Is former Lion receiver Young in prison because he has a mental illness?

In parts of two seasons with Detroit, Titus Young caught ten touchdown passes.

Titus Young turns 28 years old today. But he won’t be celebrating his birthday with family.

The former Lion wide receiver is behind bars in a prison in southern California, only a few miles from where he was once a star player in high school.

In April, Young was sentenced to four years in prison for an assault during a fight on the streets in Los Angeles in 2016. It was the latest in a string of disturbing behavior by Young, once a promising receiver for Detroit.

There are some, including members of his family and mental health professionals, who insist that Young is not a violent criminal, but rather is suffering from a mental health issue, perhaps the effects of head injuries suffered on the playing field.

The bizarre pattern of his behavior since his entry into the NFL in 2011 does demonstrate a young man who seemed to be morphing into a different person. One that his family, friends, and teammates did not recognize and ultimately could not get through to.

College years at Boise State

Though he was undersized, Young was highly recruited out of University High School (LA). College recruiters were impressed with his speed, route-running, and his hands. He was a fine leaper and had great instincts for the football. Also notable was his willingness to run across the middle of the football field, where receivers are frequently met by much larger defensive backs. Young did not shy away from the violent hits that are part of higher levels of football.

He chose Boise State University and arrived on campus as a freshman in 2007. Boise State belongs to the Mountain West Conference, a group of smaller schools that plays in the shadow of the much more popular Pac-10. But when Young joined the program, Boise State was making national headlines with their impressive play in recent seasons, including a 13-0 record in 2006. Long a powerhouse in their conference, the Broncos were looking to move into national prominence under head coach Chris Petersen.

Young had disciplinary troubles in his first season college, drawing team reprimands for undisclosed behavior and sitting out a portion of a Bowl game due to violations of team rules. Yet, Young was able to curb those problems and forge a fantastic career for the Broncos, setting team records for receptions, yards, and touchdowns by a receiver in his four-year career.  The team went 48-5 in his career at Boise state, and Young helped the Broncos to two Bowl game victories and a #4 college football ranking in 2009.

However, in his sophomore year Young played only three games before he the university suspended him for the remainder of the season. Teammates started reporting that Young’s personality was changing, that he was becoming more isolated.

Offensive rookie of the year for Detroit

To say that the Lions had bad luck drafting wide receivers in the early 2000s would be an understatement. Under the inept leadership of general manager Matt Millen, Detroit picked Charles Rogers and Michael Williams only to see them fizzle at the NFL level. By 2011 the front office was under more sensible leadership and picked defensive tackle Nick Fairley in the first round of the NFL Draft. In the second round, with the 44th overall pick, the Lions selected Young. A few draft experts had the Boise State receiver listed among the top two or three pass catchers in the draft, but his disciplinary problems in college scared many teams away. One report stated that an NFL team asked Young to leave a pre-draft workout. His stock was suspect, if not free-falling.

But the Lions liked his skills and felt they had made a great steal by getting Young in the second round. Their faith was rewarded initially when the wide receiver had a trouble-free rookie season.

Young made his first start in the Lions’ second game of the season, snagging five passes for 89 yards. On October 30 in Denver, he caught his first touchdown pass in a 45-10 Detroit victory. He either started or stayed in the receiving rotation for the rest of the season. Young finished his rookie season with 607 yards on 48 catches with six touchdowns. His coaches praised his attitude and commitment to becoming a good NFL receiver. He was named the Lions Offensive Rookie of the Year.

However, as the season wore on, Young changed noticeably. Some teammates complained that Young wouldn’t respond to them when they tried to talk, simply staring away. He drew an unsportsmanlike penalty in Week 13 when he inexplicably shoved Malcolm Jenkins of the Saints well after a play had ended. He was kept out of the remainder of the game.

Suspension and Tweets

The Titus Young who played for the Lions in 2012 was a different person.

“I don’t recognize him,” one teammate said during the tumultuous season.

Things started badly in training camp when Young punched teammate Louis Delmas. He was sent home after that incident. But he was in uniform for the first game of the season, catching one pass for 14 yards in Detroit’s win over the Rams at Ford Field. But his inability (or unwillingness) to engage his teammates and coaches kept him at a distance from the team. The Lions kept dressing him, hoping he’d snap out of it, but Young’s psyche spiraled as the season wore on.

