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STEVE YOUNG : The Express Lane to Tampa Hasn’t Been So Smooth

Times Staff Writer

He was once heralded as the United States Football League’s answer to Joe Namath, destined to lead the fledgling league to the promised land. And, commensurate with that destiny, he was awarded what was claimed to be the richest contract in sports history.

At 22, Steve Young was called the $40-Million Man, courtesy of the L.A. Express.

When the dream of the USFL was broken, he escaped to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in September 1985 and signed for $5.5 million over six years.

He arrived in an unfamiliar town to find himself saddled with an uncomfortably familiar role: savior.

Young had not attended training camp and didn’t have a clue as to how to run the Buccaneer offense. When he finally got the chance to play, the only thing he wanted to save was face.

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Tampa Bay was 1-10 when Young became the 13th starting quarterback in the franchise’s 10-year history and the fifth in the past four years. He started the last five games, and the Buccaneers won one of them.

Young completed just 52% of his passes, threw for only 3 touchdowns and had 8 interceptions. All of sudden, there was talk that Young was struggling in a big way.

Young went into the exhibition opener this year as Tampa Bay’s No. 1 quarterback, but that lasted for about 30 minutes. By the time the season opener rolled around, veteran Steve DeBerg was the starter.

Many fans and much of the local media were perplexed. If Young was indeed the quarterback of the future, why not start working on the future now?

The doubts multiplied. Maybe Tampa Bay had made a mistake. Maybe Young doesn’t have a big-league arm. . . .

But wait a minute.

Isn’t this the same kid who became the most accurate passer in National Collegiate Athletic Assn. history when he completed 71.3% of his passes during his senior year at Brigham Young University?

Isn’t this the same great-great-great grandson of Brigham Young who matched or broke 13 NCAA records in his college career?

Isn’t this the same quarterback the Cincinnati Bengals wanted to make the No. 1 pick in the 1984 NFL draft?

Young said the answer to each is yes but that now he has even a stronger arm, thanks to fitness fanatic Lee Johnson. The two roomed together in the off-season, and Johnson, a former BYU teammate who is now the Houston Oilers’ punter, had Young in the weight room every day.

“He’s psycho, but it was great,” Young said. “Every day, we ran and lifted. He’d say: ‘Everyone’s complaining about your arm. We’re going to change that.’ ”

Steve Young is bright and articulate. He was an Academic All-American, majoring in international relations and finance. He plans to attend law school next year.

He is also laid back.

It’s hard to imagine this man in a hurry. He ponders questions and has a knack for putting things in perspective.

He did almost faint in front of a Los Angeles television crew when he first heard the words $40 million associated with his name after stepping off an airplane to sign with the Express.

He couldn’t fathom such riches. And even though he came away with less than $3 million, he has been very wealthy for more than two years.

Some might say he still doesn’t know how to enjoy it. He drives a rented car (“I can’t decide what to buy,” he said) and lives in a modest Tampa apartment. When he marries fiancee Teryle Goodson next year, they’re going to honeymoon in the South Seas or Europe.

“What am I supposed to do, travel around in a fleet of limos?” Young asked. “I grew up (in Greenwich, Conn.) mowing lawns for the country-club set. They made me feel out of place then, and I still feel awkward with that crowd.”

Young is most comfortable with a helmet on, when he knows he can depend on his talents.

Yes, even his arm.

He isn’t defensive about the subject, explaining that he understands why his bad reputation persists.

“But it always has to be something with rookie quarterbacks, anyway. (Denver’s) John Elway was ‘confused’ before he ‘arrived.’ (Houston’s) Warren Moon was ‘good in Canada but not in the NFL,’ and then he ‘arrived.’

“Until I’m in the starting lineup and winning games, until I prove myself, it’s always going to be something,” he said. “As far as my confidence, that talk doesn’t bother me, at all. Just get me on the field.”

Two Sundays ago, after an 0-2 start and nine DeBerg interceptions, Buccaneer Coach Leeman Bennett decided to do just that--get Young on the field. Tampa Bay beat Detroit and last week lost in overtime at home to the undefeated Atlanta Falcons. Young will be behind center against the Rams Sunday at Anaheim Stadium.

Bennett, who coached Steve Bartkowski, one of the game’s purest passers, for six years at Atlanta, said it was Young’s inability to run the offense, not his arm strength, that relegated him to the backup spot on opening day.

“I don’t think there’s any question about his arm being plenty strong enough to play, and win, in the NFL,” Bennett said. " . . . (But) Steve was unsettled. He wasn’t poised and he showed no confidence. He was helter-skelter.”

After nine interceptions thrown by DeBerg, “helter-skelter” started looking better and better. Young got his chance, and Bennett got a welcome surprise: Young seemed confident, relaxed, in control.

“Last year, he’d come out so intense that he’d want to do everything himself,” All-Pro tight end Jimmie Giles said. “He just felt like he had to make it work. And he had the same problem this preseason.

“But the last two games, we’ve been seeing a whole different Steve Young.”

One thing hasn’t changed, though. You can debate the strength of Young’s arm, but no one ever doubted his ability to run with a football. He even played running back in his last game with the Express.

The only drawback was that, too often, Young’s idea of running the offense was running the ball. He’d drop back to pass, figure the risks were too great and then look for a linebacker to run over.

Against Atlanta last week, Young dropped back on a third-and-nine pass play, faked and then shot up the middle. Twenty-one yards later, he was alone in the end zone, but not before Falcon safety Brett Clark had completely missed an open-field tackle. Young made a move, and Clark came down with armfuls of air.

Tackle Ron Heller says Clark was fortunate.

“The guy’s lucky the little (guy) . . . didn’t run him over,” Heller said. “I’ve seen Steve run over linebackers and then just bounce back to the huddle. I think he could be a running back in this league . . . really.”

In the spring of 1984, Young had a shot at the big money. He was never really certain how or why, but the opportunity was there, and he went for it. But without giving it much thought, really.

“You’re runner-up for the Heisman (Trophy) and everyone says, ‘Go get an agent,’ ” Young said. “Nobody knows why, you just do it. I choose Leigh Steinberg, and one day Leigh calls me up and says, ‘The Express and Cincinnati both want to sign you.’

“He never mentioned how many millions. We’d talk about the coaches, the opportunity to play right away, the opportunities in Los Angeles. That’s why I was so shocked when that TV guy said $40 million.

“All of sudden, I’ve got the richest contract in the history of sports. Me! I wasn’t prepared.”


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