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ON TOP OF THE WORLD Steve Young has finally completed his long climb from nervous child to proven leader

For the fifth time in 13 years, the San Francisco 49ers have
climbed to the top of the football world, forging a path that has
brought them to the highest peak of their sport. To stick with that
analogy, there is no dispute as to who has been their Sherpa guide.
Coach George Seifert calls the shots on the field, owner Eddie
DeBartolo Jr. + coughs up the cash, and president Carmen Policy cuts
the deals. But Super Bowl MVP Steve Young is the leader of the 49ers,
the man whose spirit and drive have propelled this team to its lofty
Young is the guy who simultaneously calms and fires up his
charges, dispersing harsh words and high fives with equal intensity.
Young's the one who rails at teammates for sudden displays of
brainlock. In October he even yelled at his coach and got away with
it. Young is comfortable as the front man when the locker room door
is opened and as the keynote speaker when the door is closed. He's
the one who gets the ball to Jerry Rice, who keeps Ricky Watters from
spontaneously combusting, who takes fashion tips from Deion Sanders
and who shakes off brutal body slams from some of the league's most
fearsome defenders.
When 49er fans chanted ''Steve! Steve!'' as Young took his buoyant
victory lap around Candlestick Park following last month's NFC
championship victory over Dallas, it was more than a recognition of
the 33-year-old quarterback's rigorous quest to escape Joe Montana's
shadow. In their delirious state, the Candlestick fans were merely
echoing the sentiment that Young's teammates had acknowledged a month
earlier when they selected him as the winner of the Len Eshmont
Award -- given to the most courageous and inspirational 49er player
-- for the second time in three years.
After four years as Montana's impatient backup, then three more
years of starting duty accompanied by constant questions as to
whether the 49ers were his team, Young had answered all the
skepticism and led his team to victory. The 49ers, winners of four
Super Bowls under Montana's guidance, were on their way to a fifth
title, and there was absolutely no doubt as to who had led them
''I don't think I've had to force anything,'' Young says of his
development as a vocal leader. ''I think it has come very naturally.
It's funny -- so has yelling at people. I used to yell at people in
the old days, and now it's coming back.''
Perhaps more than any other champion, Young has been defined by
the past -- by what Montana did that Young, until now, had not been
able to do. Young's evolution as a leader has been public and choppy,
but contrary to popular perception, it did not begin in the NFL or
even when he was starring at BYU. If you go back far enough, you will
find that Young, a great-great-great- grandson of Brigham Young,
botched his first leadership experience badly.
, It happened a quarter century ago, in 1970, the year the
Beatles broke up and the Partridge family got together. Young's
parents, Grit and Sherry, left their Greenwich, Conn., home and set
off on a trip to Philadelphia, bringing in a pair of house sitters to
watch eight-year-old Steve and his three younger siblings.
Grit, whose real name is LeGrande, is a labor lawyer who traveled
often at the time, usually alone. On this special occasion, he and
his wife figured they would enjoy an extended weekend of fun and
It was a splendid idea. And Steve positively negated it.
''He just ruined the trip,'' Grit Young recalled in a 1993
interview. ''He was afraid ((the house sitters)) were going to murder
him or something. He kept calling, they kept calling, and finally we
had to shorten the trip. As a child, he was very nervous, very
The boy was not exactly suited for prematurely playing the
head-of-the- househ old role. But to his mother, the seriousness with
which Young approached his role was prophetic. ''He felt a lot of
responsibility for his brothers and sisters,'' Sherry Young said. ''I
guess that's what it was. He's always been the man in charge.''
Well, not always. As a child, Steve followed the rule of his
father, a serious man of few words. Grit starred as a fullback at BYU
in the late '50s and in fatherhood lived up to his nickname. ''He
didn't care what you chose -- from the oboe, to art, to football --
but once you did it, he couldn't stand to watch you quit or come up
short,'' Steve says.
