CORAL GABLES — Malek Young prays often, and did so before every game. Typically, he didn’t ask for much. As he knelt in the end zone with his teammates on Dec. 30 at Hard Rock Stadium before the Orange Bowl, he gave thanks to his family, coaches and teammates. He asked God keep everyone safe.
He’s trying to figure out why it didn’t happen that night, when he suffered a devastating neck injury that resulted in surgery to fuse his C1 and C2 vertebrae and ended his football career.
“In my head, I’m like, what’s going on?” he said, speaking to a Post reporter last at UM’s Schwartz Center, in his first interview since the injury. “What’s your plan? All my life I thought my plan was to play football. But it looks like God has a better plan. I don’t know what my plan is yet, but that’s something I’m working on and looking forward to getting to know.”
‘Man is hurt’
A kickoff return is one of the most violent plays in a violent sport, and this appeared to be like any other. After Travis Homer’s touchdown gave Miami a 7-3 lead over Wisconsin, Young raced down the left sideline. His job was to seal the edge: he would lock up with a blocker, trying to steer the returner toward the middle of the field, and make the tackle if possible. Just as he did on dozens of kickoffs before, he met his man, Badgers fullback Austin Ramesh, at the 18-yard line, and locked on.
This time, Young, 5-9 and 180 pounds, and Ramesh, 6-1 and 255, knocked helmets.
“That’s when it happened,” Young said. A stabbing pain.
His head twisted to the left, ligaments in his upper neck stretched beyond natural repair. As kick returner Natrell Jamerson approached, Young was standing but unable to move. Behind him, Wisconsin fullback Alec Ingold hauled down Miami safety Amari Carter, an act the SEC-based officiating crew would penalize as holding. The falling pair took out Ramesh, who was still tangled with Young. Ramesh pulled down Young, whose limp body fell flat. He rolled off Ramesh and crumbled at the 20.
“My body went into shock,” he said. “It just vibrated.”
The entire play lasted eight seconds. At 5:16 of the first quarter in the Orange Bowl, his career was over.
As he watched from home, John Young had a sick feeling. “Man is hurt,” he said to Terry, his wife of 29 years, calling the youngest of their four children by his family nickname. “She said, ‘How?’ I said, ‘I’m telling you. When he laid there for a moment, I knew.’”
After two seconds on the ground, Young rose and trotted to the sideline. He recalled telling teammates and coaches, “I’m good. I’m good. It’s just a sharp pain in my neck.”
Head trainer Vinny Scavo recognized a potential problem and acted. Cornerbacks coach Mike Rumph remains grateful. Unaware in that moment, both he and Young were preparing for Young to play the ensuing defensive series.
“Big game. Top corner. Probably would have made a difference,” Rumph said. “Thank God for Vinny, man.”
Strength on display
John Young admits his son is dealing with the injury better than he is.
He didn’t shed a tear when a doctor told him, Malek, Rumph and UM chaplain Mike Blanc, that his son “100 percent” would never play again. But there was a night, shortly after Malek’s injury, after his wife left their bedroom, that Young broke down and sobbed.
“He worked so hard,” he said. “Why? Why at this point, when scouts and everything were coming out … the possibility of going to the NFL, his dream, gets snatched just like that?
John began calling Malek “Man” as a toddler, as he watched him with a mix of amusement and astonishment. Soon after learning to walk, his son wouldn’t waddle down a set of stairs. He would try to slide on his belly. When he pedaled on his first bike, he tried to pop wheelies. He wouldn’t dip into a pool. He would jump.
“Man,” John Young said. “He was a daredevil.”
It helped him compete with his two older brothers, then become a standout player in the Coral Springs Chargers, his first youth team, and at Coconut Creek High. He committed to Georgia in 2015 after bonding with then-Bulldogs coach Mark Richt, then signed with Miami in 2016, picking UM over Ohio State, Auburn, Clemson and about 20 other major schools.
He started four games as a freshman and recorded his first interception in the end zone, on Nov. 19, 2016 at North Carolina State. By his sophomore season at Miami, he was UM’s best cover corner, leading the team with 10 passes defended (eight break-ups and two interceptions). His work was regularly praised by advanced stats website Pro Football Focus, which hailed him as one of the top corners in the ACC.
In his two-year career, Young had 66 tackles, three interceptions and 11 pass deflections. He was also the first player to wear Miami’s turnover chain, after a pick in the Sept. 2 season-opener against Bethune-Cookman.
Before games, he had a peculiar habit of throwing up, owing to his nervous energy. After that, he would play ferocious and free.
In his own way, his father is trying to do the same.
“He’s helped to make me stronger,” John Young said, “because he’s taking it so well.”
Hopeful, uncertain future
Everyone’s football career stops at some point. It’s harder to process when it ends at age 20.
He is no longer Malek Young, rising star cornerback for the Miami Hurricanes. He is Malek Young, college student who can no longer play football, who gets his stitches out Tuesday.
Young, who is majoring in psychology and minoring in sociology, remains on scholarship. He is a budding entrepreneur, selling t-shirts under the label “Humble Child.” He and his girlfriend, who have been together since high school, hope to start a family one day. He said he wants to “encourage the youth in the community,” whether through coaching or speaking or another avenue.
“You never know what they’re going through.”
He will miss the early training sessions, the thrill of playing, the jokes and dancing after practices. He is welcome to be around the team as much as he wants to be. If cleared by doctors, he could even run track this spring.
John Young recently wondered if his son might pen an inspiring comeback story in football. On Sunday, he posted a video on Instagram of himself, wearing a neck brace and moving cautiously, teaching his nephew how to backpedal. Maybe if the X-rays look good on Tuesday …
“He was like, ‘Dad, I’m not even worrying about it,’” John Young said. “It happened for a reason. He said, ‘I’m not going to force it. I’m going to finish, get my masters, and move on from there.’”
Young said he’s focused on school and figuring out what’s next. Rumph will be there “every step of the way,” knowing that there are hard moments to come.
“He didn’t shed a tear,” Rumph said, recalling the moment in the doctor’s room. “His dad didn’t shed a tear. He said he’s going to be alright. … He took it like a man. He took it way better than I probably would have taken it.
“But you don’t know until you see your boys out there in those uniforms again.”
Come what may, he’ll have support.
“We want to help Malek chase his dreams,” Richt said, “whatever they may be.”
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