He hates this part, so let's get it over with. As a professional
athlete who shares his name with a pop-culture icon, San
Francisco 49er quarterback Elvis Grbac has long understood the
burden of such association. Presley puns follow him like
paparazzi trail O.J. Simpson, and Sunday at Busch Memorial
Stadium, where Grbac made his first NFL start, was no exception.
Grbac, who was stepping in for the injured Steve Young, faced
the eager St. Louis Rams--and 59,915 name-baiting skeptics.
Signs draped across the stadium's lower rim made frequent
reference to the quarterback and the King, typically comparing
them in biting terms like these: one is fat, slow and hasn't
been heard from in years. the other is elvis presley. Grbac saw
the signs. "People are going to do that until you prove you
deserve their respect," he said after the 49ers had pounded the
Rams 44-10. "All the signs and other b.s. just build a fire
Grbac, 25, points out that he is not named for Presley but that
his given name is popular among Croatian-Americans of his
parents' generation. If there is a crooning namesake to whom he
could be compared, it is the unassuming Elvis Costello. Never
was this more apparent than on Sunday, when Grbac unobtrusively
completed 11 of 14 passes, two of them for touchdowns, and
called it a day late in the third quarter with San Francisco
leading 44-3. With the football world watching, his aim was true.
Spurred by a furious defense, the 49ers might have won this game
with Lisa Marie Presley at quarterback. San Francisco held St.
Louis to 71 yards rushing and came up with four interceptions as
it moved into a three-way tie for first in the NFC West with the
Rams and the Atlanta Falcons. All have a 5-2 record. Had they
lost, the Niners, who are the defending Super Bowl champions,
would have fallen two games behind in the division and crippled
their chances of earning home field advantage throughout the
playoffs. Now their Nov. 12 showdown with the Dallas Cowboys at
Texas Stadium once again appears to be the regular season's
marquee matchup. San Francisco plays the New Orleans Saints and
the Carolina Panthers before heading to Dallas. Though Young's
sprained and bruised left shoulder could be mended in time for
the game against Carolina, the 49ers now know Grbac is capable
of taking them to Texas unscathed.
That became clear on Grbac's first snap as a starter. The Niners
had just taken over at the Ram 35-yard line following the first
of four interceptions served up by St. Louis quarterback Chris
Miller. After a play-action fake to fullback William Floyd,
Grbac raced to his right with three Ram defenders in pursuit.
Jerry Rice, option number one, had been knocked down and option
number two, tight end Brent Jones, wasn't open. The remaining
choices were to run or throw to John Taylor, who had a step on
cornerback Anthony Parker. Grbac, who throws so hard he has been
dubbed Rocket Man by the sure-handed Rice, hummed a perfect
35-yard spiral to Taylor.
"He hit the third guy, and it was just beautiful," said Bill
Walsh, who made his first trip with the 49ers, as a guest of the
team, since stepping down as coach following the 1988 season.
"He showed a lot of poise."
On the Rams' ensuing possession, Miller threw a ball at 49er
linebacker Ken Norton Jr., who snatched it and ran it back 21
yards for the first of his two interception-return touchdowns in
the game. Each time Norton celebrated his TD by throwing punches
at the padding that covers the goalpost--a tribute to his famous
heavyweight-fighter father, with whom he has recently reconciled
after a nearly five-year feud.
The Niners came into this game fighting mad. In the wake of
Young's injury and an 18-17 defeat at Indianapolis the previous
Sunday, the San Francisco organization dropped its veneer of
aplomb and shifted into panic mode. First, coach George Seifert
pink-slipped second-year kicker Doug Brien, who had missed a
last-minute 46-yard field goal in the loss to Indianapolis and a
last minute 40-yard field goal in a 27-24 loss to the Detroit
Lions. Brien received almost no support from his teammates.
Offensive tackle Harris Barton put it this way: "You have 100
guys out there running into each other for three hours, then
some guy who wears Birkenstocks runs out and tries to win it."
And fails. "This team expects to win," Barton added, "and when
we don't win, everybody kind of panics a little bit."
They didn't need to panic against these Rams, who looked more
like the miserable team that came into this season tied with the
Cincinnati Bengals for the worst record in the 1990s than the
perky outfit that had gone 5-1 since moving from Anaheim to St.
Louis. "This was a big step we had to take, and we were totally
unprepared," said All-Pro running back Jerome Bettis, who gained
just 34 yards on 11 carries.
The main culprit for the Rams was Miller, who threw no
interceptions in the season's first four games but served up
four in the first 34 minutes on Sunday. Even the continued
brilliance of second-year receiver Isaac Bruce, who did his best
Rice imitation with nine catches for 173 yards, couldn't keep
Miller (eight for 22, 141 yards) from melting. Miller felt
compelled to apologize to his teammates after the game. "I
played like --," he said.
Grbac (119 yards, no sacks, no interceptions) completed his most
hectic NFL week by turning in a mistake-free gem. "There's a
moral to this," Young said. "For two years, he could've loafed,
but he just worked and worked, and no one prodded him. He earned
Young then headed for the team bus, leaving his teammates to
speak of 49er pride. Grbac said all the boring things, crediting
his linemen and the defense and the coaches. His words were
mild, but his smile betrayed him. Rocket Man was in a high
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Floyd hit pay dirt in the third quarter, at which point St. Louis looked more like lambs than Rams. [William Floyd]
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Grbac remained cool in his first start, completing 11 of 14 passes for 119 yards and a pair of TDs. [Elvis Grbac]