“Spring ball so far has been much better than I expected. Some of the younger players have done exceptionally well. Be looking for our young defensive linemen Austin Taps (#93) and Dan Connaughton (#91) to step up this year. Other young players to watch will be Trevor Niemann (CB #29), who partially won us the Brown game with a broken up pass, and Mitch King (TE #47) … I hope to talk to you soon.”
Thank you so much for supporting Penn Football and all of our traditions. I don’t know if the team would be where they are without you. I’m sorry to hear about your chemotherapy … let me know if there’s anything I can do for you. (Pictures from practice, off season updates, etc.)”
The preceding was a March 31 email from Penn junior linebacker Dan Davis to 1958 Penn grad and former Penn football player Bill Young, one of the most inspirational figures in the history of the Penn football program.
“Youngie,” as he likes to be called, enjoys a profoundly personal relationship with Quakers past and present. Youngie has given an overwhelming amount of financial, motivational and emotional support to the program and the individuals within it, from Davis to coach Al Bagnoli.
“I’ve known Bill pretty much ever since I’ve been at Penn,” Bagnoli said. “He’s been a tremendous advocate of Penn football, as an ex-player, as a very successful business guy [and] as a generous alum, as an active relationship with present players, past players. He’s a guy that bleeds red and blue.”
Over the last 60 years, he’s built relationships with some of the most impactful players in the history of the program, like Frank Riepl (‘58), Josh Powers (‘11), Brandon Copeland (‘13) and present-day senior running back Brandon Colavita.
But it’s the current Rochester, N.Y. resident’s correspondence with players like junior defensive lineman Jimmy Wagner and — perhaps most notably — Davis that highlights the full measure of his devotion to the people of Penn football.
“It’s incredible that he comes down from where he lives … and still makes it to some of these games,” Davis said. “If you look back at some of the people who have really affected the game like Copeland and Josh Powers, they have always used him as kind of a mentor.
“He calls me the ‘Stormin’ Man from Norman,” said Davis, who hails from Norman, Okla. “He always says, ‘Knock ‘em in the dirt and tell ’em Youngie sent you.’ It’s cool to see that the game of football hasn’t changed in the 50 or 60 years since he’s played the game.”
“I have a great communication network with the players,” Young said. “They come over to see me all the time. They write me letters before and after every game telling me what went wrong and what went right.”
For Bill Young, life is just like it was on the gridiron — it’s all about making plays and playing hard until the whistle blows.
Stage four signals fourth down
And Young’s still playing hard at 78 — even as an advanced cancer patient.
After four-plus decades of actively supporting Penn football, the Princeton, N.J. native learned the whistle could blow for him sooner than expected.
“I woke up one morning and had a blister between my tits,” Young said. “I ignored it and the next morning I saw a ring of blood, and it scared the hell out of me. I went to a doctor and he sat me down and said, ‘You’ve got this cancer, and it’s the rarest and most aggressive form of skin cancer. I’ve only seen three cases in my life and the three died within six months.’”
But by 2005, Young had overcome the carcinoma, subsequently being interviewed by Wine Spectator and heading off on another cross-Atlantic trip.
Now though, Youngie has been diagnosed with stage four prostate cancer. In the last couple of years since his diagnosis, the cancer has metastasized to his spine and shoulder. For most, such a diagnosis would be a ticket to depression and inaction, but Young has not let the news hold him back.
“I have terminal cancer right now,” Young said. “I’m not gonna start staying in bed, and I’m going to do things I love to do. I’m gonna continue doing that way. There’s no other way for me but to fight it and hope things work out. I’m not gonna sit back in bed and sit and feel sorry for myself.”
This mentality has kept Youngie at the top of his game as an internationally recognized hobbyist.
A glass of wine and a fish on the line
Bill Young has been fly-fishing all of his life and has long been one of the premier fly-fishers in the world.
The Icelandic fly-fishing community named a fly after him, and the ‘Bill Young Fly’ is now a globally-known lure to attract fish. It’s become his signature and just another way Young has created a leisure-based legacy for himself.
He’s even made his mark in northwest Russia at the Ryabaga Camp on the Ponoi River. The camp guest house has Young’s name and fly carved into its wooden door.
“It’ll be there forever,” Young said.
The camp is operated by owner Ilya Sherbovich, who has forged a solid relationship with Young, honoring him in the most appropriate fashion.
“When [Sherbovich] found out I had cancer, he sent me a $2,000 fly rod,” Young said.
Since Youngie’s passion dictates his life, he hasn’t let anything get in the way of his fly- fishing all over the world, least of all his cancer.
“I fish all over the world,” Young said. “They don’t want me to go to Patagonia in January. They said, ‘Yeah, but Bill, you’ll be 900 miles from a hospital.’ [But] I’m going back to Russia in June. I’ve had a life that most people would aspire to … and I’m gonna continue to do it that way.”
If anybody lives by the aphorism “a glass of wine a day keeps the doctor away,” it’s Young. Young sports a world-class wine collection that has been described as a “time capsule,” featuring everything from 50-year old wines to 130-year old bottles of Cognac. His wine cellar is 1,400 square feet, the size of a small home, and is decorated with the many boxes of old wine cases he has collected through his travels.
