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.