Dublin: 14°C Friday 30 July 2021
Advertisement

Hollywood, the NFL and OJ - the remarkable tale of the Dublin kid who lived the American dream

Adrian Young was a star with the Philadelphia Eagles but that’s only half of an inexplicable tale.

IT WAS THE early ’50s and Adrian Young had a pretty typical Dublin childhood. 

Home was Albert Court, across from Boland Mills. His grandfather delivered bread for the company on a horse-drawn carriage so it made sense for the family to be based close by. His mother was a baker and worked for Sheries on Abbey Street. He went to St Canice’s CBS on the North Circular Road – ‘a tough place’ – and there were stints at Westland Row and Haddington Road too.

So far, so uneventful. 

“We’d go to some hurling and football matches at Croke Park and myself and my older brother participated in a track meet there, so I did get to experience being involved in a sports event at Croker, which meant a great deal to me,” Young says.    

“I wasn’t doing much in terms of organised sport at that stage but one of my big memories is of my father, Brendan, who was an athletic guy, working for the Drimnagh Paper Mills at one point. They had a football team and I remember going with him – myself and my brother both perched on his bike – as he went to the Phoenix Park to play matches on Sundays.”

“My mother was from a big family and they lived across the street from us. We were typical Dubs at the time. We took one bath a week, she heated the water over the kitchen stove and the toilet was out the back. I went online to have a look recently and the entire place has been turned into an upscale development. I thought, ‘What the heck’s going on here?’ The neighbourhood has changed, obviously.”    

But it was the middle of the decade when Young’s father, following in the footsteps of some of his siblings, rolled the dice and made the decision to leave Ireland. With an uncle based in Baltimore, about forty miles north of Washington DC, he went over first, saved enough money to build a home and then the rest of the family followed.

The adventure remains a vivid one for Young.

“We went to Cobh and took the big boat – the SS United States,” he says.  

“It was a six/seven day trip and this was a whole new world for little kids from Dublin. We were mesmerised by everything. It was bigger than life, compared to what we were used to. We landed in New York, with all of our belongings in this trunk, and waited for our father who was going to pick us up. But he didn’t have much money and, of course, the car broke down somewhere en route. We sat there for six hours, in the middle of New York, and waited for him. Finally he arrived and off we went, back to Baltimore. And when I got to the house, I saw – for the first time in my life – a television set. It was going from one world to another. And I also remember that for the first two or three weeks, we didn’t have long trousers. All we wore at that time was short pants. We were those two strange kids walking around Baltimore. So it was a big deal when my parents got us long pants for the first time.”

His father’s job in a meat-packing facility provided a foundation but it wasn’t long before California – with its warm weather and booming aerospace and defence industries – became an appealing alternative. One of Young’s aunts also lived there, which would help with settling in. So, all five of them (a sister had been born in Baltimore by this stage), packed themselves into a 1953 Ford, drove through the Appalachian Trail, along Route 66 and made it all the way to southern California.

When the family settled in La Puente – about a half hour outside downtown LA – Young attended Bishop Amat High School. With soccer notably absent from the extra-curricular activity list, he started out playing gridiron football and loved it. The coach was ex-Notre Dame and had played under the legendary Frank Leahy. Inevitably, the school started to amass success and Young was crucial to it. He grew into a fierce player and leader, becoming a captain and accruing various accolades. They won an Inter-State championship and Young was selected as one of the best players around.         

“People always wonder where the motivation and drive to excel at something and stand above everyone else comes from,” he begins. 

“Well, I was Irish – from this small island – but suddenly found myself in a big place. When I realised I was kinda good at football, it was a way for me to feel more comfortable being a part of this bigger thing, if that makes sense? I pushed myself as hard as I could.”

“We never had extra money, though we were always told that life was an opportunity to chase what was in front of you. The entire football thing was alien to my parents but I remember how they saved up money to get me a pair of football cleats – the best ones they could get at the time. They went out of their way to do that and support me. And I thought, ‘If I’m gonna wear these – the best cleats around – I better be the best too’. I was a skinny kid with glasses but I was tough as nails, like a lot of Irish kids are. People had been saying to me, ‘You’re good enough to go to a big college but you’re just too small’ and they were right. I weighed around 165 lbs and I decided to dedicate myself to training. There was a guy – another good Irish man – called Phil Cantwell who was instrumental in helping me. I built myself up and got to 210 lbs and coupled with the school victories and my individual honours, it got me to a place where scholarship offers started to come in. I could never have afforded to go to university and one day, an offer arrived from USC (University of Southern California), who were national football champions a few years earlier. They were a huge name. Essentially, the Liverpool of college football. And I was fortunate enough to land a full scholarship.” 

