeks after a Dec. 30 helmet-to-helmet collision in the Capital One Orange Bowl.
The deep, three-plus-inch scar running down the back of the gifted cornerback’s neck makes that pretty obvious to anyone who notices it under his neatly styled dreadlocks. Surgery in late January fused Young’s C1 and C2 vertebrae, held together by rods and screws.
But on this day, before kickoff of the 2018 spring game at Hard Rock Stadium, Young, who escaped what could have been paralysis in the bowl game and spent every day of spring practice on the sideline helping his teammates, was approached by defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.
“You know what your job is today, right?’’ Young recalled Diaz saying.
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“Yeah, I’m holding up the personnel cards,’’ answered Young, whose job during spring was to hold up each play for the offense.
“No,’’ Diaz told Young. “You’re going to be hoisting the turnover chain.’’
“I was ecstatic,’’ Young said. “It shocked me. Coach Diaz was like, ‘There it is, right over there on the bench. The box is unlocked. Whenever there’s a turnover, run and get it.’
“So, as I’m holding the personnel card, I see Gilbert Frierson get the interception. I throw the cards down, run and open the box and get the chain. I’m running and holding it up and putting it over his head.
“It was exciting.’’
This season, don’t be surprised if Young becomes the new in-game keeper of the vaunted turnover chain — five-and-a-half pounds of 10K gold “Cuban Link” bling. It's a possibility that has been discussed, and one Young would welcome.
"If me doing business doesn’t get in the way, I would look forward to doing that,’’ Young, who has a clothing line of T-shirts and caps called “Humble Child,’’ told the Miami Herald last week. He has had his clothing line since high school (go to humblechildapparel.com) but couldn’t promote it during football. He savored being a student-coach of sorts during the spring, and said he plans on attending practices and games in a similar role if he’s able to this fall.
“Individually, I’d talk to the young corners,’’ he said. “Sometimes they’d be on the field and be like, ‘Hey, what do I do?’
“I have the script for everything we’re running in practice and I’d tell them. That just lightens my day when there’s somebody coming and asking for help.’’
Seems like Young, 5-9 and 180 pounds, has been helping others as much as they have helped him since he crashed into 6-1, 255-pound, then-fifth-year-senior blocker Austin Ramesh of Wisconsin during a first-quarter Badgers kickoff return. Young said he tore a ligament near his skull, and a bone went slightly off kilter, and just like that — though he didn’t know it yet — he was done.
“My body actually vibrated,’’ he said.
Young said he was told football was over for sure during his second meeting with his doctor and father John Young, team chaplain Mike Blanc, cornerbacks coach Mike Rumph and head trainer Vinny Scavo a couple weeks after the game.
A thick silence permeated the room, the Youngs recalled, but Malek was his same, even-keeled self. No tears, just “mixed emotions,’’ he said.
“It was a moment of both sides, like, I’m in shock I can’t play football… but at the same time, I’m able to speak to others and encourage others…
“I thought, ‘I’m actually blessed… At least I get to live again.’
“I could have had a spinal cord injury. I could have ended up in a wheelchair.
“Every time I talk to someone about my situation I feel relieved. One thing I want to do is encourage others, give back to my community. There are a lot of people that make it out. It’s not always about giving money back. It’s the time you give back to your community. Not always about money, money, money.
“…I want to talk to the kids and tell them, ‘If there’s a will, there’s a way. Everybody has trials and tribulations. It’s how you overcome them.’’
Young, 20, who graduated from Coconut Creek High, is now pain-free, still on full scholarship and will earn his degree in his new major sociology, with a minor in sports administration, within two years. His grade point average is 3.1, he said, 3.6 when he graduated from high school.
“We’ve heard stories where kids were hurt and their scholarships were taken away,’’ said his mother, Terry, a file clerk for a car dealership. “But UM and Coach Mark Richt have allowed him to continue his education on scholarship. That’s extraordinary.’’
On the football field, where he excelled since he was 5 in Coral Springs and then when he moved with his parents and two older brothers and sister to Plantation and Lauderhill and finally, Fort Lauderdale, Young smothered receivers despite his smaller size — and despite his nerves that often caused him to vomit at the start of games.
A “fearless competitor’’ with “great feet,’’ Rumph called Young, who started 10 of 13 games this past season and had 43 tackles, three tackles for loss, two interceptions and a team-high eight pass breakups.
“Malek was a coveted football player,’’ said Joel Rodriguez, UM’s director of player development/defense, a former Canes center whose job responsibilities included being the keeper of the turnover chain during games last season. “He’s a very talented kid. Fast, intelligent, high-level football instincts.
“But he’s also awesome off the field — conscientious, super nice and respectful and compassionate to others. It just comes naturally to Malek. He’s the kind of kid you really enjoy being around.’’
UM chaplain Mike Blanc, a former Auburn defensive tackle, knew Young in high school when Blanc served as director of Broward County’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
“We all love Malek for not just the player he was but the young man he is,’’ Blanc said. “He’s a very special individual with the heart to do more than just football.”
Young’s girlfriend since high school, Karen Devaliere, stayed with him the three days he was in the hospital and for a week afterward, making sure he took his medication and comforting him when the pain got unbearable.
“This opened his eyes to see things differently,’’ Devaliere said, “like football is not the only way out.’’
Young still performs the same daily workouts he did during football, just on his own. He lifts weights at least four times a week and three days a week runs “at least 10 minutes on a treadmill, 6.5 miles an hour — nothing major, just a light jog.’’
He also plays recreational basketball with his family.
He conceded that most football players just talk about “a Plan B’’ should football end, but really don’t have that plan. “It’s kind of hard to go to school and play football,’’ Young said. “If you want to be great you focus on football to a whole different substantial. But it’s not your only way out, it’s your way to financially be stable to do something past it.
“Now I can have two years to figure out my Plan B as I take step by step.’’
Young’s father and mother, who will celebrate their 30th anniversary in August and raised him in a household steeped in faith, said they’re unbelievably proud.
“He’s always been relentless and driven,’’ said John, who grew up in Savannah, Georgia, and does detailing on boats and yachts for a living. “He’s not that much of an emotional person, but we talked about this backward and forward to see where his head was at. I never questioned God, but I questioned, ‘Why now?’ I told him I had lost it one day as I lay in bed and couldn’t stop crying. He was in the hospital, and I asked God to help give him direction.
“But that was already in him.’’
“God has a better plan for me,” Malek told his father.
“When I think of this situation and how he came out of it,’’ John said, “tears still come to my eyes.”
Terry Young, who said football “has been Malek’s life since he was 5,’’ is grateful her son is “is still connected to the team.’’
Now, about that turnover chain.
Young got to wear the first one ever awarded in last year’s season opener.
“It’s heavy,’’ he said, “and fun.’’
He got to wear it again in the victory against Notre Dame.
And soon, he just might be draping it around other players’ heads if that should work out next season.
“It’s championship time this year,’’ Young said, grinning. “We’re gonna be great.’’