San Francisco NFL Draft Weekend: Living in the Past with Steve Young

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San Francisco NFL Draft Weekend: Living in the Past with Steve Young
(Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

As We the 49er Faithful look ahead to this weekend’s NFL draft, it’s easy to feel an overwhelming sense of dread.

Let’s face it, our team hasn’t been “good” since the days when MTV played music videos.

Admittedly, we’ve had our moments of hope—from drafting Frank Gore in 05’ to Singletary turning the ship around somewhat at the end of last season.  But let’s be honest: we haven’t been a playoff caliber team in quite some time.

For most fans, it all starts with the quarterback.  This was a franchise that—from 1981 to 1998—featured two of the greatest field generals who ever lived, running the most potent offense ever conceived.

Even the Garcia/Owens era, in hindsight, looks mighty rosy when one considers what our passing game has since become.  It’s downright hilarious that with one of the league’s best QB/Receiver tandems we still felt so deprived of talent—but for whatever reason, we did.

Such is life as a Niner fan.  We were privileged to bear witness to the miracles of the 80’s and 90’s, but it spoiled the hell out of us to the point where for awhile, anything short of a Super Bowl seemed like a disappointment.

The last five years, however, have given a new sense of perspective to fans throughout the Bay Area.  A wild card berth has never seemed so exciting; people nearly lost it when Kurt Warner came to town.

One thing that often occurs to me is how hard it must have been for Bill Walsh to watch this all go down—to sit idly by as the once proud West Coast offense he built was destroyed by the variety of coaches who have since come up with more "fitting" schemes for our team, or to watch the front office put it’s eggs in the basket of one of the biggest busts in modern NFL history.

The days of Bill Walsh are long gone—and frankly, I’m glad that he doesn’t have to see another season of a mediocre quarterback at the helm.  The man deserves better than that for all he did for us, and I hope that wherever he is there are quarterbacks who can throw deadly accurate 5-10 yard passes on the move and receivers who know their routes like the back of their hand.

One thing’s for sure: such players sure as hell aren’t on the current roster.

So what’s a Niner fan to do?

My answer; forget about the future and focus on the past.  This team could literally cease to exist and we’d still have a plethora of glorious memories locked in our hearts forever.

That may sound defeatist, but it’s the God’s honest truth.  Nothing that happens this weekend or this season will change the past.

If you’re ready to live in the past with me, come take a trip down memory lane as I pay tribute to a 49er legend.  This is a man who still somehow gets short changed in the talks of the glory days, despite in many ways being the finest to ever play his position.

You know who I’m talking about, 49er nation; it’s not Montana Magic.  It’s the guy who followed up Joe Cool’s act—the left handed mormon phenom, Jon Steven Young.

Speed.

Mobility.

Agility.

Athleticism.

Precision.

Heart.

Intelligence.

These are the characteristics that come to mind when the people of Bay Area think of Steve Young—and were indeed the principles that the man lived by every day during his time as a 49er.

His unrivaled athleticism as a runner, pinpoint accuracy as a passer, and sound judgement as a leader made him one of the most exciting talents to ever grace the ranks of the NFL, and without question my favorite football player of all time.

Steve Young.  Such a simple name, yet one that brings back so many memories…

My first memories of Steve Young however weren’t exactly positive.  For when he initially stepped onto the grass at Candlestick Park, he was largely regarded as the mediocre backup of the great Joe Montana.

I am ashamed to admit that I fell victim to this ridiculous categorization.  Every minute Steve Young played before 1991 was a minute I wished Joe was healthy again.

This seems beyond absurd in hindsight—after all, Young was one of the most effective backups in the league.  His scramble against the Vikings in 1988 will go down in the history books as one of the best plays of professional football lore, and his numbers as the #2 even in the late 80’s foreshadowed a brilliant career as a starter.

But at the time, we Niners fans were in love with another man. We had all been awestruck by #16 for so long that we had no room left in our hearts for any other quarterback wearing red and gold.

The story I am about to share is quite a painful one for me.  It is a disgusting display of a young child’s inability to appreciate the magnitude of greatness that surrounded him and the warped sense of reality that multiple Super Bowl championships can produce in many fans.

That said, this anecdote is a part of my past that I cannot escape.  I’ve wanted to get it off my chest for awhile, and now seems like an ample opportunity.

I was at a friend’s slumber party back in elementary school—it was probably 1990. As all of us were rabid Niners fans, it was only a matter of time before the topic of Steve Young came up.

The insult brigade commenced.  “What a bum…that guy sucks!” somebody said.

“When the hell is Joe coming back?” I asked in earnest.

The conversation reached its climax when an older kid who was at the party told us that he and his buddies had egged Steve Young’s house (#8 lived down in the Peninsula at the time, where I grew up).   Though even as an adolescent I was appalled by vandalism, this seemed to be an appropriate exception to the rule.

We all laughed hysterically. “The guy deserves it” I thought to myself.  After all, he was out there trying to steal Joe’s thunder while our Lord and Savior was doing what he could to get healthy.