Young is a legend within USC football circles, which is no easy feat considering the athletes that have passed through. Under heavyweight coaching figure John McKay, Young’s time there culminated in a memorable national championship triumph in 1967. He was co-captain of a magnificent side that featured the likes of OJ Simpson, Tim Rossovich and Ron Yary. And it was during one particular game during that campaign – against longtime rivals Notre Dame – when Young made NFL teams stand up and take notice.

AdrianYoung Adrian Young was a standout college prospect at USC and inevitably carved out a solid NFL career. Source: University of Southern California

“You talk about the luck of the Irish,” he says. 

Notre Dame were our arch-rivals. The year before, they’d absolutely humiliated us and won 51-0. And our record was terrible in their place. But I got the four interceptions that day in ’67 and we beat them in South Bend, Indiana, for the first time since the late-1930s. That game boosted my reputation, certainly. It was the middle of the season and we were being thought of as a pretty good side. I remember getting on the bus at USC to head to the airport and there were hundreds of people gathered to wish us well. My brother, who I was living with at the time, had a friend – a guy from Spain – who gave me a medal his mother had given him. It was to wish me luck. I just thought, ‘How typically Irish – one Catholic giving another a religious medal to bring good fortune’”.

Young’s four interceptions that afternoon tied a conference record and gave USC a major foothold in the game.

In his coverage of the clash for the LA Times, esteemed sportswriter Jim Murray referred to Young’s ‘greatest day’, before revealing the kid wasn’t even a US citizen yet owing to his Irish background.  

Meanwhile, Simpson, an astonishing physical presence at running back, carried 38 times, ran for 160 yards and conjured all three of USC’s touchdowns as they came from behind to win 24-7. His performance even left opposition staffers dumbfounded.

Roger Valdiserri was Notre Dame’s PR guru and offered a a famous summation to Sports Illustrated after the game.

“Simpson’s nickname shouldn’t be Orange Juice,” he said.

“It should be Oh Jesus, as in ‘Oh Jesus, there he goes again.’”

A university-level phenomenon, Simpson would go on to claim the Heisman Trophy – awarded to the best prospect around – the following year. By that stage, USC – with Young as skipper – had been crowned champions. In a crucial game in front of 90,000 against near neighbours UCLA, Simpson produced one of the famous moments in college football history, running 64 yards to claim the winning touchdown. USC won 21-20 and booked their place in the Rose Bowl against the Indiana Hoosiers on 1 January 1968, emerging victorious on a 14-3 scoreline with Simpson picking up another pair of touchdowns.

It was an intimidating group of talented athletes but Young held his own and was selected as an All-Conference and All-American, along with Simpson, Ron Yary and Tim Rossovich.    

“Our coach, John McKay, didn’t really like giving out freshman scholarships – there were only thirteen of them,” he says. 

“He had the pick of what was around California in terms of the junior college system and because you were limited in how many scholarships you had, he almost preferred transfers. So, OJ was a junior college transfer. Ron Yary was a junior college transfer. It was the same story for Earl McCullouch too, who was a gifted sprinter as well as our wide receiver. But I got a freshman scholarship. And that was a real feather in my cap, I felt.”           

One of the proudest things for me is that I was voted ‘Most Inspirational Player’ by my team-mates from that championship-winning group. And these are just incredible moments that I look back on. When you were chosen on the All-American team, you’d be introduced on the stage of The Ed Sullivan Show and it was this incredible thrill to fly to New York and appear on this TV show watched by tens of millions of Americans every Sunday night. Then the next week it was the same type of thing but The Bob Hope Show.”

Considering the profile college football carries in the United States, Young and his gifted team-mates were celebrities in their own right. Everyone knew what was ahead of them and being based in Los Angeles only added to the glitz and glamour.

unnamed-4

Simpson, inevitably, was the first draft pick in 1969 and carved out a superb NFL career with the Buffalo Bills. 

Yary was the first draft pick twelve months earlier and became a star with the Minnesota Vikings while Rossovich, like Young, was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles the same year. Rossovich, a well-known presence in the notorious Sigma Chi fraternity, was room-mates with another USC student, Tom Selleck, and an eccentric guy, known for his elaborate party ‘tricks’ which included setting himself on fire, driving cars off of piers and eating glass. When his NFL career came to an end, he truly embraced the Hollywood life and became an actor and stuntman.            

“These players were all special,” Young says.

