One of The Best Ever Gets His Due

Ask any 49er fan – pardon me – and real 49er fan where they were on January 3rd, 1999 and as their eyes light up they will recall a story for you about not only where they were that day but also what they were wearing, where they were sitting and who they were with. It was on this day that one Jon Steven Young fought off numerous attacks from a Green Bay Packers defense that was intent on decapitating him to find a then humble Terrell Owens for a wildcard playoff game winning touchdown.

On this play, which afterward saw Young running so fast to the end zone to congratulate his receiver that he nearly took out a line judge who was in his way, the two men immortalized themselves (Young for the umpteenth time and Owens for the first) in San Francisco 49ers lore.

This of course was simply another instance where Steve Young endeared himself to the faithful fans of San Francisco, who while they had not always stood by the man, understood at that moment just how lucky they were to have been witness to what was almost 20 years of Hall of Fame quarterback play. Young WAS the 49ers; he personified greatness and never gave up the fight until the final whistle sounded. No game was out of reach when Young was in control, he simply wouldn’t allow himself or his teammates to give up no matter how dire the circumstance.

Steve Young is the consummate 49er; it’s almost as if he was born to be so. After being traded from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to San Francisco (another genius Bill Walsh maneuver) Young knew that he was entering into a situation which just about any other quarterback in the league would have wanted to run from. See the 49ers already had a quarterback, a guy by the name of Joe Montana. Steve knew that this Montana character had not only already won two Super Bowl titles, was named MVP of both contests but was in fact adored by the fans of the franchise to which he had already bestowed years of greatness on. To say that most men would have been unhappy at the thought of sitting behind a future Hall of Famer is an understatement, Young however took it has a blessing at the time saying;

“When I do get my chance (to start) I’ll make the best of it.”

This is of course is not to say that Young wasn’t hungry to play, in fact it was quite the contrary as evidenced by this comment during training camp the season after the trade.

“Everyone wants to play, I want to play desperately and I’m just gonna try to drive everyone nuts until they give me a shot.”

That was Young though, he had the innate ability to make light of any situation. He was as quick witted as he was at evading opposing defensive linemen in the pocket and throwing caution to the wind as he ran downfield in search of his next first down. He continued to paint his position on the team with the most positive of brushes as he was forced to sit behind Montana until 1991 when Joe missed most of season to injuries. It was of course during those four years that Montana delivered two more Lombardi Trophies to the city of San Francisco, thereby furthering his legacy as not only the best quarterback in 49er history but possibly the greatest to ever play the game, period.

This didn’t phase Young however as he took the reigns from the man he had admittedly learned a great deal from and attempted to mimic his predecessor. This opportunity did not begin in the manner many had hoped for, most notably Young himself as the 49ers entered the midway point of the season with a 4-4 record. In the game played in the ninth week of the season Young went down with a knee injury and was replaced by backup quarterback Steve Bono. This of course was after Young in a fashion that was uniquely his, threw a franchise record 97-yard touchdown pass to John Taylor. Consequently Bono was remarkable as well in leading the team to five consecutive wins after suffering a loss in that game which brought their record to 4-5. Bono’s play was so outstanding that head coach George Seifert opted to keep him as the starter even after Young had fully recovered. It was week 15 of that season before Young saw the field again, namely because Bono suffered an injury as well. Young ended that season with a passer rating of 101.8 even after missing five and a half games helping the 49ers to finish with a record of 10-6. As many will call to mind 1991 ended up being the first year the team missed the playoffs since the 1981-1982 season.

It wasn’t until the next season that the greatness of Young was finally able to be spotted from the stands at Candlestick Park. The way that campaign began, no one in their right mind could have predicted that it would end in the manner it did. With Bono vying for the starting job now as well and Montana almost fully recovered from the injury that thrust Young to the forefront in ’91 he appeared to be on his way out and in fact he was nearly traded however no deal was ever signed off on by the San Francisco front office. It turned out to be a Godsend as Young led the 49ers to a 14-2 record despite suffering a concussion in week 2. Steve ended the 1992 season with amazing numbers as he racked up 3,456 yards in the air and 537 rushing. He threw 25 touchdown passes that season on his way to a passer rating of 107.0 and his first of two NFL Most Valuable Player awards. Of course the season came to an end when the 49ers lost in the NFC Championship game to the Dallas Cowboys, the first of three straight meeting betweens the two teams in the conferences title contest.

