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Still tippin' to the top

In H-Town hip-hop crews throw some shout-outs to Longhorns quarterback Vince Young

Michael Corcoran

Originally published December 22, 2005

Talk about your regal booty buffing.

Before the Big 12 championship Dec. 3 in Houston, some sports pundits were quick to remind fans that Texas had thumped Colorado in the 2001 regular season, only to lose to the Buffaloes 39-37 in December of that year. Crazy things happen in the Big Dozen 'ship.

But the Horns slaughtered the Buffaloes like sadistic cavalrymen in the Old West. 70 to 3 in the third quarter? Where was boxing ref Mills Lane to stop this thing? Second-string quarterback Matt Nordgren has done more mop-up duty this season than a Marine recruit with a smart mouth.

As the minutes ticked mercifully away for the overmatched boys of Boulder, the well-rested Texas starters were hanging all over each other like the posse in a Lil' Flip video and shouting out an echo chant from Notorious B.I.G.: "We're goin' goin' back back to Cali, Cali."

Same colors, different day.

Like the advent of bebop, this is a new, adventurous breed of Horns. Led by a Houston homeboy who's been signing autographs since Bobby Brown had hits, the current teammates are swaggering products of the hip-hop culture, and embraced by Houston's "Dirty South" rap community as the vintage Horn teams of Tommy Nobis, James Street and Earl Campbell were the faves of Texas-bred country singers.

"In Houston, we're always underdogs," says rapper Trae, from the same south-side environs that hatched VY. "We ain't New York or L.A., so we have to come stronger, harder, to get respect. Vince is goin' to Cali to tear 'em up, to show 'em who the real Heisman winner is."

Having fielded the last all-white national championship football team in 1969, Texas has long been thought of as the vanilla team, with its earliest black players taunted as subservient pawns. Raymond Clayborn, who would become a star defensive back in the NFL, was one of only six blacks on UT's varsity in 1973.

"When I was younger," he said in the book "Bleeding Orange" by the American-Statesman's John Maher and Kirk Bohls, "I always favored Oklahoma because they had all the blacks."

In the '70s and '80s, Barry Switzer allowed flashy players to let their personalities shine and attracted some of the best black candidates from Texas. Miami was another school that earned a reputation for letting players exploit the full range of their athleticism instead of rigidly conforming to the Xs and Os.

Meanwhile, the storied Texas football program hunkered down for two decades of mediocrity. Low point: The orange got burnt badly at home in 1989, losing to Baylor 50-7, as unthinkable an outcome today as reports that Jessica Simpson left Nick Lachey for DeLoss Dodds.

The main plot line for the current Horns campaign is that a freakishly gifted athlete spends hours in the film room, studying how to break down defenses, while his tightly wound coach with a rep for needing a Heimlich maneuver after big games learns to loosen up and jam to some 50 Cent.

"Chest bump me, coach," Young asked Brown after the Big 12 Championship victory evicted one simian residing between his shoulder blades.

"I've come a long way," the Gatorade-soaked coach said, "but not that far."

No quarterback since Michael Vick has gotten his swerve on like Vince, whose name has been cropping up in raps by artists such as Paul Wall ("I rep for Texas like Vince Young") and Z-Ro. Burnt-orange jerseys, once the symbol of stodginess, have suddenly become hip, according to Trae, who rolls with the Guerilla Maab.

"It's Houston's time in rap and it's Vince's time in football," says Trae, who promises to bust a few freestyle rhymes about No. 10 on Friday at the Back Room, when he headlines the Streets of Texas Tour, featuring S.L.A.B., Point Blank, MC Fatal and other children of DJ Screw.

Houston's child

When VY placed second in Heisman voting to USC's Reggie Bush, he hung his head and was slower to congratulate this Bush than Al Gore was the other one. Some in the media questioned Young's maturity, even after he explained that his show of sadness

was for all the people back home in Texas that he had let down.

But Ralph Cooper understood. "You can't underestimate just how much Vince has meant to Houston, and vice versa," says Cooper, the sports director at Houston's KCOH radio station. "His athletic ability has been legendary since eighth grade at Dick Dowling Middle School. We've all watched and cheered this respected young man, knowing the price he's had to pay to get to where he is."

Abandoned by his father (currently in prison on burglary charges) at age 3, Young became man of the house in a hurry, watching over his mother and two sisters. He was tempted to join a gang in the seventh grade, but when his mother found out she came down on him hard, making him rake the yard and then emptying the bag of leaves when it was full to make him do it again. Vince got the point and glided through trouble traps like he did through the Oklahoma State defense earlier this year.

But the hard-core rap that put Houston on the map, first with the Geto Boys in the early '90s and then the slowed-down "screwed and chopped" stuff that sounds like the rappers are underwater, was unavoidable. Many of the current stars of Houston hip-hop knew Young at an early age.

"He used to come to these high school dance parties I threw at the Brasewood Inn," says Wall, who says he's gone from Longhorn fan to fanatic since Young's arrival.

But no rapper is tighter with Young than the kid whose Gib & Izzy duo is new to the scene. UT basketball star Daniel Gibson shares not only a human sexuality class with Young, but a whole lot of hometown memories. "When you're both reppin' Houston," Gibson recently told Sports Illustrated, "you tend to get a lot closer."

Both were highly recruited superstars from Houston high schools, but where Gibson, two years younger than Vince, had T.J. Ford to lead the way, Young was entering relatively unchartered terrain. "There was some apprehension," Cooper says, when Vince, the nation's top prep player, chose Texas over Miami out of Madison High.

