Through the travail of ages, or at least in the 20th and 21st centuries, professional athletes have often been less than stellar characters. In the 1900s fathers did not let their daughters date ballplayers. Fancy hotels turned them away. Then a collegiate, All-American type, baseball star Christy Mathewson, changed the perception of the athlete.
Mathewson seemed to be an exception. Fans have often found athletes to be spoiled, overpaid, uninformed, under-educated, and self-indulgent. In San Francisco, the poster boy for each of these adjectives has been the one and only Barry Bonds.
Sometimes, very rarely, an athlete comes along who is that rarest of entities: a great star on the field, a role model human being, handsome to a fault, who possesses the education and intellect of a college professor. Thus: Steve Young.
Steve Young was the Jack Armstrong of his era. There is a sense that Young could do whatever he chose to do. If he decided to enter politics, he likely would be successful (Young has supported Republicans but there is no indication that he ever plans to throw his hat in the ring).
He grew up in an upper middle-class family. His father was an attorney. The family moved from Mormon Utah to one of America’s wealthiest enclaves, Greenwich, Connecticut. Greenwich is not considered a bastion of high school sports, and for this reason, perhaps, Young was not as heralded as he might have been.
His religious background directed him to Brigham Young University, at a time in which the Cougars were the most explosive passing team in the land. Before Young, Gifford Nielsen and Jim McMahon lit up the collegiate football world. Young was arguably the best of all of them, but not the last. Marc Wilson, Robbie Bosco, and Ty Detmer followed in his footsteps.
It was tough for Young at first, and as a freshman he was eighth on the depth chart. But the coaching staff fixated early on the 6'3", 239-pound southpaw as McMahon’s heir apparent. When McMahon departed for pro success, Young took over and shined. After an All-American career in which he added to the numerous Cougar passing records, Young made the decision to go with the fledgling U.S. Football League. The USFL had signed Hershel Walker of Georgia and looked to be a success.
Young hooked on with the Los Angeles Express. It was a bittersweet experience. He was made instantly wealthy, as the league had money to spend on young stars. He also was given instant freedom to run a wide-open, BYU-style offense that featured his multiple talents as a passer, scrambler, and pure runner. Looking back, his wild running could easily have resulted in a career-threatening injury, but he was lucky. Those who saw him with the Express were amazed at his talents. He was nothing less than remarkable, but the problem was that the people who saw him were few and far between.
The Express toiled in the mammoth Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which made their sparse crowds even more embarrassing. The L.A. media gave them scant attention, TV ratings were poor, and the league folded.
He then signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he continued to display great ability in the mid-1980s. The Bucs were an also-ran. Playing for them garnered little attention.
In 1987 Bill Walsh surveyed the landscape—his own team and the league’s—then made a visionary move, albeit one fraught with controversy. Up through the 1986 season, Joe Montana had won two Super Bowls and established himself as a superstar; the quarterback some were saying might be the best of all time. But as great as he was, there were question marks. Montana had experienced periodic, chronic back troubles. Not a big man—certainly not a hunk like Young—he appeared vulnerable on the field. He was an eight-year veteran entering 1987, and in the world of pro football eight years is a long career. He had been the starter almost that entire time, meaning he had endured plenty of wear and tear. The team played in the postseason almost every year, so he was subjecting himself to more pounding than most other QBs.
Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, it seems incongruous, but in the mid-1980s there were rumors about Montana revolving around the question, “What’s wrong with Joe?” So great was Montana in guiding the team to ultimate victory in 1981 and 1984 that his failure to do so in other years seemed to many fans a symptom not of a superior Redskins or Bears team, but of a failure, perhaps even a moral failing, on Montana’s part.
The 1980s were a time of drug scandals in sports. Rumors of cocaine use revolved around Montana. Wild stories of Montana, passed out in hotel rooms, being revived by the team doctor just in time to go out and win a big game, began to circulate. Looking back, there is no viable reason to believe any of them, but Montana was such a celebrity above and beyond football that his life had reached tabloid level.
