Miami's Malek Young was a standout defensive back for the Hurricanes last year, the first player to wear the Turnover Chain. His career came to an abrupt end following a neck injury in the Capital One Orange Bowl. But Young has remained an integral part of Mark Richt's program. Here, Young takes us through his journey, in his own words.
I really thought I would be OK. I hurt my neck blocking on a kickoff in the bowl game, when me and the fullback hit helmet-to-helmet. We both fell to the floor. I laid there a few seconds. I felt a little shock right in my neck, but I got up and went to the sideline.
Coaches were going to put me back in the game, but I told our trainer my body got hot and was shaking after the hit. It was a third-down package, and my coaches were screaming, 'Where's Malek?' But I credit our trainer for pulling me back.
I didn't know it at the time, but he might have saved my life.
After a day or two, I felt fine. I went to the weight room. I was working out and running. I'm thinking nothing's wrong with my neck. Then I got the results from my MRI and CT scan. The doctor told me I couldn't play football anymore.
This can't be true. I was saying it in my head, but I was speechless. Are you serious? I didn't cry when this incident happened. I never questioned God. But my dad told me he questioned God. Why did I work so hard for this to happen. Why?
I needed surgery. I tore a ligament, and they had to stabilize my neck around my C1 and C2 bones. They inserted four screws and two rods. The doctor was telling me if I had taken another blow, I probably could have been paralyzed.
The first two weeks were so painful. I was in the hospital, and some of my teammates came to visit. I was in the worst pain ever, but I couldn't show it. When they left, I was crying. The medicine wasn't working. There was so much pain in my neck. I was throwing up, jerking my neck. The pain felt so excruciating because my neck was moving when it wasn't supposed to.
Then I spent a week at my parents' house. I had to drink out of a straw because I couldn't move my neck. I had to eat applesauce for a while because it was so hard to eat. My girlfriend stayed with me the whole time. She had to bathe me. I couldn't even tie my shoe. I lost seven pounds.
When I went back to school, I still had the neck brace on, and I couldn't take notes because I couldn't bend over to write. My classmates shared their notes with me, and my professors were understanding. I had to drop my English class because it was too hard to catch up after missing so much time.
That pain lasted for three weeks, and it was a struggle. I had to buy an inclined pillow to lay on. I couldn't lay straight down because of the pressure. Then when I had to get up, I couldn't because I had to use muscle tissues in my neck, so my girlfriend -- I had to wake her up every two hours to ask her to help me.
I didn't get any rotation in my neck until a month-and-a-half afterward. While all this was going on, I had a decision to make. Coach (Mark) Richt told me the school will continue to honor my scholarship. If the doctors cleared me, I would be allowed to run track. Or, Coach Richt said, I could stay with the football team as a student-coach.
I started playing football when I was 5 years old. Growing up where I'm from, either you play ball, you work a 9-5 job or you're in the streets. I wasn't going in the streets or work a 9-5.
In ninth grade, I got my first offer from Eastern Michigan. From there, it was on a roll. I committed to Georgia in 2015. Coach Richt was there. He was a Christian, and he could talk to you in a way you could understand what he was talking about. Then Coach Richt comes to Miami, and they hired (defensive backs) Coach (Mike) Rumph. That day Coach Rumph came and talked to me in my high school football office, I prayed to God. He showed me, come to Miami.
My freshman year, I wasn't starting. I was on scout team. I moved my way up. Adrian Colbert got injured, so I had to fulfill that role. From there everything started falling into place, just working hard. That spring I used to get an interception every practice. I had a good spring, good camp.
Then everyone really got to know who I was. When I first caught the interception against Bethune Cookman last season, I wasn't even thinking about the Turnover Chain. I forgot about it. But now I wonder why I had to be the first one to wear it?
Then the injury happened.
After a while, I realized I'm blessed. At least God let me play two years at Miami, and now I get to stay on scholarship and fulfill my academic role and still make my parents proud. I decided not to run track. I wanted to focus on the brand I started in high school called Humble Child. My first design was a crown with wings. When you humble yourself, you'll soar higher than your expectations.
But I also couldn't leave my teammates. That bond we have, it's like family, and not being there felt like I was giving up. I started playing with Miami. I'm going to finish my career with them. I went and talked to coach Diaz about my role as a student assistant. I still go to meetings, but now I sit in the second row. My teammate, Michael Jackson, leaves my old seat in the first row open. Michael asked me to design a T-shirt for the DBs. It says on the front: Most teams play with Eleven. We play with 12. That's my number.
Then it was time for the first day of spring practice. I wasn't even cleared to run, but I put my cleats on anyway. I was looking at the field and picturing being out there. I could see myself backpedaling. It was weird, but I couldn't imagine being anywhere else.
All my life, I've been playing football. Maybe that wasn't my purpose. Maybe I still don't know my purpose to this day. Maybe I could be helping kids. I still don't know, but since I could help my teammates, showing what I learned from Coach Rumph and Coach Diaz, that makes me feel better because I'm giving what I know to other people.
Practice was going well. Before the spring game, Coach Diaz walks up to me when they're warming up and he goes, "You know what your role is, right?" I usually hold the personnel cards. He's like, "No, you're giving the Turnover Chain."
That made me happy to be involved in that assignment. So when the defense gets a turnover, it's like I'm getting a turnover also. I get to feel that same enjoyment they're feeling. When Gilbert Frierson got the interception, I dropped the cards and I rushed over for the chain. I picked up the chain, raised it up and was running high knees, just smiling. I was so ready to do it. I was very ecstatic to see the kids happy. I texted Gilbert the next day. I was like, "This is yours, you've got to write your own book."
I believed in God since I was a kid. I grew up going to church. He wouldn't put you through obstacles that you can't face. If I wasn't tough enough, he wouldn't put me through this. He knows I have bigger and better plans after this.
I still don't know why this happened. But I told myself, don't give up. I'm just blessed. I'm not paralyzed. I can still walk and talk to my teammates and communicate with other people. Just to be able to share my story, that's a blessing.
I have this Martin Luther King Jr. quote tattooed on my arm:
If you can't fly, then run. If you can't run, then walk. If you can't walk, then crawl but whatever you do, keep moving forward.
That's what I'm doing.