According to Grit, Steve was a ''worried and intense'' child; for
example, Steve once failed to show up for class in the second grade,
thanks to some still-unexplained fear. But most of that intensity was
channeled into athletics. Steve and his peers embraced the four major
sports -- baseball, basketball, football and hockey -- the way Yogi
Bear embraces the four basic food groups. He and his younger brother
Mike and their friends would play together, often past nightfall.
When they didn't play, they watched. Steve remembers tripping off to
nearby New York City via train to catch Ranger hockey games and
afterward sprinting the 15 blocks from Madison Square Garden to Grand
Central Station, hoping to dodge any would-be muggers.
''Most of my friends were Italian Catholics -- I'd say 90 percent
of them,'' recalls Young, now the sports world's most famous Mormon.
''Very large families, and very athletic. Everyone -- everyone --
played baseball, - basketball and football. We woke up every morning,
a group of maybe 10 guys, and we'd just play sports all day long,
whatever the game was. And it was just a tremendous way to grow up.''

Young's adult life also has been tremendous in many ways. Money
never has been an issue, although Young, who says his idea of bliss
is ''20 bucks and a full tank of gas,'' continues to live relatively
modestly, donating a nice chunk of his wealth to charitable causes.
Out of college, he signed what was then the largest contract ever
given a pro athlete, a $40 million deal with the Los Angeles Express
of the now-defunct United States Football League. Young played two
mostly miserable seasons with the Express and bought his way out of
the deal, but the contract included an annuity that will kick in two
years from now and pay Young a total of $37.2 million by 2027.
It was a deal he almost didn't sign. ''The money just overwhelmed
him,'' Grit recalls. ''The money became his nemesis, and he continued
to live as if he didn't have it. He told me before he had to report
to camp, 'I don't want to go.' I ended up having to go out to Provo
to talk to him. I told him, 'You made a contract; you live up to the
contract.' ''
Once freed from the USFL, Young went to the next-worst
alternative. In 1985 and '86, he played for the hideous Tampa Bay
Buccaneers, who owned his NFL rights, and spent most of his time
running wildly to escape the stampede of defenders. Critics used to
point to the Bucs' 4-28 record over that two-year span as a sign that
Young was not a winner; realists understood that quarterbacking the
Bucs in those days was akin to leading Abba into a Battle of the
''One time we were playing the Bears,'' recalls Young, ''and one
of our coaches looked me right in the eye and said, 'Look, Steve, I
know everybody has kind of quit on you here. This is the kind of game
where you could really get hurt. Be careful out there.' I couldn't
believe it. How can you enter a game thinking like that?''
Finally, in April 1987, then 49er coach Bill Walsh made a trade
that will go down as one of the biggest steals in sports history. For
a reported $1 million and draft choices in the second and fourth
rounds, the 49ers got Young. At the same time, Walsh seemed ready to
close the book on Montana, who had won two Super Bowls but was coming
off major back surgery. Walsh told Young that a transition was near,
and Young said great. The only person who didn't go along with the
plan was Montana.
So, though Walsh declared an ''open competition'' between the two
quarterbacks before the 1988 season, Montana never allowed one to
develop, blowing Young off the starting line like Ben Johnson on
you-know-what. Montana went on to win Super Bowls following the '88
and '89 seasons, won consecutive regular-season MVP awards in '89 and
'90 and turned Young into a repressed, impatient mess.
Young's agent, Leigh Steinberg, advised his client to seek a trade
after the 1990 season -- one that ended with the 49ers losing a 15-13
heartbreaker of an NFC Championship Game to the New York Giants, with
only a Roger Craig fumble keeping Young from starting the Super Bowl
in place of the injured Montana. As an enticement for Young to stay,
Seifert came up with a ''handshake agreement'' that would guarantee
Young three or four starts the following year. Young signed a new
deal, and Montana hit the roof. Never a fan of Young's personality,
Montana now directed all of his resentment of the organization toward
his backup, privately suggesting that Young was not the gracious,
supportive understudy many believed him to be.
