The first weeks of the off-season were a time of recuperation. The cobwebs in Young's head went away. His groin felt fine, and his ribs were completely healed by March. "Everyone wants to talk about my age," he says, "but the fact is, every time in my career I've ever had an injury, three weeks later I was fine."
Once he felt fit, Young set out to do what he does every off-season: good deeds. He began to raise money for recreation and learning centers for seriously ill patients at two children's hospitals, one in Salt Lake City and another in Palo Alto, Calif. Young appeared on the Children's Miracle Network Telethon in May. He worked for the Salt Lake City Olympic Organizing Committee (the Winter Games will be in Utah in 2002). For the 10th year in a row, he went to Arizona to visit Native American tribes, under the auspices of American Indian Services, a nonprofit organization that helps send Native American kids to college. In conjunction with American Indian Services, Young raises money for more than 500 college scholarships annually and funds an antidrug program for the Navajo and Hopi nations.
During this year's trip to the Navajo and Hopi reservations, he talked about why he liked working with the tribes. "People don't realize what I get out of it," he said. "I take things from these people. I've learned that happiness doesn't necessarily come from intriguing urban lifestyles, although I'm not saying you can't be happy in a city. I've met people who've lived in thatched huts with dirt floors and no electricity their entire lives, and they've had fantastic lives. They don't long for other things."
During a stop at Ganado High on the Navajo Reservation, students feted Young with a dance. The scene was cheerful; the tribe had even raised enough money to build a football stadium, complete with artificial turf, at the school. By contrast, the next stop, Hopi High on the Hopi Reservation, was depressing. When Young rose to speak to students in the auditorium, the audience was disrespectfully noisy, and his antidrug and stay-in-school speech, which he delivers at all the schools he visits, drew scoffs. "When these kids graduate," said Hopi High counselor Gary Clark, "half will try to get jobs. Half will drink."
The Hopis are entangled in a border dispute with Navajos who surround them. The Hopis have little potable water; most drinking water comes in bottles. "God. How can they have hope?" Young said as he left Hopi High. "What's here for them? An inner-city kid growing up in New York has a much better chance to succeed than these kids. It's a shame. That's why education is so crucial. They'll go nowhere without it. The [American Indian Services] scholarship program is essential for these kids to have a chance."
On the trip, a week after the April 19 NFL draft, Young hadn't yet been to a 49ers minicamp this year, and he was skeptical about what the San Francisco management had done to shore up the weaknesses that had become apparent last season. The Niners had promised him they would retool his line so he wouldn't get as beaten up as he had in 1996, when he was sacked 34 times. However, San Francisco had drafted no offensive linemen and had signed only one as a free agent, Kevin Gogan, a 32-year-old journeyman guard who last season played for the Oakland Raiders. The 49ers had stressed to Young how Steve Mariucci, the man who had replaced forced-out coach George Seifert, could take a quarterback drafted in the middle rounds and groom him over the next several years to be Young's successor; then they had chosen Druckenmiller in round 1. Finally, they hadn't addressed their dire need for a good cornerback. Young was disheartened. "I wish I knew what they were doing," he said then.
By the end of June, however, Young's professional clouds were lifting. "I'm not being a Pollyanna about it," he said, "but I've been to three minicamps, and I was really energized by them. I love what I saw in [free-agent running back) Garrison Hearst. I think with him and Terry Kirby we could have the best backfield we've had in a while. Every lineman seems bigger and stronger. [Tackles] Harris Barton and Kirk Scrafford are both about 300. [Guards] Ray Brown and Kevin Gogan are about 315 and 330, and [center] Chris Dalman's 300. And now we've got [cornerback] Rod Woodson [whom the 49ers signed for $5.1 million over three years]. What a boost for our secondary."
Druckenmiller will need at least two years to learn the West Coast offense. Meanwhile, Mariucci, Brett Favre's day-to-day tutor in Green Bay from 1992 to '95, will try to hide Young behind the bigger line, restrain him from scrambling and turn Hearst into a running-catching back in the Roger Craig mold. San Francisco also plans to throw deeper, which will make wide receiver Jerry Rice happier. "I love what we're doing," Rice said at Young's tournament. "And it helps that I've really found a comfort level with Steve."
In six seasons together Rice and Young have combined for more completions a game (6.0) than Rice and Joe Montana (5.1) did in their six seasons together. Rice and Young also have hooked up for more touchdowns (72) than did Rice and Montana (59). The perception is that Montana was worlds better than Young is. Considering only Super Bowls won, the perception is correct—Montana leads 4-1. But compare their stats as 49ers: Young has a better winning percentage (.725 to .719), touchdown-to-interception ratio (2.5:1 to 2:1) and quarterback rating (102.3 to 93.5). He has done all this despite having a team around him that isn't as good as the one that surrounded Montana. "If I never took another snap, I think I've taken my place among the good quarterbacks," Young said at his tournament. "But I think I have to win another championship. Otherwise people will always be able to say, He's got the numbers, but he only won one title."
Young grew pensive pondering his future. "The thing that keeps me young is the constant quest for perfection," he said. "I saw Joe go for it. It kept him young. It keeps me young. I think I'm in mid-career, but I have no idea how long I can play. Jerry and I are pushing the envelope of how long guys can play at a top level, regardless of age. Times are changing in sports. Look at the NBA. Look at the elite athletes playing in their mid-30s—Michael Jordan, John Stockton, Karl Malone, all thirtysomething and not playing below the standard they've set. I understand the team being skeptical about older players, but I don't put much stock in age. I know how I feel."