Publish date:

Young at Heart Hall-of-Famer-to-be Steve Young reflects on his career with the 49ers and tells what compelled him to walk away from the game after 15 NFL seasons

Steve Young may be walking away from football, but he's still a
reckless rambler at heart. On Saturday, June 3, a sweltering day
in Orlando, Young, the future Hall of Fame quarterback who led
the San Francisco 49ers to victory in Super Bowl XXIX, sat in the
backseat of a Jeep Cherokee while he was being whisked through
the polymerized world of Disney. Young, who was in Orlando to
cohost the Children's Miracle Network telethon for the 10th
consecutive year, bristled as the vehicle pulled to a stop at a
barrier 100 yards from broadcast headquarters. "Come on, bro,
it's an S.U.V.," Young urged the driver. "Take it over the curb."

More than any other NFL star of his era, Young thrust himself
headlong into the fray. Whether it was a quarterback rivalry
with Joe Montana or a scramble for a first down with a sea of
frothing behemoths in pursuit, Young, who officially ended his
15-year NFL career at a press conference on Monday, prided
himself on not backing away from challenges. In a series of
interviews that began in Orlando and ended last Saturday in
Phoenix--a few miles from Sun Devil Stadium, site of his final
game--Young, 38, told why he turned down a chance to compete for
another Super Bowl ring, and reflected on his brilliant career.

On the morning of Monday, June 5, Mike Shanahan and I slinked
through the hallways of a hotel near the Denver airport,
searching for some privacy. As the coach of the Broncos, Mike is
a prominent man in Denver, so here we were sneaking around like
truant fifth-graders, doing business on the down-low. Mike led
us into a pitch-black meeting room and shut the door. For about
30 comical seconds the two of us fumbled around, trying to find
a light switch.

Once we sat down, I didn't leave Mike in the dark for long. "I'm
retiring," I said, "and I wanted to tell you the news in
person." Mike smiled. I knew he would still make a pitch for me
to join his team, and part of me wanted him to succeed. Later
that day at 49ers headquarters, Bill Walsh, the man who brought
me to San Francisco from Tampa Bay 13 years ago, told reporters
that I was close to signing with the Broncos. The truth was, I
had decided to quit on a late-May morning during a brisk run
near my home in Palo Alto. Even Mike, perhaps the most
persuasive coach of the many great ones I've had, wasn't going
to change my mind.

I don't want to sound too esoteric, but in the end, it wasn't a
rational assessment as much as a spiritual realization that
cemented my plans. I felt a wave of inspiration to move on. When
an hour had passed and Mike and I had completed our
sentiment-drenched conversation, he knew the real story: I
retired not because of my head but because of my heart.

Playing football in San Francisco was almost a transcendental
experience. I have this lasting image of Monday night games at
Candlestick Park--I still can't bring myself to call it 3Com--when
the lights would shine through the fog. It looked so surreal.
When fans showed up at Candlestick, there was a great sense of
anticipation that they would watch not only winning football, but
also artistry. Our offense was that sublime. In the huddle, there
were times when I couldn't hear over the din of my receivers
yelling, "I'm open! I'm open!" The amazing thing was, all those
guys were telling the truth.

Bill deserves credit for triggering the trade in which the 49ers
swapped second- and fourth-round draft picks for me, but it also
took a bit of backroom dealing by our owner, Eddie DeBartolo, to
get the deal done. After my disastrous 1986 season with the
Buccaneers, Ray Perkins came in as coach and decided to draft
Vinny Testaverde with the first pick. The word was that I'd be
traded to the equally awful Cardinals. I had a good relationship
with Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse, so I asked him for mercy. The
way I understand it, he and Eddie worked out the trade, and I
think it was one of those Charlie Finley deals: Mr. Culverhouse
had spent a lot of money on a new coach, and Eddie gave him some

Bill told me that Joe Montana's back injury was severe and that
I'd be stepping in as the starter imminently. Obviously, Joe's
back wasn't all that bad, and I had to sit for four years behind
the greatest quarterback of all time. Joe and I had our share of
tension--unfortunately, we were the juiciest soap opera in the Bay
Area for a while. One great thing that has happened over the
years is that our relationship has improved immensely. Once I
became the starter, I had a much greater appreciation of Joe's
perspective, because I realized that having a gung ho backup like
me would've been a major pain in the butt. In recent years Joe
has said some very nice things about me, both publicly and to
mutual friends, and I look forward to playing golf with him soon.