Walsh understood the lifeline of NFL quarterbacks. Some have criticized him for doubting Montana, but he was looking to create a viable contingency, knowing that if the 49ers were to continue their great run beyond Montana’s effectiveness at the position, a worthy successor must be chosen.
The Packers had nobody behind Bart Starr. The Dolphins had failed to adequately replace Bob Griese. The Steelers had no true replacement for Terry Bradshaw. Danny White was good in Dallas, but he was no Roger Staubach. Walsh was not about to change the essential nature of the 49ers to a team relying on defense or ball control. He had won with the West Coast Offense and if he was to continue to win, it would be with the West Coast Offense. Beyond Montana, who had the smarts and the ability to make his complicated schemes work? He arranged to trade draft picks to Tampa Bay for the man he felt could do just that: Steve Young.
Even though it was officially a trade, Young had leverage and could have arranged to go to another team. He chose San Francisco as much as they chose him. He must have felt Montana’s time was limited and wanted to play for a winner, to thrive under the great Walsh, and to make his name once and for all.
Montana was nervous about Young for obvious reasons, even though Walsh told the media, “We fully expect Joe to continue as the leader and mainstay of our team.”
Walsh had a tough balancing act, assuring Montana but privately telling Young that he would be the starter “in three years.” At first, Young felt that the time would be good for him. He would learn from the best—Montana and Walsh—without great pressure. But in the 1987 and 1988 regular seasons, Montana had periods of inconsistency with nagging injuries. Young was brought in and performed brilliantly. His personal competitiveness became too much to bear.
“He was just frustrated,” said former tight end John Frank, who roomed with Young in Los Gatos. “He was miserable. He couldn’t stand it. I liked him because he was pretty clean cut. It was a lot of clean living, and I respected that and liked that. But he was very overbearing to live with sometimes because he wasn’t playing.”
Walsh’s three-year timetable looked to be an insurmountable obstacle for Young. If it were to be adhered to, that would mean Young would be the starter by the 1990 season. In the first two years, he replaced Montana on occasion, sometimes because of injury, sometimes because of Joe’s ineffectiveness. Young’s obvious abilities were made apparent to teammates, coaches, media, and fans alike. Divisions were created.
Young and Montana are both affable personalities, naturally predisposed to liking each other, but the rivalry caused heated feelings. The rumors about Montana’s drug use may or may not have affected the relationship, but Young was seen as a clean-living “Christian stud,” not unlike the Hartman character who the hard-drinking Mac Davis character must fend off in the outrageous football flick North Dallas Forty.
Young had to deal with mixed emotions in 1988 and 1989. On the one hand, he sat on the bench, seeing his prime years drift by. On the other hand, he earned two Super Bowl championship rings on teams in which Joe Montana elevated himself from great to absolute legend.
Young might have expected that Walsh’s promise that he would be the starter by 1990 would be kept, but it was an impossibility. His frustration came half out of a sense that he had been betrayed, half out of the fact that he knew in his heart Montana was the best in the game and nobody was going to bench him no matter how good he was. Young began to fear that he would never have the chance to prove himself.
By 1990, Montana had removed all doubt. His 1989 season goes down in history as the best ever, or close to it. His performance against Denver in the Super Bowl may be unmatched. In the 1990 regular season he provided more of the same, some might say better than before.
Young had no allies; not among teammates, coaches, fans, or media. His was a difficult situation. A trade would result in playing time, but likely with a non-contender, certainly not a champion of the 49ers level. He was still the heir apparent—if he could just wait it out, he would take over a team that could win Super Bowls. He could throw to Jerry Rice.
His biggest backer, Walsh, was gone. Retired after the 1988 season, he was now a college football TV analyst. Seifert was in, and he had not made any three-year promises to Young. Young was like the real-life movie chyaracter Rudy, who had been promised by Ara Parseghian he would dress for a game his senior year at Notre Dame, only to have the coach retire, replaced by Dan Devine, who had no obligations weighing on him.