He’s even been featured in national magazines like Wine Spectator for his extensive collection, one he shares with anyone that pays him a visit in Rochester.
If you do, you’ll get to take in the cliff of shale towering over part of the lake on his 14-acre plot in Rochester. Young has been collecting fossils that fall from the shale for years, only to find out they were 350 million-year old marine invertebrate fossils. He and his wife Wende make necklaces and jewelry from the collected fossils.
“We make them and give them to friends and relatives,” Young said.
Young’s determination, which moves him to enjoy his many hobbies to the fullest — even in the face of death —was already there in his Penn football days.
“I sat in my locker and wept”
From 1954-57, Young made a habit of pulverizing defenses and crushing running backs for the Quakers. Nearly 50 years later, in February 2012, Young recalled his last game vividly during his acceptance speech for the Penn football “Man of the Year” award in front of 300 program alumni.
“I sat in my locker and wept,” Young said emotionally. “I wept because I would never take that helmet off again, I would never take those shoulder pads off again and I’d never take that jersey off again for the rest of my life.”
But Young’s football career was different than the life of a Quakers football player today in almost every way. In his era, Penn played big-name programs like Penn State, Army, Navy, Cal and Notre Dame, with whom the Red and Blue had a long-standing rivalry before the 1960s.
Young can recall one game against the Fighting Irish in which he competed against 1956 Heisman Trophy winner Paul Hornung. The game sticks out because Young played in front of a full crowd at Franklin Field, what he remembers as 78,000 people.
To put that into perspective, this year’s Homecoming crowd drew roughly just 21,000 in attendance.
Bill Young played on both sides of the ball as a lot of players did during that era, taking snaps as a fullback, linebacker and punter — a fullback back then was a more traditional runner than the lead blocker we see more commonly today.
Youngie also remembers the heartbreak that comes with playing football, including losing one of Penn’s best playmakers of the time — Frank Riepl — to an ankle injury much like the one suffered by fifth-year senior Billy Ragone last season, as well as a loss to Penn State due to a special teams error.
“Early in the game against Penn State, I was in punt formation and the ball fell about five feet in front of me, they scooped it up and scored a few plays later — they won by five points,” Young said. “I keep thinking if I had gotten that, we could’ve beat Penn State.”
“[But] I still have nothing but fond memories of my days on the gridiron.”
Giving credit where credit is due
Penn football has not held back in showing Young how much he has meant — and continues to mean — to the program in his 60 years of commitment by bestowing him its “Man of the Year” award. As an award recipient, Young walked on the field as an honorary co-captain at last year’s Homecoming game against Brown for the coin toss. He walked with some of his dear friends — Brandon Colavita, Brandon Copeland and Josh Powers.
“That was a great honor for me,” Young said.
Young’s influence and fraternity has even spread beyond football. He has been named the Penn wrestling’s “Man of the Year” as well. Young has kept in touch with one of Penn’s former coaches, Zeke Jones, who coached the Quakers from 2005-07. Jones’ time at Penn ended when he accepted an invitation to coach the United States Olympic wrestling team.
“I got an email from him the other day if I’d like to join the Olympic wrestling team in 2016 to go to Rio with them,” Young said. “And of course I’ll go. These things have been happening for me all my life, and I’m very fortunate for it.”
Always looking ahead with unbridled optimism, Young was one of the Red and Blue’s greatest motivators this past season. The day after the Homecoming loss to Princeton, Young expressed optimism for the struggling Quakers. While Penn ultimately didn’t nab another Ivy title, Young never gave up.
“I try to boost the guys’ spirits,” Young said. “I try to keep their spirits up. ‘Keep your chins up, we can still win the title.’”
Life to the fullest
Bill Young has been through the highs and lows not only on the field but in the game of life. Not many would have led the hobby-happy life Young has after getting hit with carcinoma. He attacks every challenge in his life with enthusiasm and his signature Youngie smile.
“I had a wake last year,” Young said. “My wife and I decided, ‘Let’s not wait till I die and have my friends come and celebrate my life.’ We had 150 people, we had two tents and everybody had a great time. We had people come from the West Coast and all over the place. I had people write poetry and eulogize me.
“You know nobody has done that before — I’m the first person that did it that I know of … two years from now, I’ll do it again.”
This is the Bill Young spirit — a spirit that approaches everything with determination and acceptance.
Even though Youngie thinks everyone hypes him up as “bigger than life,” there aren’t enough words to do justice to the adventurous life the man has led. His words have always been selfless and encouraging, even when his prognosis hasn’t been an encouraging one.
In fact, he ended his last email to this writer accepting me into his “family,” signing off, “Your Bud for Life, Youngie.”
How long that life lasts at this point remains to be seen, but it won’t affect how full of life he’s always been and how giving of life he still plans to be.
“I’ve had a life that most people would aspire to,” Young said. “And I’m gonna continue to do it that way.”
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