In one of the early games of his pro career, he rode a bus through the Los Angeles suburbs - fully decked out in football gear and uniform across miles of ugly freeways - and scrambled around on a field at a junior college, kicking up great plumes of dust. It had the feel of a high school experience, and Steve Young couldn’t help but fret over the course his career had taken.
On Sunday, many miles, years and worlds removed from that event, he will sample the opposite end of the spectrum, when he leads the San Francisco 49ers against the San Diego Chargers in the Super Bowl.
“As a pro career, I’m glad I’m finally playing and doing well,” Young said, “because for a while there I thought it would just be a good book. And now it has some substance to it.”
Young wrote the first chapters in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. They were the stuff of outlandish fiction.
In the spring of 1984, as a star quarterback coming out of Brigham Young, he stepped into the middle of a reckless bidding war between the NFL and the year-old United States Football League.
How reckless? Well, the Los Angeles Express offered him a contract valued at $42 million. How could a 22-year-old turn his back on that?
Thus began a bizarre odyssey. Young spent two wacky seasons with the financially troubled Express. After the USFL folded, he landed in Tampa Bay of the NFL, which had attained his rights in a supplemental draft. After the Bucs committed to Vinny Testaverde and traded Young to San Francisco, he warmed a seat behind Joe Montana for four years. Then, for another four years, he endeavored to succeed the man.
“Steve, at the time he signed his first contract, was independently wealthy for life,” says agent Leigh Steinberg. “It’s ironic because all he ever wanted was to be a starting quarterback in the NFL. He signed a series of contracts that made him wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. But he had to wait a long time to get a chance to start.”
Young, who didn’t work on a full-time basis with the 49ers until Montana suffered a serious elbow injury in the 1991 season, didn’t claim the job for his own until Montana was traded to Kansas City in ‘93.
Teammates have commented extensively on the fun-loving side of Young that has resurfaced in this, the year he exiled the Montana poltergeist for good. Young can probably savor his good fortune a little more than most, chiefly because of the odd twists and turns he’s had to navigate.
“I’ve seen a lot in football,” he said. “I tried to punch an owner on his birthday once. He tried to punch me. He almost threw a chair out a window. I mean, I’ve seen it all.”
Wait a minute. Punch an owner?
Young deferred to his agent. “Leigh tells it better,” he said.
Steinberg obliged. He related that he and Young were in the San Francisco high-rise office of William Oldenberg in the spring of ‘84, attempting to hammer out details of an extremely complex contract. It was, in fact, Oldenberg’s birthday, and he wanted to get the pesky deal finished by late afternoon.
“There was a mix-up,” Steinberg says. “He assumed Steve was coming to sign the deal. In reality, all we had was an outline. There were still hours of paperwork to go.
“Oldenberg is getting progressively angry. Anyway, at some point - suffice to say it was 3 in the morning - Bill is expressing displeasure at Steve not signing the contract, and he started to express displeasure at Steve. He, um, um, started to question certain aspects of Steve’s spirit and will, shall we say. Oldenberg became very angry and actually hauled off and hit Steve as hard as he could in the chest.
“Steve looked at him, and when the shock wore off he said, ‘If you do that again, Mr. Oldenberg, owner or not, I’m going to deck you.’ At another point, Oldenberg took a chair, and was so angry he attempted to throw it out the office window - 21 floors up. Steve grabbed his arm and stopped him.
“These were some of the calmer things that happened that night. Suffice to say that Steve got a very heavy introduction to the world of professional sports.”
Two seasons with the Express certainly broadened that education.
On one occasion, Young and his team mates watched in shock as a furious Oldenberg threw plates of food at head coach John Hadl.
Late in the ‘85 season, when the financially strapped Express was piling up unpaid bills faster than losses - the team finished 3-15 that year - a driver of the team bus pulled to the curb and vowed not to advance another block until he was paid. The players took up a collection.
Finally, in the Express’ last game just before the USFL’s mercy killing, the team found itself short of running backs because it couldn’t afford to sign replacements. Young trotted onto the field at Orlando and played fullback.
“In that, you find the genesis of why he hung on so tenaciously at San Francisco even when I pushed him very hard to escape what seemed to be an inherently unfair future,” said Steinberg. “Which is: ‘You’re not Joe.”’
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