He hates this part, so let's get it over with. As a professional athlete who shares his name with a pop-culture icon, San Francisco 49er quarterback Elvis Grbac has long understood the burden of such association. Presley puns follow him like paparazzi trail O.J. Simpson, and Sunday at Busch Memorial Stadium, where Grbac made his first NFL start, was no exception.
Grbac, who was stepping in for the injured Steve Young, faced the eager St. Louis Rams—and 59,915 name-baiting skeptics. Signs draped across the stadium's lower rim made frequent reference to the quarterback and the King, typically comparing them in biting terms like these: ONE IS FAT, SLOW AND HASN'T BEEN HEARD FROM IN YEARS. THE OTHER IS ELVIS PRESLEY. Grbac saw the signs. "People are going to do that until you prove you deserve their respect," he said after the 49ers had pounded the Rams 44-10. "All the signs and other b.s. just build a fire inside me."
Grbac, 25, points out that he is not named for Presley but that his given name is popular among Croatian-Americans of his parents' generation. If there is a crooning namesake to whom he could be compared, it is the unassuming Elvis Costello. Never was this more apparent than on Sunday, when Grbac unobtrusively completed 11 of 14 passes, two of them for touchdowns, and called it a day late in the third quarter with San Francisco leading 44-3. With the football world watching, his aim was true.
Spurred by a furious defense, the 49ers might have won this game with Lisa Marie Presley at quarterback. San Francisco held St. Louis to 71 yards rushing and came up with four interceptions as it moved into a three-way tie for first in the NFC West with the Rams and the Atlanta Falcons. All have a 5-2 record. Had they lost, the Niners, who are the defending Super Bowl champions, would have fallen two games behind in the division and crippled their chances of earning home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Now their Nov. 12 showdown with the Dallas Cowboys at Texas Stadium once again appears to be the regular season's marquee matchup. San Francisco plays the New Orleans Saints and the Carolina Panthers before heading to Dallas. Though Young's sprained and bruised left shoulder could be mended in time for the game against Carolina, the 49ers now know Grbac is capable of taking them to Texas unscathed.
That became clear on Grbac's first snap as a starter. The Niners had just taken over at the Ram 35-yard line following the first of four interceptions served up by St. Louis quarterback Chris Miller. After a play-action fake to fullback William Floyd, Grbac raced to his right with three Ram defenders in pursuit. Jerry Rice, option number one, had been knocked down and option number two, tight end Brent Jones, wasn't open. The remaining choices were to run or throw to John Taylor, who had a step on cornerback Anthony Parker. Grbac, who throws so hard he has been dubbed Rocket Man by the sure-handed Rice, hummed a perfect 35-yard spiral to Taylor.
"He hit the third guy, and it was just beautiful," said Bill Walsh, who made his first trip with the 49ers, as a guest of the team, since stepping down as coach following the 1988 season. "He showed a lot of poise."
On the Rams' ensuing possession, Miller threw a ball at 49er linebacker Ken Norton Jr., who snatched it and ran it back 21 yards for the first of his two interception-return touchdowns in the game. Each time Norton celebrated his TD by throwing punches at the padding that covers the goalpost—a tribute to his famous heavyweight-fighter father, with whom he has recently reconciled after a nearly five-year feud.
The Niners came into this game fighting mad. In the wake of Young's injury and an 18-17 defeat at Indianapolis the previous Sunday, the San Francisco organization dropped its veneer of aplomb and shifted into panic mode. First, coach George Seifert pink-slipped second-year kicker Doug Brien, who had missed a last-minute 46-yard field goal in the loss to Indianapolis and a last minute 40-yard field goal in a 27-24 loss to the Detroit Lions. Brien received almost no support from his teammates. Offensive tackle Harris Barton put it this way: "You have 100 guys out there running into each other for three hours, then some guy who wears Birkenstocks runs out and tries to win it."
And fails. "This team expects to win," Barton added, "and when we don't win, everybody kind of panics a little bit."
They didn't need to panic against these Rams, who looked more like the miserable team that came into this season tied with the Cincinnati Bengals for the worst record in the 1990s than the perky outfit that had gone 5-1 since moving from Anaheim to St. Louis. "This was a big step we had to take, and we were totally unprepared," said All-Pro running back Jerome Bettis, who gained just 34 yards on 11 carries.