“There were some great characters and we had enormous respect for each other because we worked so damn hard. We left it all on the field, every practice. I fed it and it fed me and we all gained from it.”  

Be part
of the team

Access exclusive podcasts, interviews and analysis with a monthly or annual membership.

Become a Member

“I was very friendly and close with Timmy (Rossovich) and we ended up as room-mates in Philly. The images of him as this crazy guy, eating glass and all of that – he did those things – but it wasn’t the Timmy I knew. Firstly, you couldn’t keep up the pace with a guy like that. Secondly, he was a quiet, peaceful fella. But he’d knock you to the ground in a heartbeat. A big-boned Slav guy. Big hands. I weighed 215 lbs because I worked hard. I don’t think he ever lifted a weight and he was 235 lbs.” 

OJ Simpson was a gentleman, kinda quiet. He came to USC and got married during his time there. And he was still very young, nineteen, I think. And then he had his first child soon after. The guys that were married were different to those who weren’t. We were looking around and checking it out and he was already settled down. But he was a really hard worker. An inspirational worker, really. And I think we inspired each other.” 

“My time there was a great education, especially coming from my background. Getting to know the upper echelons of southern Californian society was a real added bonus. I’d go to the athletic awards dinners at the end of the year and would find myself talking to Californian billionaires: industry leaders, bankers, financiers, engineers. USC was that kind of place.  You rubbed shoulders with people like that and got to know them. 

“I remember going to parties at various houses, walking into the den and looking at Oscars and Emmy awards on display and these kids saying, ‘Let me show you what my Dad won’ and you’re staring at an Academy Award sitting in a glass case. It wasn’t sports trophies. USC had a great cinema school so a lot of the kids of Hollywood producers and actors were involved in that. The Sigma Chi house – which was a fraternity – had a lot of those guys. And Tom Selleck, who Timmy was close with, played on the volleyball and basketball teams.”

The entire college experience was a weird one. On one hand, there was a revolutionary perpetual summer. Opportunity. Adventure. Possibility. But the Vietnam War still raged and there was the bleak realisation that many students would enlist. For Young, sport provided him with a welcome distraction.  

“All of our coaches had short haircuts and we were pushing to grow ours just to be part of the scene,” he says. 

unnamed-6

“The Vietnam War was also going on at the time so the campus was in turmoil with people marching. There was the combination of the hippie movement and the various protests so football was a place where you could kinda hide from that. It was more of a personal project.”

Young’s NFL career saw him spend five seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles while there were shorter stints with the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears. He’s hard on himself, wondering if his best days were already behind him when he was drafted. But there were plenty of impediments outside of his control. And regardless, those 50+ NFL games and the rush of being a professional sports star in the United States remains something he’s immensely proud of.        

“I look back on my time in the NFL as a bit of a disappointment, in the sense that I went to a team where there wasn’t continuity in coaching or ownership,” he says. 

“So even though I felt comfortable participating and playing at that level – maybe not excelling but being representative – things were happening around me. In my rookie season, the owner went bankrupt and a new one came in and it was controversial. The coaches changed two or three times during my time there. So on the organisational side, it was a bad experience. But, merely because I had the chance to be a professional football player, it was tremendous.” 

“Also, I had been fortunate up to that point in terms of injuries. But then I tear my ligament off my bone in my right ankle. I get a medial collateral ligament. My knee gets destroyed. Things began to pile up on me a little bit. One of the big things for me as a player was my quickness. I was able to participate in a passing defence very well because I had quick feet. But as I started to get beat up, it wore on me. My edge was that I played to my utmost. And when I couldn’t, it was a problem. It is a vicious, tough sport. But I was the starting linebacker and played five-and-a-half-years for the Eagles. And nothing can take away from that.”

In Philly, he met his wife and started a family. Other things became more important for him. Shortly after, he moved back to California and carved out a successful second career in the real estate business. 

Still, despite him being over sixty years in the US, his background is something he remains deeply proud of. 

“The Irish side of my life was always a respected thing,” he says. 

“I was always that bit different as a player. I was a Dublin guy and that was commonly talked about by journalists. I was a very fortunate man. I had a great family that supported me and my parents were proud that their child found something they were good at and made a career of it. My father was a teetotaller, he took the pledge when he was twelve. He wasn’t a raucous Irish fella. If my parents made 100 dollars, they put twenty in the bank. They’d kneel down at 6pm and say the rosary. We were altar boys. It was a very Irish family. Old-fashioned Irish. And that’s still immensely important to me.” 

The42 is on Instagram! Tap the button below on your phone to follow us!

About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

Read next:

COMMENTS (7)

This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel