They are all older. Many have earned more money. They understand realities that the voice does not — wives, children, aging — and yet it resonates. They bounce on their toes, nod their helmets, shimmy their shoulders as the voice plays conductor. There is a moment after it has stopped, a split-second really, when the circle closes tight, as if Chase Young’s voice alone had pulled them together.
“It’s crazy unusual for a rookie to have the type of leadership that Chase has. Genuine leadership,” quarterback Alex Smith said. “I think a lot of young guys, especially high [draft] picks, I think you feel pressure to do it some way or somehow. I think Chase is so comfortable in his own skin and being who he is. I think guys respect that, but it’s rare to have a guy that young step in and really affect his teammates as positively as he has.”
The rookie defensive end did not intend for any of this to happen. He didn’t set out to become a locker room leader. He doesn’t ping-pong up and down the sidelines, chatting with teammates and coaches and the guy who holds the down marker, for show.
“That’s just me,” he said. “During the games, I can’t sit down, for real. Like, we’re playing. I can’t sit down.”
Young said this week that the caffeine-like adrenaline kick that turns him into the “Energizer Bunny” came early. He is about to play the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday night with the season on the line. But the pregame circle will signal that one of the most important developments of the year already has happened.
Players and coaches knew Young was talented — and as the NFL defensive rookie of the year favorite, with 6.5 sacks and four forced fumbles, he has lived up to those expectations. But the leadership surprised them. The 21-year-old grew this year, earning the respect of a locker room and showing his father, a career law enforcement officer, his thoughtfulness in deciding to kneel for the national anthem. The growth crystallized last week, when Rivera rescinded the captaincy of quarterback Dwayne Haskins and the team voted for Young to replace him, a rare honor for a non-quarterback rookie.
Washington believes Young is a franchise cornerstone. There’s hope the kid from Prince George’s County will wear the “C” on his jersey for a generation. And Young wants to validate this belief with action, an echo of the credo he carries on Sundays: “You can’t be loud and not make no plays.”
“Since I came here, I haven’t been on bulls---,” Young said. “Guys knew that just from how I carry myself throughout the building. I tried to let everybody know I wasn’t on bulls--- and that I’m here to work. I’m here to win games.”
The problem with asking those closest to Young, “When did he become a leader?” is that they stopped thinking about it long ago. This is just who he is, maybe who he has always been. They treat it like another fact in his biography: He was born April 14, 1999. His favorite song to sing is “Jupiter Love” by Trey Songz. And he leads.
Young can’t pinpoint when he became this way. He thinks it’s possible he started because youth teams orbit around their best players. In fact, the more he considers the theory, the likelier it seems. It must have been natural because he is certain he has never sought to lead.
The first time the leadership stood out was in high school. For his sophomore year, he transferred from St. Vincent Pallotti to DeMatha, a national powerhouse. Some players and parents dismissed him as a kid who only excelled against weaker competition. But in his first game, against Miami Central on ESPN, Young registered three sacks. Soon after, coaches noticed Young grow more comfortable speaking up. He let everyone know what the team needed to do to win — including older teammates.
“There were a few guys that were a part of the team but really just didn’t buy in,” Young remembered. “It had been happening for a while.” He paused. “If I’m on the team with you and stuff is going on or if stuff keeps happening, I’m going to approach you, and we’re going to talk about it. However that gets handled, it gets handled. And I want my teammates to do the same thing to me. We all got to hold each other accountable.”
In those words, you can hear his dad. Greg Young was hard on Chase growing up, saying, “I’m your father, not your fan,” and instilling a sense of accountability. He wanted Chase to understand actions have consequences, so if Chase forgot to take the trash out, Greg woke him up in the middle of the night. Once, Greg asked Chase to mow the lawn before he got home, but Chase didn’t because it got dark. Greg returned and strapped a flashlight to the mower.
Tough love is what Greg knew. He grew up with an absent father back when D.C. was rougher, so his three uncles — Charles, Ronald and Reginald, all “hardcore” Vietnam vets — took his place. They raised Greg hard, “so the streets didn’t get me,” he said. They taught him, at 10, to buy groceries for his mother, comparing prices to save money and taking the safe route home. They showed him football, letting him sit in front of the TV and cheer for Washington quarterbacks Billy Kilmer and Sonny Jurgensen. They attended his games, seeing how, one time in Northwest’s Takoma neighborhood, he missed a hard groundball.
“So we got home, and my uncle took me outside,” Greg said. “He stood about 25, 30 feet away from me, and he would just fire a baseball at me and make me catch it. He would just throw it as hard as he could at me, and I could just feel it smacking the inside of my glove, and it was hurting my hand. He said, ‘The reason it’s hurting your hand is ‘cause you’re catching the ball with the glove and not the web.’ So he kept me out there for like two hours until my mom came out there and said, ‘That’s enough.’ ”
Years later, in a hospital room, Greg held his first son. He vowed to be the dad he didn’t have and to honor the mentors he did. He wanted his son to always carry the lessons he had learned from his uncles, so he named the boy after Reggie, Ronald and Charlie; their last name was Chase.
Early on at Ohio State, Chase was not a leader. He was a top-ranked recruit, sure, but so was most everyone else. He spent freshman year learning the basics, including from star pass-rusher Nick Bosa and defensive line coach Larry Johnson. By junior year, he had become one of the Buckeyes’ best players, and the team voted him captain. He began to lead the pregame circle, and he realized he liked “getting the guys juiced up,” transferring to them some of the energy that wells up inside him before a game.
In Washington, Young followed a warp-speed version of the same timeline. The longest-tenured and highest-paid players, such as defensive end Ryan Kerrigan and cornerback Kendall Fuller, stopped seeing him as a rookie in training camp. The younger players, such as left tackle Geron Christian and cornerback Jimmy Moreland, noticed the way he sought advice from the veterans. Kevin Pierre-Louis, a linebacker in his seventh season, said he was “blessed to be around a talent” such as Young.
Looking back, Washington Coach Ron Rivera realized Young could lead late in camp when he flattened Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson in a goal-line drill. It was a physical version of the charisma Rivera had noticed during Young’s predraft interview, the closest thing he had seen to the energy of Cam Newton, his former quarterback with the Carolina Panthers. Even defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, a longtime coach with high standards, couldn’t help notice.
“The biggest surprise — just something I didn’t really anticipate — is how much of a leader he is and how inspirational he is,” he said. “I mean, he loves football, he loves his teammates, and all you have to do is watch him. Watch him during practice, watch him on game day — he loves ball, and I think it’s infectious.”
In his NFL debut, Young registered 1.5 sacks. He soon added another, looking like the rare non-quarterback with a chance at stardom. He stood out even in a helmet — his trademark blond dreadlocks swung as he blew up plays — and he exhibited the unabashed joy of an elementary-schooler at recess. He blended power and finesse with a sense of showmanship. Even in Week 3, when Young suffered a groin injury, he traversed the sideline with a bag of ice taped to his inner thigh.
In Week 7, Young led in a way even those closest to him didn’t expect. He took a knee for the national anthem. This wasn’t unprecedented advocacy — in June, Young advocated for an end to police brutality in a viral video with other NFL stars — but he hadn’t discussed this decision with anyone, including his father. Young said there wasn’t one specific event that inspired him to follow Colin Kaepernick’s lead, that he just felt compelled to protest racial injustice.
“We’re in America,” Young said. “I have my rights, and I can take a knee. It’s a free country. Everything going on in America, we got to get things right.”
There is, on the surface, tension between Young’s protest and his family. Greg served in the Arlington County Sheriff’s Office for 27 years, and several extended family members in the past few generations have served in law enforcement. Chase showed interest in the field, too, majoring in criminal justice at Ohio State.
But neither Chase nor his father sees kneeling as disrespectful to law enforcement. Chase said he and Greg have talked about “things that are going on” in terms of police brutality, and he is mindful of how they relate to his form of protest, but he saw kneeling more as advocacy for a broader message of racial justice.
In fact, Greg thinks his son’s decision to kneel is a byproduct of the “deeper thinking” he always encouraged from Chase and his sister, Weslie. Greg always “kept it real” on topics such as holidays and religion: During Thanksgiving, he explained how pilgrims cheated and killed Native Americans, and near Christmas, he always made sure his kids knew their presents came from him, not Santa Claus.
“I’m not going to work all year, bust my butt, sacrifice and tell my kids that another guy did everything,” he said. “I want my kids to know I did it.”
Greg believes those who say kneeling disrespects the flag or the anthem are missing this sort of insight. He said the history of taking a knee shows the act symbolizes respect. He pointed out that football players kneel when an opponent is injured. Men kneel to propose. People kneel in prayer. And if kneeling were disrespectful, then why, not so long ago, did commoners kneel before kings and queens?
The image Greg can’t shake isn’t of Chase on bended knee. It’s of a small boy obsessed with his 9mm pistol, the one he put on his hip every day when he left for work. It’s of how he let the boy touch the unloaded gun one time, to satisfy his curiosity, and how he saw his son come to understand the complex realities of police work.
“He watched me every day put that uniform on and go risk my life,” Greg said. “He’s seen me do it. He knows the sacrifices, all of that. So [when] Chase took a knee, I respected it because I know why he did it [to support racial justice]. Somebody else may look at it and say, ‘That’s negative,’ but I know it ain’t.”
In mid-November, Young returned to the visitor’s locker room in Detroit distraught. He had just been flagged for roughing the passer, a mistake that led to a 59-yard field goal that sealed Washington’s defeat. The situation felt dire: Young only had 3.5 of the 13.5 sacks his father predicted before the year, and Washington had lost seven of its past eight games.
A public relations staffer asked Young whether he wanted to speak to the media. He already had apologized to Rivera and a few teammates for the mistake, but he said yes anyway. He said he saw it as holding himself accountable.
“Being vocal, it’s something you have to do all the time,” he said later. “You got to play good, you got to practice hard, and you just got to be a hard worker all around and know there’s no issues.”
The next Sunday, Young arrived at FedEx Field wired. He burned to make everyone forget the mistake, and he knew the spotlight would be on him against Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, the only player drafted before him in April. He wanted to prove himself all over again — and before the game, Young felt 100 percent for the first time all season, free from nagging hip and groin injuries.
During warmups, Young felt a surge of energy. He told defensive tackle Jonathan Allen that he wanted to say something to the team. Allen said, “You got ‘em.” Young didn’t prepare the speech, and he doesn’t know where the idea came from, but he could tell they resonated with his teammates.
“That’s the power of being a vocal guy,” Young said, “if you know how to touch your guys’ minds and hearts.”
In the first quarter, during a goal-line stand, Young leveled Burrow as he scrambled, knocking the ball loose and preventing a touchdown. Washington won. Four days later, on the road against the Dallas Cowboys for Thanksgiving, Allen approached Young.
“I didn’t know the second week that it would happen again,” Young said. “Jon just came up to me, like, 'You want ‘em again?’ I’m like: ‘Yeah. Bet.’ And then it just kept going.”
Since the pregame circle on Thanksgiving, Young has wreaked havoc. He bull-rushed for a sack against Dallas. He timed up a key goal-line stop on fourth down in an upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He turned in his career day against the San Francisco 49ers — six tackles, one sack, a 47-yard scoop-and-score. Two weeks later, Young walked into the locker room and an equipment manager asked whether he had seen his jersey. Young saw, in his locker, the patch of a captain.
Young understands he has set high expectations. The past year has been better than he could have hoped, and if Rivera is the voice of the franchise, Young is the voice of its young core. He thinks about it sometimes, and he’s not ready for the season to be over.
“I just can’t stop,” he said. “That’s all I think now. It’s like, people look at me certain ways now, so I can’t stop.”