In one team meeting he turned his chair the opposite way of the team. In practices he mumbled to coaches and refused to interact with teammates. His family was desperately trying to figure out what was happening, but Young pushed everyone away. Even his close friends, and entourage he’s created from his first season in the NFL, was cast aside.

In a Week Ten game against the Packers, Young exhibited bizarre behavior throughout the contest. One one play he lined up in the wrong position and when his coaches screamed at him to adjust, he ignored them. Moments later after a heated exchange with a coach, Young trotted back out to the huddle. When the huddle broke, he ran to the wrong side of the field and lined up in the wrong slot again. This time he looked straight ahead and did not acknowledge the shouts from the sidelines. The team sent him home and deactivated him for the next game. Young never played for the Lions again.

Exiled from the game, the 23-year old lashed out through social media. He published several tweets that criticized the team and his role on the Lions. “If I can’t get the ball I don’t want to play.” He tweeted.

Family members claim that Young briefly spent time in a Detroit mental facility or mental health clinic during this period, though his stay may have been very brief. His father pointed to a concussion suffered at University High and reportedly several concussions at Boise State. He also felt that his son had suffered “at least one concussion” in his rookie season with the Lions.

Refusal for help and legal problems

With their young wide receiver deteriorating by the day, the Lions sought help from the NFL. League officials offered counseling options, and the players’ union tried to reach out to give assistance. Young rebuffed them. Family and friends could not get through to him.

Family members continued to insist that Young had suffered a concussion and was not healthy. In February of 2013, the Lions released Young, having never tested him for a concussion.

A day after the Lions let him go, the Rams claimed Young and invited him to meet with team officials. Ten days later they released him, stating that they wanted to “go in a different direction.” Reportedly, Young had acted strangely during interviews with head coach Jeff Fisher.

At this time his father was able to convince his son to check in to a mental health facility in Los Angeles.

Severed completely from the NFL and without any structure in his life, Young quickly spiraled out of control. He was arrested for drunk driving, attempted car theft, and assault on a police officer.

During the ensuing legal proceedings Young was checked in to at least one mental health facility, though it’s not clear if that was voluntary or part of his pre-sentencing conditions. During this period he lashed out and “attacked” his own attorney when he was told he could not voluntarily leave the mental health facility. More troubles followed when he failed to appear for a court hearing and a warrant was issued for his arrest.

Armed with recommendations from medical specialists, Young’s legal team was able to convince the court that Young was not criminally dangerous but actually suffering from post-concussion injuries. In 2015 he was sentenced to one year of inpatient treatment and five years of probation.

Violent criminal or mentally ill?

Only a few months after being sentenced, Young bolted from his treatment facility and went to his home in Los Angeles. He apparently started drinking and became embroiled in an argument with a neighbor. He picked up a baseball bat (or a heavy stick, it’s unclear based on reports) and beat the neighbor in the street. He has been behind bars ever since.

Is Titus Young a violent man? A habitual criminal? Or is he suffering from the after-effects of serious trauma to his brain?

If the latter is the case that means the system failed him. Admittedly, the only people who support the theory that Young’s brain is damaged are those close to him. In addition, Young has exhibited obstinate behavior since his high school years.

On the other side of the argument, studies show the severe damage football can inflict on the brain. The consistent pounding and the violent collisions rattle the brain. One of the most dangerous aspects of being a receiver are the plays where they lead with your helmet.

Since he was a young teenager (at least), Young has been taught to play a violent game. He’s been involved in countless hits, reaching the highest level in his sport, going across the middle facing 250-pound linebackers and defensive backs with blazing speed who are trained to knock him out. On at least one occasion, in high school, his bell was rung.

In spite of obvious signs that he was not mentally healthy, Young continued to pursue a playing career and was able to shun most efforts to help him, and ultimately he did something so violent off the football field that he know finds himself locked up.

I’m not sure if Young is a victim or violent. If he’s suffering from playing a game or suffering because of the results of his own actions. But what if he’s sick? He’s now sitting in a jail cell where he may or may not be getting some treatment, but probably not the quality of treatment he deserves. How terrible that must be.

We know that there are many (if not millions) of mentally ill people in prison at this very moment. It’s a result of many things, including the closing of thousands of mental hospitals across the country over the last few decades. The stigma of mental illness contributes as well: there’s much we don’t understand about the brain, and there’s much about human behavior that confuses and scares us. Mental health is a difficult subject for most people.

Young will be eligible for parole about two years into his four-year sentence. Whether his can be changed remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: he deserves a chance, and if he is sick, he should get the help he needs as soon as possible.