Little did I know that this “bum” would become my childhood hero a few years later.

Kids say the darnedest things, don’t they?

Except it wasn’t just kids who were ragging on Steve—the majority of the 49er faithful were simply unwilling to give one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of college football a chance to succeed in the pros.

Joe was our guy; the thought of him being traded or retiring one day gave us the shivers.

So we took it out on Steve.  These are my sins, father.

If I could travel in a time machine back to that slumber party, I would have told my parents to pick me up, drive us over to Steve Young’s house, scoop the broken eggs into a grocery bag, and return to the slumber party with some goodies for this older kid.

Then, I would smear the egg yolk all over his stupid face before doing the same to my own mug.

For it was we who deserved to be egged.  Our utter naivety allowed us to talk foul of this fine warrior—who’s career, at 29 years of age, was just beginning to blossom.

In some way, I feel I have paid for my sins.  By 1992, Young was far and away the league’s best QB—the new face of the Niners.  Quickly realizing the error of my ways, I cheered him on during every play of every game.

I would do the same up until the day in which a concussion ended his career seven years later.

Every game I watched of Steve Young’s from 1992 to 1999 was a special one for me.  I loved Joe Montana as a young child, but I truly became a man with Steve.

Young led the league in passer rating a record six times in his career and won two MVP awards. His career quarterback rating of 96.8 remains the highest mark in NFL history.

Statistically speaking, he may be the greatest passer in the history of the league.  And that’s not even including his mind-boggling numbers as a rusher.

Numbers, however, don’t tell the whole story of Steve Young.  It’s hard to fathom what must have been going through this guy’s head throughout those years given the large shoes he was expected to fill.

The 49er faithful couldn’t give two shits about numbers.  All we cared about were Super Bowl victories.

Joe Cool had won four championships as our starting quarterback.  And despite his statistical decorations, Steve Young hadn’t won any.  The hated Dallas Cowboys had laid claim to what was rightfully his in both 92’ and 93’.

Then the 1994 season came.

And it was good.

To say Steve had an awesome year would be quite an understatement.  Brace yourself as you look at these numbers:

70.3% completion percentage
3969 yards
35 passing touchdowns; 7 rushing touchdowns
10 interceptions
112.8 QB rating

And this, my friends, was before the rule changes where defensive backs could no longer touch receivers.

Going into the playoffs though, it was more of the same amongst the rabble of the Bay Area fans.

“The guy’s amazing—but can he win when it counts?”

“He’s still got a long way to go before we can mention him in the same breathe as you-know-you.  Let’s see what happens in the playoffs.”

This time though, Steve wasn’t messing around.  Flanked by Jerry Rice and Ricky Watters, Young easily marched the Nines into the Super Bowl to face off against Junior Seau and the San Diego Chargers.

The game would be the career defining moment for #8.  He knew that his performance on this one Sunday would permanently shape his legacy in San Francisco.

The pressure was on.  Would Steve live up to the ridiculous expectations Joe Montana and the pampered fans of the Bay Area had set for him?

Young didn’t just answer that question with his performance in Super Bowl XXIX. 

Rather, he permanently put to rest any notion that he wasn’t one of the key pillars of the 49ers dynasty.

Jon Steven Young would throw a Super Bowl record six touchdown passes in a 49-26 trouncing of the Chargers—breaking the record previously set by…guess who?

Being the obvious choice as the game’s MVP, Young would finish with 325 yards in the air and 49 yards on the ground, becoming the first player to ever lead the Super Bowl in both rushing and passing yards.

It was a truly magical day for Steve, who, in the final minutes of the game, had his teammates physically pull the metaphorical monkey off of his back on the sidelines. 
In a segment of NFL films, Young would later claim that he regretted this antic, but I personally think it’s quite fitting given everything he had worked so hard to overcome during his years as a 49er.

Steve's adventurous style as a dual-threat quarterback caught up to him later in his career. He continued to excel despite numerous concussions before finally retiring three games into the 1999 season due to serious health concerns.

The heart that this man displayed on the football field should never be forgotten—he continued to use all of the tools in his toolbox even when coaches and doctors alike advised him to be more cautious and conservative. He allowed his mind to guide him as much as he did his arm, rarely forcing balls in places they didn't belong.

Football was an art form for Young; it was such a pleasure watching him work. He was truly an inspiration for all Bay Area fans.

As we head into the fog of tomorrow, I ask you, 49er nation, to not let the future get you down.  For we have a noble history that most franchises would sell the farm to inherit.

And no one can ever take it away from us, no matter what happens.

We must be resilient and proud, even if we are in many ways pessimistic and doubtful of where things go from here.  If Shaun Hill (or God forbid, whatever other gunslinger the Niners welcome to the organization between now and September) sets the all-time record for incompletions in 2009, that will not change the beauty of what previously was.

For Steve Young was once taking those snaps.  And that in itself should be enough to hold our spirits high.

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