Even back then, Joe and I had fun together. Joe was the resident
prankster, especially when it came to confiscating teammates'
mountain bikes at our training camp in Rocklin, Calif. I played
Robin to his Batman. Greg Knapp, who's now our quarterbacks
coach, tells the story of the first night he spent as a
training-camp coaching intern in 1992: He comes to our
quarterbacks meeting and gets introduced to Joe and Mike
[Shanahan] and me, and he's trying to take it all in. We're
begging Mike to let us out early, which he does, and Greg sticks
around to talk to the other coaches. When he comes outside, he
sees Joe and me atop the building and passing 16 bikes onto the
roof. No one found them for a week.

Most veterans detested training camp, but not me. I loved having
a dorm room and a little fridge with snacks, and I looked forward
to goofing around in the meetings. Five weeks of rigorous
practices in ungodly heat turned us all into giddy sadists. Mike
Walter, one of our starting linebackers, used to come to camp
with his guitar, and he'd play it on the staircase like the guy
from Animal House: "I gave my love a cherry.... " He'd play late
into the night, and it was unbearable. So, one day, Brent Jones
drove to a music store and bought a similar-looking guitar, then
stole Mike's guitar and hid it. That night, before Mike came back
from meetings, a bunch of us gathered out in front of the dorms.
As Mike walked up, Brent picked up the look-alike guitar and
began waving it wildly. "Who's sick of this guitar?" he asked,
and we all answered, "We are!" Brent said, "Me, too," and smashed
it to smithereens. Everyone went nuts. Mike was crushed. He
yelled, "Not my guitar! I've had it since I was little. It was a
keepsake." We made him suffer for a day or two before Brent
sneaked the original back into Mike's room.

Of all our memorable achievements on the field, I'm most proud of
the 1998 season. It was chaos that year--no owner, no management
structure and no reason to keep things together. We had [coach]
Steve Mariucci's enthusiasm, but we needed a rallying cry, and it
wasn't, "Win one for the Gipper." It was "The 49er Way," a
standard set by others that we felt an ownership in and that
defined my career. Somehow, because of that standard, we went on
a passionate march into the playoffs.

I'll miss so many things: rubbing dirt on my hands when we
played in domes--dirt imported from Candlestick in Ziploc bags
by our equipment guys at my behest; my unspoken connection with
Jerry Rice, especially near the end zone; the deep conversations
with Tim McDonald, our savvy strong safety; the satisfaction of
silencing a road crowd. What I won't miss are the hits that made
my body tingle. Everyone freaks out about the collisions that
caused my concussions, like the megablow that Oilers linebacker
Micheal Barrow laid on me in 1996. But those are like lightning
strikes; at least they're over quickly. Try getting driven into
the turf by William Perry. The Fridge could kill you, man. One
time at Soldier Field, he put a claw out, threw me down and
landed on top of me. I thought my rib cage had been flattened.
Reggie White used to squash me like that, then stand up and say,
"Sorry about that, Steve. Hey, how are you?" I couldn't answer
him because there was no air in my lungs, but I appreciated his
kindness. I loved guys like Reggie, who played hard yet
understood that we were all in the same great game.