"The perception was that Texas wasn't a good fit for a black quarterback. We were afraid that they would try to turn Vince into a wide receiver, like they did Donnie Little," Cooper says of the first black quarterback to play for the Longhorns.

There was also the cautionary tale of Donovan Forbes, a former high school phenom from the Houston area who rode the Longhorn bench from 1986 to 1989, starting only one game, when Peter Gardere was ailing. Beaumont's James Brown became UT's first standout black quarterback in the mid-'90s (and also caused several near-coronaries with the infamous "roll left" pass on fourth and a fingernail against Nebraska in 1996).

Cooper points to running back Ricky Williams as helping to change the image of Texas as the Gerald Ford of football programs. "He was a free spirit with his own personality," Cooper says. Those dreadlocks pouring out from under his helmet showed high school prospects that you could let your hair down, so to speak, at the school black students used to call "Mr. Man."

Although Williams easily won the Heisman and set the NCAA career rushing record with a spectacular TD run against Texas A&M in his final college game in 1998, his importance to the Longhorns was nothing compared with Young's -- on, and especially off the field. This is VY's team as much as it is Mack Brown's, and you have to give the coach credit for allowing Young's leadership skills to flourish.

Two big games last season set up this charmed championship run. The first was a 12-0 loss to Oklahoma in October '04. Afterward, Young sat in his dorm room with the lights out for a week, harder on himself than a booth full of yelping ESPN second-guessers. He also played poorly, tentatively, the next week against Missouri, going 3 for 9 passing, with two interceptions in a game the Horns were lucky to win 28-20.

Then came the notorious heart-to-heart, recounted ad nauseam in every Longhorn football game whose actionless (read: Vinceless) second half needed to be filled with trivia from the talking heads. "Let me be me, Coach," the beleaguered quarterback pleaded. Vince wanted to loosen up the troops by leading "flow sessions" of dancing and jawing in the locker room before games. He wanted the freedom to create on the field without being chewed out for deviating from the plan. He wanted to talk some trash Friday night at dinner, instead of eating in silence, which was the rule on the nights before games. Vince wasn't having fun and it was affecting his performance.

And then Brown earned a coach of the year nod by saying just two initials. OK. Young's personality, unleashed, became the team's.

This season began, in earnest, in the Horns' final game last year, when they came from behind to beat Michigan 38-37 in the Rose Bowl, in one of the greatest games of all time. Young was magnificent, otherworldly, basking in the limelight like George Hamilton in the sun. With four spectacular touchdown runs and one through the air, the legend of Vince was born.

Last year's team came into this season with a focus that seemed to inspire the slogan "Take Dead Aim" instead of the other way around.

"Rose Bowl's over, y'all," Young told the team before spring practice, challenging his receivers to meet him after practice to get extra work in. They all showed up.

Horns history on the horizon

Don't assign light terms like cockiness to this team's absence of fear and complete unwillingness to lose. The secret to being a good street fighter is to not worry about getting hit, and where previous Horns teams, laden with golden boys, seemed to be pulling back while throwing air-schwoosing hooks, this group of hungry Horns is gonna hit you harder than you hit them. This is new to these parts.

Someone, who obviously hadn't seen this year's Horns, asked Young if the Horns were intimidated, just a little, about going up against a team going for its third consecutive championship. "Intimidated by what?" the QB said. "We have guys on this team who are gangsta. You see their guys (talking trash) to other teams and the other guys aren't talking back. Our guys will talk trash from beginning to end." This team takes the code of the street to the gridiron like no other Horn team before; what pleasure to finally side with the bad boys.

It'll be a win-win situation for UT, but also lose-lose in the Rose Bowl. If they beat USC, the national championship trophy comes back to Austin, but the Horns will most likely lose Vince to the NFL's mega-millions. Kid could be playing for the Houston Texans this time next year. If Texas loses, we'll have another year of watching Vince in our own backyard -- not a bad consolation. Best case: we win and Vince stays, but even though VY says he's coming back, there's some doubt he will if UT wins.

What's important is that the Horns are still tippin', as they call cruising in the south side of Houston, still going for that dream that moved into the zip code of reality at the Rose Bowl a year ago. And the city of Houston -- everyone from hard-core rappers to grandmas who remember that nice boy Vince -- will be cheering them on.

If the 2005 Texas Longhorns prevail against USC, they'll make history. The Heisman means next to nothing when you realize that Vince Young has the chance to be among the first African Americans to win a consensus national championship for the storied University of Texas football program.

Let that sink in.

The Horns are going to be playing for Julius Whittier, the first black player to letter in football at UT in 1970, and for Roosevelt Leaks, the first black star, who used "Uncle Tom" slurs as an incentive to knock would-be tackles on their rear ends. They're going to be playing for Donnie Little, who was stunned when he entered the game against Rice in 1978 and heard the announcement that he was the first black athlete to play quarterback for UT. He had no idea.

And the Texas team will be playing for their boys back home, whether that's in Cameron or Belton or Port Arthur or Mesquite or deep in the down south side of Houston where the bass shakes and bakes like a 6-foot-5 quarterback who just may be destiny's child.

But most of all, the Horns, this family of soldiers, this brotherhood of competitors, will be playing for themselves and each other.

Who's gonna stop 'em? As the Geto Boys, the grandaddies of Houston hip-hop once said: Bring it on!

mcorcoran@statesman.com; 445-3652