Tremain Mack prefers to stay out of the lights. Few at Mount Rainier High School know that their football coach once played in the NFL and was selected to a Pro Bowl. Even fewer know he writes poetry.
But one of his players, J.J. Young, inspired Mack to stand in a school assembly in front of hundreds of students to read one of his poems – the first time he’s read one publicly.
It was 18 lines written about Young – about his character, selflessness, authenticity and compassion. Young sat in the bleachers, not knowing it was about him until the last line.
“I’m more shy and reserved, like J.J. is,” Mack said. “But that was the whole reason I wrote the poem. He’s so inspirational to everyone around here that it inspired me to share my poetry. He’s a special kid and I felt like I needed to let him know.”
Young – a standout in football, basketball, and track and field – is The News Tribune’s 2016-17 senior male athlete of the year.
As a junior, he was playing eight-man football at a Class 1B school. This school year he enrolled at Mount Rainier, played 11-man football for the first time and earned the 4A North Puget Sound League Cascade’s all-purpose player of the year for his work at quarterback and safety. The Rams had their first winning season in 13 years.
Then he averaged a double-double on the basketball team, leading them to 16 victories, which was three more than the three previous seasons combined. This spring, he qualified for the state track and field championships in javelin and 300 hurdles and helped Mount Rainier’s 4x400 relay team win the state title.
So how did Young, the 1B wonder, make 4A fame look so easy?
“It wasn’t very easy at all,” Young laughed. “I didn’t come to this school thinking I was going to be good. I really just wanted to be a leader, and that happened. The team accepted me in and that happened with every sport I was in this year.”
Mack said all that success came because Young was just as great a leader as he was an athlete.
And he’s come a long way.
Don and Julie Young adopted J.J. just before his second birthday, and a few months later they adopted his newborn biological sister, Rosie. Their mother was a teenager when both were born.
J.J. was neglected before he was adopted, sometimes left strapped to a car seat on a couch for days without being changed, Don said.
He also had to have surgery on his ears. J.J. had ear infections and it set him back in school because he couldn’t hear the teachers well.
“He works his tail off,” Don said. “But he went through severe abuse as a baby – not mean-spirited abuse, but neglect abuse – and it caused issues with his learning.”
He got his first scholarship offer – from Western Oregon University – less than a week before signing day and he has been up front with them about his academic struggles.
“Sports has always been good for me, but people don’t always see how I am in school and the difficulties I have sometimes,” J.J. said.
That might be because it’s hard for them to see past his constant smile. He’s a school favorite and was voted as one of 12 inspirational seniors.
And he said that comes from his family.
“I wouldn’t be at all where I am now without them — I know that for sure,” J.J. said. “They put me in a great home with my sister and brother and took in my little sister with me. It’s been a blessing.”
But it hasn’t been without tough love.
His parents took J.J. out of school in the eighth grade for getting in trouble and enrolled him at Shorewood Christian, a small private school in Seattle.
It doesn’t have a football team, so J.J. was allowed to play at Seattle Lutheran.
He got in trouble, again, as a freshman. Then, again, his sophomore year and his parents punished him by removing him from the football team. They allowed him to sign up for soccer, instead.
He said the worst part was letting his family down. He resolved to turn himself from a follower to a leader and to find confidence in himself.
“That’s one of my biggest things now is to be a leader,” J.J. said. “Be an example and do the right things at the right times and be in the right places at the right times.
“It wasn’t until I got in trouble then that I was like, ‘I’m hurting my family, I’m hurting my brother and sisters and my own career. I realized that. I understood my discipline and what I needed to do to get right.”
“It was fun,” he said. “I really thank my dad for that because sports always helped me get through school.”
He returned to football the next year.
And he led the team in rushing (1,421 yards, 18 touchdowns) and receiving (631 yards, nine TDs). J.J. averaged 18.8 yards every time he touched the ball, and also went 6 for 7 passing for 106 yards and three touchdowns as a wildcat quarterback.
Shorewood Christian closed after last school year because it didn’t have enough kids enrolled. So Young transferred to Mount Rainier.
The 6-foot-2, 180 pound senior thought he’d play wide receiver, but Mack needed a quarterback. Young finished the regular season with 801 passing yards and led the 4A NPSL Cascade with 1,021 rushing yards. He was also a first-team all-league safety and plans to play that position at Western Oregon – and he’d like to try to join the basketball team as a walk-on.
In basketball, J.J. started three consecutive years for Shorewood Christian’s state-bound teams, then he earned all-league honorable mention with Mount Rainier this season, averaging 11.4 points, 10.1 rebounds and 4.2 steals as he transitioned from center at SC to small forward at MR.
“He’s someone who has kind of inspired me,” said Jordan Magee, Mount Rainier’s leading scorer at 15.8 points per game and one of J.J.’s best friends. “He’s always positive and it rubs off on you. And he’s someone who has been through a lot of struggles personally that he has overcome.”
Last spring J.J. helped Shorewood Christian’s 4x400 relay team win a 1B state title. So he’s won back-to-back relay gold medals in state track.
And the day after state track this year? J.J. was back working out, preparing for next year.
“J.J. is the hardest worker I know,” Mack said. “I pride myself because I played every sport and I require my guys that if you aren’t doing offseason workouts, you need to do another sport. To see him doing that is refreshing to me.
“But then where I really connect with him is seeing a man like him at his age putting others first, caring about his community, caring about other people. He’s naturally a ‘Yes sir, No sir’ kid. He’s always ‘Whatever I can do for you, I’ll help.’ And that’s what makes him special.”
His first sport was baseball and he considered playing again this year.
“The one sport I really tried and was really bad at was golf,” he said. “… but now I’m working at a golf course.”
J.J.’s ultimate dream is to play in the NFL. But if that doesn’t work, he’d like to be a police officer, or maybe a teacher.
“I want to be able to help kids out who were in the same situation I was in,” Young said. “I’ve always wanted to help people.”
Don can see that.
“The compassion he has for people and how well he relates to people – it’s incredible,” Don said. “I couldn’t imagine our lives without him.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677