San Francisco again lost to the Cowboys in the ensuing years NFC Championship game, a season which saw Young set franchise marks for passing yards with 4,023 and consecutive passes thrown without an interception with 189. He also led the NFL in touchdowns (29) and passer rating (101.5) for the second year in a row. However a 10-6 record and falling one game short of the Super Bowl to the hated Cowboys had fans by the bay calling for Montana to retake his place as the leader of the team. At the time it made sense, new quarterback takes over for a legend and can’t win when it counts the most. Young knew that he was never going to replace Montana on the field and in 49er fans hearts but he wasn’t trying to, he merely wanted to blaze his own path and show everyone that he too could lead the team to greatness.

“Joe had won four Super Bowls and when you win a Super Bowl you get emotionally cemented with the people in the town. So now we had been beaten by the Cowboys twice in the Championship game, I hadn’t won a Super Bowl, Joe got traded to Kansas City and emotionally I think there were a lot of people in the bay area that went with him. Without a Super Bowl (the fans) we like you, we’ll let you hang around, but we don’t love you and we don’t want you to stay too long.”

This is what Young was made to deal with, from the fans and the media as they made it clear that nothing but a Super Bowl win would appease them.

It would be the next season in which Young would deliver what so many wanted but never thought he would be able to. It didn’t begin in a way that led fans to believe that it would have ended in the manner it did. The 49ers had gone out in the offseason and done everything they could to field a team that they believed had the power to dethrone the Super Bowl favorite Cowboys. They signed former Dallas linebacker and defensive leader Ken Norton Jr. They went out and acquired shutdown cornerback Deion Sanders via free agency. They also brought in linebackers Gary Plummer and Rickey Jackson from San Diego and New Orleans; center Bart Oates from the New York Giants and a few other free agents who added depth to the roster. 1994 was going to be the 49ers Super Bowl year, there was no doubt that team had been built from the ground up to face the Cowboys in the NFC Championship and take them down.

There were a few bumps in the road however; none greater possibly for Young then the week two match up against the Kansas City Chiefs and their starting quarterback, Joe Montana.

Montana had been traded to the Chiefs when after the season of 1992 there had been turmoil between he, the coaching staff and the front office. Entering the offseason of 1993 George Seifert had named Young the starter going into the upcoming season, after all Montana had missed all of ’92 to injury and Young had won the MVP award that season. This of course did not sit well with Montana and once word got around of this the team tried to rectify the situation to keep Montana happy by naming him the designated starter for the season but the damage had been done. Montana was not going to sit idly by and watch his career unfold how someone else wanted it to. He asked for and was granted a trade and the 49ers officially became Young’s team.

San Francisco lost that game to Kansas City 24-17 and with it went all confidence that Young could lead the team to its desired destination. Radio talk shows and newspaper media chastised the team for trading away the face of the franchise in Montana and ripped into Young at every turn, saying that he would never live up to Montana and was nothing without a Super Bowl win. Things would get no easier after that as in week five the 49ers were lambasted by the blitz happy Philadelphia Eagles 40-8. With the score 33-8 George Seifert opted to pull his starter from the game saying that he feared for his safety, a move which infuriated Young. Steve went to the sideline and was ready for anything as he laced Seifert with a tirade that had not been seen from him at any other time before.

“I felt like he (Seifert) was saying, yeah everyone got beat up. But, YOU, you are, it’s your fault. And I thought for me, after all the crap that I had been through for all those years and you’re going to trot the quarterback out to replace me then trot out J.J. Stokes to take Jerry’s place, trot out someone else with him but me, I think I just basically broke. I went to the sideline looking for a fist-fight. I wasn’t just going to have an argument, I was looking to have a fist-fight and I was going to have it with George Seifert.”