The Cardinals' Aeneas Williams ended my 1999 season last
September when he drilled me with a clean shot that drove me into
a teammate and gave me a concussion. For a while, I was bothered
by the idea that a knockout blow--from a 5'11" cornerback, no
less--might turn out to be the last play of my career. I got over
it as time passed, and now I'm at peace with my not-so-fantastic
finish, because I know I left the game on my terms. True, that
was my third concussion in four years and, yes, I cringed like
everyone else when I saw Eric Lindros crumble to the ice during
the NHL playoffs. But I've been to numerous specialists and had
every test they can give, and the doctors say my scan looks

Barbara Graham, a native of the Phoenix area who's now my wife,
was in the stands at Sun Devil Stadium when Aeneas hit me.
Barbara and I met in January 1999 on a blind date that had been a
decade in the making. Ten years earlier, she'd refused an offer
from mutual friends to set us up because she didn't want to date
a celebrity. I'm so thankful that she finally relented. Among
other things, I fell in love with her candor. Ten minutes after
we met, she said, "I heard you date women 15 years younger than
you. Anyone who does that has serious issues." I laughed and told
her the pool of eligible Mormon women in their 30s wasn't large.
It took a month before I got my first good-night kiss, and last
July, on the day before I left for training camp, I made my move.
As we stood atop Mount Baldy at the Alta, Utah, ski resort, I
said, "This is the highest a man can go by himself. I was
wondering if you could take me the rest of the way." Then I
placed a ring on her finger, and she started crying.

We were married in mid-March in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, and we got
right down to business. Thirteen days after the wedding, when I
was still adjusting to the magnitude of marriage, I went to a
general store in Lake Taupo, New Zealand, where we were
honeymooning, and bought a home pregnancy test. Barb disappeared
into the bathroom for several minutes, and when I went in to
check on her, she was sobbing tears of joy. Her stomach has been
queasy ever since, and we're expecting our first child in

The future holds so many exciting possibilities. I finished law
school at BYU six years ago, and I've promised my dad, Grit, a
corporate lawyer, that I'll take the bar exam. I'm chairman and
cofounder of a fledgling Internet company, Found, Inc., that has
150 employees in Salt Lake City and San Francisco. I'm thinking
of starting my own venture capital firm and am heavily involved
in enhancing the lives of children through my foundation, Forever
Young. I've been named chairman of the volunteer effort and will
host the medal ceremonies for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt
Lake City. Monday Night Football put out some feelers, but I'm
not pursuing that job. I don't see broadcasting in my immediate
future. I haven't ruled out running for political office, but
I've promised Barb I won't look into doing so for a long time.

I always wanted to be one of those athletes who got out with
something left in his tank, and I think I was able to do that.
Bill Walsh, I believe, was genuinely concerned about my health,
and he was unsure about the 49ers' ability to protect me. The
Niners' severe salary-cap problem was another reason he pushed me
toward retirement.

The fact that I had options was flattering. I spoke with Seahawks
coach Mike Holmgren, another of my former coordinators, and
considered a move up the coast, but it was the thought of teaming
up with Mike Shanahan that was especially alluring. As we sat in
that hotel meeting room in Denver, I saw the same gleam in his
eye I used to when, as our offensive coordinator, Mike would walk
into our Wednesday morning meetings and say, "All right, we're
playing Team X, and the defensive coordinator is so-and-so. He's
a real wimp"--I'm paraphrasing--"and we're going to kick his ass."

I've never been one to back away from a challenge, and for a few
seconds in that hotel, Mike had me. "I have a great team, and
we're ready to rock," he told me. "With you here, we'd be

The hard thing was, I agreed with him. But I had left my heart in
San Francisco, and it was guiding me home.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOEY TERRILL Love story Young, with bride Barbara last week in Scottsdale, Ariz., met her on a blind date. She won him over with her candor.

COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON Sacked out The concussion-plagued Young says Walsh was concerned that the 49ers' line would not be able to protect him.


"What I won't miss are the hits that made my body tingle."

"I retired not because of my head but because of my heart."