Of all our memorable achievements on the field, I'm most proud of the 1998 season. It was chaos that year—no owner, no management structure and no reason to keep things together. We had [coach] Steve Mariucci's enthusiasm, but we needed a rallying cry, and it wasn't, "Win one for the Gipper." It was "The 49er Way," a standard set by others that we felt an ownership in and that defined my career. Somehow, because of that standard, we went on a passionate march into the playoffs.
I'll miss so many things: rubbing dirt on my hands when we played in domes—dirt imported from Candlestick in Ziploc bags by our equipment guys at my behest; my unspoken connection with Jerry Rice, especially near the end zone; the deep conversations with Tim McDonald, our savvy strong safety; the satisfaction of silencing a road crowd. What I won't miss are the hits that made my body tingle. Everyone freaks out about the collisions that caused my concussions, like the megablow that Oilers linebacker Micheal Barrow laid on me in 1996. But those are like lightning strikes; at least they're over quickly. Try getting driven into the turf by William Perry. The Fridge could kill you, man. One time at Soldier Field, he put a claw out, threw me down and landed on top of me. I thought my rib cage had been flattened. Reggie White used to squash me like that, then stand up and say, "Sorry about that, Steve. Hey, how are you?" I couldn't answer him because there was no air in my lungs, but I appreciated his kindness. I loved guys like Reggie, who played hard yet understood that we were all in the same great game.
The Cardinals' Aeneas Williams ended my 1999 season last September when he drilled me with a clean shot that drove me into a teammate and gave me a concussion. For a while, I was bothered by the idea that a knockout blow—from a 5'11" cornerback, no less—might turn out to be the last play of my career. I got over it as time passed, and now I'm at peace with my not-so-fantastic finish, because I know I left the game on my terms. True, that was my third concussion in four years and, yes, I cringed like everyone else when I saw Eric Lindros crumble to the ice during the NHL playoffs. But I've been to numerous specialists and had every test they can give, and the doctors say my scan looks great.
Barbara Graham, a native of the Phoenix area who's now my wife, was in the stands at Sun Devil Stadium when Aeneas hit me. Barbara and I met in January 1999 on a blind date that had been a decade in the making. Ten years earlier, she'd refused an offer from mutual friends to set us up because she didn't want to date a celebrity. I'm so thankful that she finally relented. Among other things, I fell in love with her candor. Ten minutes after we met, she said, "I heard you date women 15 years younger than you. Anyone who does that has serious issues." I laughed and told her the pool of eligible Mormon women in their 30s wasn't large. It took a month before I got my first good-night kiss, and last July, on the day before I left for training camp, I made my move. As we stood atop Mount Baldy at the Alta, Utah, ski resort, I said, "This is the highest a man can go by himself. I was wondering if you could take me the rest of the way." Then I placed a ring on her finger, and she started crying.
We were married in mid-March in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, and we got right down to business. Thirteen days after the wedding, when I was still adjusting to the magnitude of marriage, I went to a general store in Lake Taupo, New Zealand, where we were honeymooning, and bought a home pregnancy test. Barb disappeared into the bathroom for several minutes, and when I went in to check on her, she was sobbing tears of joy. Her stomach has been queasy ever since, and we're expecting our first child in December.
The future holds so many exciting possibilities. I finished law school at BYU six years ago, and I've promised my dad, Grit, a corporate lawyer, that I'll take the bar exam. I'm chairman and co-founder of a fledgling Internet company, Found, Inc., that has 150 employees in Salt Lake City and San Francisco. I'm thinking of starting my own venture capital firm and am heavily involved in enhancing the lives of children through my foundation, Forever Young. I've been named chairman of the volunteer effort and will host the medal ceremonies for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Monday Night Football put out some feelers, but I'm not pursuing that job. I don't see broadcasting in my immediate future. I haven't ruled out running for political office, but I've promised Barb I won't look into doing so for a long time.
I always wanted to be one of those athletes who got out with something left in his tank, and I think I was able to do that. Bill Walsh, I believe, was genuinely concerned about my health, and he was unsure about the 49ers' ability to protect me. The Niners' severe salary-cap problem was another reason he pushed me toward retirement.
The fact that I had options was flattering. I spoke with Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren, another of my former coordinators, and considered a move up the coast, but it was the thought of teaming up with Mike Shanahan that was especially alluring. As we sat in that hotel meeting room in Denver, I saw the same gleam in his eye I used to when, as our offensive coordinator, Mike would walk into our Wednesday morning meetings and say, "All right, we're playing Team X, and the defensive coordinator is so-and-so. He's a real wimp"—I'm paraphrasing—"and we're going to kick his ass."
I've never been one to back away from a challenge, and for a few seconds in that hotel, Mike had me. "I have a great team, and we're ready to rock," he told me. "With you here, we'd be awesome."
The hard thing was, I agreed with him. But I had left my heart in San Francisco, and it was guiding me home.