This move, the fire that Young showed on the Candlestick sideline that afternoon electrified the team and even though they suffered their worst loss since a 49-3 drubbing at the hands of the Giants in a 1986 playoff game were a team reborn. Young led the team to 10 wins in a row to finish the season with a 13-3 record and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. After dispatching the Chicago Bears 44-15 in the NFC Divisional playoffs the 49ers went onto face their nemesis once again in the Cowboys. The mistakes which had plagued the team in the previous two Championship meetings were suddenly reversed in this contest as the San Francisco opened up a 31-14 halftime lead against their archrivals. Thanks in part to three first half Dallas turnovers. Young would lead the team to a 38-28 win and a berth in Super Bowl XXIX where they would completely manhandle the overmatched San Diego Chargers 49-26 as Young took MVP honors for his 6 touchdown and 325 yards passing performance. There is a lasting image from that NFC Championship game though; it is of Young making a victory lap around the field that overcast afternoon at Candlestick. Shaking hands and giving high-fives to the 49er faithful, a group which at one point despised the man, suddenly embracing him into the family.

“It was like putting a flag on the top of Everest. Dallas had gone down and uhhh… get out of way because I’m running around and I’m saying hello to everybody. The same people that said Joe is the man and that’s never going to change I think suddenly said, it’s alright, Steve can do it and Joe can do it and we’re all good because we’re from San Francisco and we’re 49er fans. It was as if everyone’s heart grew enough to encircle both of us. And I still remember the moment because I traveled the field and people were yelling, we’re with you and I think everyone just let it go.”

They did Steve, they let it go. The thing they have never let go of though is the memory of EVERYTHING you did on the field for this team and the countless deeds you have done for it since you were taken (far too soon) off of it. That could not be more evident then it is right now with the news that your jersey will be retired this Oct. 5 at home against the New England Patriots.

The remaining years of Young’s playing career were spent battling in the playoffs up to his departure in 1999 and he continued to give the 49ers his all in that time. He sustained what was the NFL’s longest and most dynamic dynasty and he did it with a fire and passion for the game of football but most importantly he did it for his love of the San Francisco 49ers. Steve could have left the team when he was being placed behind Montana all those seasons but he didn’t. He stuck it out because he believed in what the 49ers represented. I’ll close with this last quote from Young at the teams Super Bowl party.

“When I came to the 49ers Eddie Debartolo said welcome to the family and I was coming from the Tampa Bay dysfunctional family. But that’s what this is, it truly is a family.”

Steve knew what it was like to be a part of a team was clueless as to how to field a winner and take care of its players. The 49ers were not that team. Debartolo cared for the players he employed as if they were his own children. He took care of them and their families and repaid their hard work on the football field. Young saw this and knew if he only waited that his time would come.

That I believe above all else is the reason that he stayed in San Francisco for those first few years when he certainly could have been starting for another team. He had his family and he wasn’t going to, nor was he going to allow them to let him go.

  • mouse

    here here

  • young gun

    good im glad this is being done its about time… young is my all time favorite niner

  • joe gomez

    You guys are picking Young over Rice or Montana? Wow, I dont think they even compare. Young is a Hall of Fame Champion but Montana and Rice are NFL Legends.

  • 9erfan25

    thanks for this piece James. Like young gun, Steve Young is my favorite player ever

  • mouse

    My favorite 49ers season was the 1991 season in which we missed the playoffs. The Niners were 4-6 but won their last 6 games in a row capped by a 52-14 thumping of playoff bound Chicago. Steve Young really came into his own at the end of that season and if it weren’t for the Dallas Cowboys he would have won more superbowls because I know the Niners at the end of that season could have beaten the Washington Redskins who eventually went on to win the championship.

  • joe gomez

    I remember hating Young for taking Montana’s job. I hated him for all the fumbles, int’s, miscues in all those NFC Championship losses against the Cowboys and Packers and always said that if that were Montana we would have atleast 7 Rings. Saying all that, he did come into his own finally and won a ring. I think if Hearst doesn’t break that ankle on the very first play from scrimmage against Atlanta he would probably have 2 rings.

    I will not be able to make it to Candlestick for Young’s jersey retirement due to military obligations but I will make sure I Tivo it. One jersey retirement I guarantee I wont miss is Jerry Rice.

  • 9nerfan

    i remember that packer game. i was working at a car wash and i rememner turming to what ever a.m. station it was in every car i was vacuuming just to listen to that game. i was yelling my ass off when t. o made that catch.

  • Tim

    James thanks for the well written informative articles. On a personal note I am from Massachusetts and am glad all of my idiotic Patriot fan friends will get to witness Steve having his # retired. I hope all the greats are there to provide extra motivation as I would really love to win that game.

  • Lowrance

    I remember the Philly game where Steve was getting pounded and limped off the field. I think we lost something like 42-7, or some ridiculous score.
    As his teamates watched Steve drag his body off the field, never giving up, it turned the season around. Nothing but respect for Steve following that beating. After that game, they went on to win the Super Bowl.

    Thank you Steve for your years of excellence.

  • Lowrance

    ps Steve.
    I still don’t like Warren Sapp. He seemed so proud of knocking you out that day. But I think you get the last laugh. The NFL network showed him dancing in a purple suit resembling “Barney” That’s real brain damage.

  • James Jones

    Thanks guys. As an aside I loved Joe and Jerry of course and they are the best ever at their positions and Jerry is arguably the G.O.A.T. so it goes without saying that they hold a special place in all 49er fans hearts.

    For me though(and the reason my screen name inside the Holics boards is 4everYoung) Steve gets my vote for what he endured for the team and the city of San Francisco. As said in my article he could have left long before he was able to start but he didn’t because he loved the franchise and everything it stood for at the time. I believe it was why he and Brent Jones put together the investment group they did in an attempt to purchase the team. He wanted to restore it to greatness becasue of his love for the team and Eddie.

    Lowrance: The game you’re referring too is the Eagles game at Candlestick in which Seifert removed Young when the team was down 33-8. The final score was 40-8 and Young was upset at being taken out of that game. However the game that truly brought the team together was the following week in Detroit. The Niners were down early and Steve was being leveled on every other play, there is a scene after he was sandwiched between two Lions as he let a pass go where he was crawling across the turf screaming and in pain. Grbac came in for a few plays but Young came back in to lead the team to a 27-21 victory. From there they went on to win 10 in a row to finish 13-3.

  • 9erfan25

    yeah we are joe.

  • joe gomez

    then your crazy… Jerry and Joe Montana are the greatest 49ers ever if not the greatest in NFL History. Get real, Steve Young was great too, but dont compare him to those two.

  • joe gomez

    Nolan said O’Sullivan learned, as Young did with the 49ers, to “throw guys open,” that is, throw before receivers have made their breaks. “Then things start to click.”

    I have been saying for awhile that this was the reason Alex always had problems connecting with his receivers. He never learned how to throw into an area where the receiver was supposed to be before their “break”.

  • Lowrance

    Thanks for the clarification James. I thought I remembered 40-8 but wasn’t sure so I rounded to TDs. I remembered him limping to the sidelines in the philly game, but couldn’t remember Detroit….
    aaahhhh winning memories….

    C’mon JT!!!! Let’s build another winner!!!!

  • R,Craig33

    It’s about time the young to rice passes was highlight reel material each and every time I grew up watching and imatating montana when I was a kid but steve young might had been better (MIGHT HAD BEEN).

  • R,Craig33

    I ment to correct imatating

  • Adam49

    Didnt Young have more thowing TD’s to Rice than Montana did.I do love Montana and always will but Steve’s my favorite QB of all time.

  • Adam49

    I have a fantasy dilemma.Should i start Fred Jackson against the Rams Defense?Or start Michael Turner against the Panthers Defense?

  • Adam49

    Hand the ball of to gore more for god sakes.Vernon Davis is non existent.Patrick Willis is ownong Reggie Bush.we gettin whooped.