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Young at Heart
Steve Young
June 19, 2000
Hall-of-Famer-to-be Steve Young reflects on his career with the 49ers and tells what compelled him to walk away from the game after 15 NFL seasons
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June 19, 2000

Young At Heart

Hall-of-Famer-to-be Steve Young reflects on his career with the 49ers and tells what compelled him to walk away from the game after 15 NFL seasons

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Steve Young may be walking away from football, but he's still a reckless rambler at heart. On Saturday, June 3, a sweltering day in Orlando, Young, the future Hall of Fame quarterback who led the San Francisco 49ers to victory in Super Bowl XXIX, sat in the backseat of a Jeep Cherokee while he was being whisked through the polymerized world of Disney. Young, who was in Orlando to cohost the Children's Miracle Network telethon for the 10th consecutive year, bristled as the vehicle pulled to a stop at a barrier 100 yards from broadcast headquarters. "Come on, bro, it's an S.U.V.," Young urged the driver. "Take it over the curb."

More than any other NFL star of his era, Young thrust himself headlong into the fray. Whether it was a quarterback rivalry with Joe Montana or a scramble for a first down with a sea of frothing behemoths in pursuit, Young, who officially ended his 15-year NFL career at a press conference on Monday, prided himself on not backing away from challenges. In a series of interviews that began in Orlando and ended last Saturday in Phoenix—a few miles from Sun Devil Stadium, site of his final game—Young, 38, told why he turned down a chance to compete for another Super Bowl ring, and reflected on his brilliant career.

On the morning of Monday, June 5, Mike Shanahan and I slinked through the hallways of a hotel near the Denver airport, searching for some privacy. As the coach of the Broncos, Mike is a prominent man in Denver, so here we were sneaking around like truant fifth-graders, doing business on the down-low. Mike led us into a pitch-black meeting room and shut the door. For about 30 comical seconds the two of us fumbled around, trying to find a light switch.

Once we sat down, I didn't leave Mike in the dark for long. "I'm retiring," I said, "and I wanted to tell you the news in person." Mike smiled. I knew he would still make a pitch for me to join his team, and part of me wanted him to succeed. Later that day at 49ers headquarters, Bill Walsh, the man who brought me to San Francisco from Tampa Bay 13 years ago, told reporters that I was close to signing with the Broncos. The truth was, I had decided to quit on a late-May morning during a brisk run near my home in Palo Alto. Even Mike, perhaps the most persuasive coach of the many great ones I've had, wasn't going to change my mind.

I don't want to sound too esoteric, but in the end, it wasn't a rational assessment as much as a spiritual realization that cemented my plans. I felt a wave of inspiration to move on. When an hour had passed and Mike and I had completed our sentiment-drenched conversation, he knew the real story: I retired not because of my head but because of my heart.

Playing football in San Francisco was almost a transcendental experience. I have this lasting image of Monday night games at Candlestick Park—I still can't bring myself to call it 3Com—when the lights would shine through the fog. It looked so surreal. When fans showed up at Candlestick, there was a great sense of anticipation that they would watch not only winning football, but also artistry. Our offense was that sublime. In the huddle, there were times when I couldn't hear over the din of my receivers yelling, "I'm open! I'm open!" The amazing thing was, all those guys were telling the truth.

Bill deserves credit for triggering the trade in which the 49ers swapped second- and fourth-round draft picks for me, but it also took a bit of backroom dealing by our owner, Eddie DeBartolo, to get the deal done. After my disastrous 1986 season with the Buccaneers, Ray Perkins came in as coach and decided to draft Vinny Testaverde with the first pick. The word was that I'd be traded to the equally awful Cardinals. I had a good relationship with Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse, so I asked him for mercy. The way I understand it, he and Eddie worked out the trade, and I think it was one of those Charlie Finley deals: Mr. Culverhouse had spent a lot of money on a new coach, and Eddie gave him some cash.

Bill told me that Joe Montana's back injury was severe and that I'd be stepping in as the starter imminently. Obviously, Joe's back wasn't all that bad, and I had to sit for four years behind the greatest quarterback of all time. Joe and I had our share of tension—unfortunately, we were the juiciest soap opera in the Bay Area for a while. One great thing that has happened over the years is that our relationship has improved immensely. Once I became the starter, I had a much greater appreciation of Joe's perspective, because I realized that having a gung ho backup like me would've been a major pain in the butt. In recent years Joe has said some very nice things about me, both publicly and to mutual friends, and I look forward to playing golf with him soon.

Even back then, Joe and I had fun together. Joe was the resident prankster, especially when it came to confiscating teammates' mountain bikes at our training camp in Rocklin, Calif. I played Robin to his Batman. Greg Knapp, who's now our quarterbacks coach, tells the story of the first night he spent as a training-camp coaching intern in 1992: He comes to our quarterbacks meeting and gets introduced to Joe and Mike [ Shanahan] and me, and he's trying to take it all in. We're begging Mike to let us out early, which he does, and Greg sticks around to talk to the other coaches. When he comes outside, he sees Joe and me atop the building and passing 16 bikes onto the roof. No one found them for a week.

Most veterans detested training camp, but not me. I loved having a dorm room and a little fridge with snacks, and I looked forward to goofing around in the meetings. Five weeks of rigorous practices in ungodly heat turned us all into giddy sadists. Mike Walter, one of our starting linebackers, used to come to camp with his guitar, and he'd play it on the staircase like the guy from Animal House: "I gave my love a cherry...." He'd play late into the night, and it was unbearable. So, one day, Brent Jones drove to a music store and bought a similar-looking guitar, then stole Mike's guitar and hid it. That night, before Mike came back from meetings, a bunch of us gathered out in front of the dorms. As Mike walked up, Brent picked up the look-alike guitar and began waving it wildly. "Who's sick of this guitar?" he asked, and we all answered, "We are!" Brent said, "Me, too," and smashed it to smithereens. Everyone went nuts. Mike was crushed. He yelled, "Not my guitar! I've had it since I was little. It was a keepsake." We made him suffer for a day or two before Brent sneaked the original back into Mike's room.

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