The opening did not occur until the January 1991 playoff loss to the New York Giants. Montana injured himself. A fumble and missed opportunities gave victory to New York. Recriminations followed. Had San Francisco held the lead, they likely would have dispatched Buffalo in the Super Bowl, entering the 1991 campaign with three straight Super Bowl wins. There would have been no existing will to replace Montana.
Seifert made the decision that Young, the younger man, the future of the team, had to be given his shot in 1991. That decision, understandably, resulted in much consternation. Officially, Young led the NFC in passing efficiency in 1991, but such stats did not always result in victories. He suffered injuries himself, as did Montana. Steve Bono played well as a replacement for both of them. Then Montana came on to lead San Francisco to an impressive Monday Night Football victory over Detroit.
“All is right in the world again,” claimed ABC analyst Dan Dierdorf.
The Candlestick crowd made their choice well known, chanting, “Joe! Joe! Joe!”
“It was a great tribute to Joe, and I was excited to be a part of that,” said Young.
The talk radio mavens had a field day, and Montana was the clear favorite. But Montana’s elbow surgery in October ended his season and put to rest any question over who should start in the playoffs. The problem was, the team did not make the playoffs, with a preponderance of the blame landing on Young.
Montana didn’t help the situation. The rivalry, from his standpoint, became a blood feud. Young maintained a diplomatic position, but Montana openly disliked, some say even hated, Young. He reacted with icy silence to Young, backstabbing him, talking behind his back, fomenting team divisions, lobbying the coaches and media.
Oddly, throughout his career, Montana’s best friends on the team had been his back-ups, none of whom had ever been a threat. They were all decent second-string guys who knew their place and were honored just to carry Joe’s water.
“Steve is on a big push for himself,” Montana told the Washington Post. “Any time you have a competition, there is a certain amount of animosity. I can say we have only a working relationship. That’s all it is. He’s on my team, but as far as I’m concerned, he’s part of the opposition. He wants what I have.”
“In 1991 Joe wasn’t very helpful,” said Young. “But there was a transition time. People weren’t sure what they were supposed to say, how they were supposed to react. Joe’s very competitive, and I don’t know any other way to be. We do very well considering we’re very competitive. People think there are fistfights in the back room. That’s not the case at all.”
In 1992 Montana was recovered from his injury but lost the starting job forever to Young. He sulked, gave Young the silent treatment, and told anybody who would listen that a team he had turned from an also-ran into a juggernaut had betrayed him.
Young played brilliantly, establishing himself along with Dallas’ Troy Aikman as the premier quarterback in the game. San Francisco went 14–2. The better Young performed, the pettier Montana appeared.
“Can this really be Joe Cool?” wrote C.W. Nevius in the San Francisco Chronicle. “The guy who stood in there until fire-breathing blitzing linebackers were inches from his chest and then sailed a perfect spiral into the end zone? We kind of picture you as Clint Eastwood. Lately you are starting to sound like Don Knotts.”
Despite success on the field, the pressures got to Young. He had gone to BYU Law School over the previous offseasons and seriously considered retirement in favor of a quiet legal practice. Teammates were cool to him. He had not yet taken them to the Promised Land. Joe was still their Moses.
“I think there was so much going on at that time that was really overwhelming,” said Paulshe Adcock, a close friend. “He was trying to deal with it little by little. There were a lot of great expectations from other people, and he was trying to step in and fill somebody’s shoes that nobody wanted filled. I think he did the best he could do considering everything.”
As the 1992 season played out, Young’s performance began to overcome the sentiment favoring Montana. Young won the league MVP award. If the team could win the Super Bowl, Young would be a hero. Washington fell in round one of the playoffs 20–13, and into town rode the upstart Cowboys.
Coach Jimmy Johnson had come over from the University of Miami, drafting Troy Aikman No. 1 out of UCLA. From the ashes of a 1–15 team in 1989 Johnson had built a champion. Aikman-to-Michael Irvin was now an aerial combo to equal the Montana-to-Rice or Young-to-Rice 49ers attack.
