Steve Young had two classes at Brigham Young that Friday in March 1984. After class he went back to his off-campus apartment, changed from his customary jeans, sneakers and wrinkled oxford shirt into something dressier, hopped into his father's 19-year-old Olds Dynamic—the Tuna Boat, his buddies called it—and drove to the Provo, Utah, airport. From there a private jet whisked Young, BYU's senior quarterback at the time, to San Francisco, where he was picked up by a British righthand-drive limo and taken to an office building in the city's financial district.
Walking into the headquarters of Investment Mortgage International Inc., Young and his agent, Leigh Steinberg, entered a world of ostentatious wealth: Italian marble floors, Brazilian rosewood paneling, Chinese antiques, a gigantic gold gong. An electric sign blinked the Words WELCOME, STEVE YOUNG, QUARTERBACK EXTRAORDINAIRE! The founder of IMI, 46-year-old William Oldenburg, was paying rent of $230,893.97 a month for the suite of offices, and Young and Steinberg thought the offices were worth the money. The two men had come to San Francisco to finish negotiating the richest contract in the history of team sports at that time. Oldenburg owned the Los Angeles Express of the fledgling U.S. Football League, and he wanted to snatch Young before the NFL could get him.
Don Klosterman, general manager of the Express, had already negotiated most of the key points of the deal with Steinberg and with Young's father, LeGrande. But nettlesome details remained unsettled, fine points that would keep Oldenburg, Young and Steinberg in those elegant offices for much of the night. It was Oldenburg's birthday, and he was not pleased when the talks forced him to miss his party. He grew increasingly petulant as Steinberg and Young insisted on a guarantee of cash up front. "You want guarantees?" Oldenburg growled at one point, wadding up a bunch of large bills and throwing them on the floor near Young and Steinberg. "Here's all the guarantees you'll need."
At one point in the middle of the night Oldenburg walked over to Young and told him pointedly what he thought of him for not signing the deal as it was. He jabbed a finger in Young's chest for emphasis. "If you touch me one more time," Young told Oldenburg, "I'll deck you."
The deal began to fall through. Oldenburg had security guards throw Steinberg and Young out of his office in the wee hours of Saturday morning. It was the end of the strangest night of Young's life.
Those negotiations, which Steinberg and Klosterman completed shortly afterward, were an odd start to a decidedly peculiar career for Young: two years with the bush-league Express, two years with the almost-as-bush Tampa Bay Buccaneers, four years with the San Francisco 49ers as understudy to Joe Montana and then, with Montana sidelined for all but one game of the 1991 and '92 seasons, a starting job. During those two years he won two straight NFL passing titles, had 42 touchdown throws with only 15 interceptions and won the league's 1992 MVP award.
So, of course, last month San Francisco settled on a plan whereby Young would be traded, Montana would be reinstated as the starter, and Notre Dame's Rick Mirer would be drafted as their quarterback of the future.
These were not the 49er front office's finest hours. The above scenario came at the end of a three-month period during which owner Eddie DeBartolo and president Carmen Policy first decided to keep Young, while encouraging Montana to find another city to play in, then hastily offered Montana his starting job back after Montana announced that he was going to sign with the Kansas City Chiefs. Apparently the 49ers did not wish to disturb Young, who was in the midst of studying for a final exam at BYU law school, with that last bit of news. After issuing a statement about the reinstatement of Montana, they waited four days before calling Young. Not until Montana had left San Francisco for Kansas City in the most protracted trade in memory was Young finally, indisputably, anointed the Niners' starting quarterback. "When it's all over," Young says, "I might be able to say I've had the strangest career in pro football history."
Chapter 1: The Los Angeles Years 1984-85
The Cincinnati Bengals wanted to make Young the first pick of the 1984 NFL draft. When they learned that Young was engaged in serious talks with the Express, the Bengals made him one predraft offer—four years for $4 million. Like any kid who grows up throwing a football, Young had dreamed of playing in the NFL. But that was before Oldenburg started throwing his money around. Huge money. Plus, Young hated to sit, and he would start immediately with the Express. He would have former San Diego Charger quarterback John Hadl as his head coach and passing-game guru Sid Gillman as his position coach. And he figured he would play in the NFL someday.