One example cited by Montana was a training-camp incident in 1991
in which Young, after throwing several interceptions in practice,
allegedly persuaded the team's video coordinator to erase the errant
throws before the coaches viewed the tape. The fun-loving Montana
also came to revile Young as a sort of goody two-shoes, and an
extremely pampered one. Whereas most backups in the NFL receive no
more than 15%-20% of the snaps in practice, Young typically got about
40% of the practice work during his years behind Montana. It didn't
help Montana's mind-set that the 49er offensive coordinator, future
Green Bay Packer head coach Mike Holmgren, had coached Young at BYU.
The longer Montana remained sidelined by elbow injuries -- he would
play only one half of one game in the '91 and '92 seasons -- the more
apparent his dislike for Young became. In one interview, Montana
likened Young to ''the enemy,'' adding, ''Steve is on a big push for
Though Young continued to take the high road in interviews, he
privately became angered by Montana's attitude toward him. And it
wasn't just Montana; at times it seemed as if the whole Bay Area, or
a large portion of it, was against him. In '91, Young won the first
of four passing titles but was only 5-5 as a starter. After going
down with a knee injury in November, Young was replaced by Steve
Bono, who led the 49ers to five consecutive victories. A % good
friend of Montana's, Bono also copied the legend's form, as opposed
to Young's scrambling style. When the 49ers, despite a 10-6 record,
missed the playoffs for the first time in nine years, cries rang out
for Young's head: He can't read defenses; he's too impatient; he's a
running back in a quarterback's body; and -- the doozy -- he's not a
The next season, Montana's elbow again forced him onto the injured
reserve list, and Young emerged as a star. He led the 49ers to a
league-best 14-2 record, won another passing title and was a runaway
choice for league MVP. Even Montana admitted that Young deserved the
award. But going into the last game of the season, the 49ers
activated Montana, and Young became visibly uptight. Montana played
splendidly in the second half of the 49ers' 24-6 victory over Detroit
that closed the regular season; in the team's playoff opener, a 20-13
victory over Washington, Young played sloppily, fumbling three times
and throwing an interception. The next week, in the NFC Championship
Game, Young threw a pair of interceptions in the 49ers' 30-20 loss to
Dallas. After the game, one radio call-in poll showed that 75% of
respondents favored keeping Montana and getting rid of Young. The
next day, Steinberg again advised Young to seek a trade, this time
through the press, with the agent explaining that Young would never
be accepted in the Bay Area. Young again decided to stay, but in the
coming months, the 49ers would seriously ponder a scenario in which
they would trade Young, retain Montana and Bono and draft Notre
Dame's Rick Mirer as the quarterback of the future.
Before the 49ers finally traded Montana to Kansas City in April
1993, the situation became utterly ridiculous. At one point, over
beers, DeBartolo offered Montana the starting job, meaning that the
league's reigning MVP would be a backup. It turned out that Young was
second string for only a day -- Montana saw the move as a ploy
designed to increase his trade value and rejected the offer -- but it
was an ugly day. Young, studying for BYU law- school exams, heard
about the demotion, and he recalls ''throwing things around the
But after Montana had departed for K.C., Young's leadership skills
flourished. The next season he won respect from his teammates while
fighting through a debilitating thumb injury and a series of
concussions. He also won his third consecutive passing crown and led
the 49ers back to the NFC title game. But again the Cowboys kept
Young and the Niners from the Super Bowl. |
Then, in 1994, Young put it all together. He had a season that
surpassed Montana's 1989 campaign as the best ever, at least
according to the league's passer-rating system. He also led the 49ers
to the Super Bowl, throwing six touchdown passes to break Montana's
Finally, the little boy who couldn't handle his parents' trip to
Philadelphia had evolved into the leader of the most successful team
in football. He has carried them to the top of the mountain, and as
he gazes down at the path below, it suddenly looks straight and