The 49ers were favored, and Young was excellent, completing 25 of 35 passes for 313 yards and a touchdown, but Aikman made his legend that day, going 24-of-34 for 322 yards and two touchdowns. Several penalties killed the 49ers, and Dallas prevailed 30–20. They defeated Buffalo in the Super Bowl to take the Brass Ring.
Young’s agent, Leigh Steinberg, suggested that in light of the vociferous attacks made by the 49ers faithful against Young, he should look for another team, but Young was determined to win out in The City. Sportstalk radio had a field day:
“Joe would have seen [Ken] Norton.”
“Joe wouldn’t let himself get sacked by Charles Haley.”
A letter to the Chronicle was signed from “Mormons for Montana.”
Montana was finally let go in 1993. He took over as quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs. He teamed with Marcus Allen, the great Raiders running back who had been forced out of Los Angeles by Bo Jackson, just as Montana had lost out to Young. The Chiefs returned to respectability, and Montana was able to finish his career, not in San Francisco, but at least on his own terms. After retirement, he was given a fabulous day at Justin Herman Plaza, and his relationship with the team was healed.
In 1993 many watched Montana in Kansas City and found further reason to despise Young. The Niners went 10–6, beat Washington in the first playoff game, but found themselves in Dallas playing for the Super Bowl. It was not even close. Aikman separated himself from the rest of pro football’s quarterbacks, beating Young and the 49ers 38–21, on their way to a second-straight Super Bowl title.
In 1994 San Francisco traveled to Kansas City for game two of the season. In a head-to-head match-up, Montana bested Young 24–17. From there, Young and his team came together. A key victory was a 21–14 win over Dallas, giving San Francisco home field advantage in the playoffs.
The 13–3 49ers dispatched Chicago, then beat Dallas again 38–28 to earn a trip back to the Super Bowl.
“It’s your year,” Aikman told Young at midfield after the game.
The crowd was finally with him, chanting, “Steve! Steve! Steve!” and then, “MVP! MVP! MVP!”
Young was off the charts in San Francisco’s blowout 49–26 win over San Diego in Super Bowl XXIX in Miami.
“I wouldn’t have believed it if I wrote it down,” Young said after winning the game’s MVP award. “Six touchdowns, it’s impossible. I’ve played football for 25 years, and four is the most I ever threw.”
Steve Young had arrived. From 1991 to 1994, Young was arguably, statistically during regular season play, the greatest quarterback ever for a similar period. In the following years, he continued to play at the highest of levels. Brett Favre of Green Bay joined Young and Aikman among the game’s elite QBs. The Packers defeated San Francisco in the NFC championship games of January 1996 and 1997. Young led his team to 11–5, 12–4, 13–3, and 12–4 records between 1995 and 1998, but no Super Bowls followed those seasons. Favre and Green Bay; John Elway and Denver; Kurt Warner and St. Louis tasted the fruits of victory.
Young suffered various concussions in the late 1990s, eventually forcing his retirement, and with that came the end of the 49ers’ dynasty. It has never returned. The fact that he sat behind Montana from 1987 to 1990 may well have allowed him to save his body, playing a long career in pro football that resulted in his induction into the Hall of Fame.
Today Young is as associated with the team as Montana, in that he is a regular on KNBR, makes commercials, and is accessible to the media in general. He is a happily married family man. Young is an incredibly engaging, intelligent athlete; a true rarity in the sports world. He often pondered whether playing quarterback was a legitimate occupation when it came to serving his fellow man. A Super Bowl champion, a Hall Famer, Young reached the highest of heights, yet to this very day there are still many who resent him because he replaced Joe Montana.
Montana lives in the Napa Valley, but there are no reports that the Youngs and Montanas take family vacations together.
Steve Young suffered numerous concussions in the late 1990s, leading to a national debate over whether he should retire from the game (similar to what Troy Aikman went through in Dallas). Bill Walsh called him “the greatest player of the decade” in the 1990s. He called it quits after the 1999 season, and the team has never approached their old glory.
Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young was acquired from Tampa Bay in 1987 for that year’s second and fourth round draft picks.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism