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YOUNG BLOOD : In College, He Was Eighth String. His First Pro Team Went Belly Up. Now the Gifted Steve Young Must Escape the Long Shadow of Joe Montana.

Chris Dufresne is a Times sportswriter who in the course of his career has covered both the Raiders and the Rams

On Sunday, Sept. 29, 1991, shortly after 4 p.m., quarterback Steve Young of the San Francisco 49ers disappeared into a dark tunnel--man, was it ever--leading to locker rooms of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. His cleats clacked on the concrete, a lonely walk illuminated only by the soft afternoon light on the playing field outside. He’d been chased into the catacomb by the long shadow of Joe Montana.

He had waited for what seemed an eternity for his chance and, now, what a mess he’d made. Young had worn a Chisholm-sized trail pacing the sidelines behind Montana since 1987, the year the quarterback-in-waiting arrived in San Francisco, ostensibly to rescue the franchise. Forty-Niners Coach Bill Walsh, the bon vivant, had tastefully handpicked Young as successor to Joe, whose brilliant career appeared doomed after back surgery in 1986.

Young’s presence, however, had a faith-healer’s effect on Montana, who rose from the trainer’s table more than once to add two more Super Bowl titles to the pair he’d already delivered to San Francisco’s rapturous fans. With those dagger-blue eyes, Montana kept Young in his competitive cross hairs for four more seasons. Gray flecks crept into the understudy’s mop-top before a tendon tear in Montana’s throwing elbow finally opened a crack in the huddle in 1991.

But come the late September game in Los Angeles that year, the legend-replacement business was going belly up. The 49ers were 2-2 entering the Raiders game, and fair-weathered San Francisco fans were almost afraid to come outside. Young responded with an odorous performance, a 12-6 loss in which he forced passes Montana would never have considered. In a last chance for redemption, a Montana-esque drive to victory, Young pushed his team to the Raider 19-yard line but left it stranded with 1:48 to play when a fourth-down pass fell incomplete.

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No one had to remind Steve what Joe would have done.

But someone did.

In the 49er locker room, at the end of the dark corridor, defensive end Charles Haley flew into rage. He screamed at Young, cursed him, was so upset that he put his fist through a wall. Finally, exhausted, Haley broke down and wept, then curled into a fetal position on the floor, refusing to move. Ronnie Lott, the former 49er safety who had recently signed with the Raiders, had to be summoned from the L.A. locker room to console his onetime teammate.

“I just saw Charles go off,” Young remembers of the incident. “I didn’t know it was pointed at me at all. I was there. I didn’t know he was picking me out. People said that later. I saw it. He just lost it. He was just really frustrated I guess.”

You thought replacing Joe Montana was going to be easy?

Haley, with his unique body language, was saying it couldn’t be done.

“It was hard,” Young says of that day, “but I continually reminded myself, ‘Welcome to what it takes.’ I didn’t want to walk away from it. I could have, but I didn’t want to.”

Young swears the darkest days are over now. Montana has gone to Kansas City, and Young is now the undisputed leader of the 49ers. He has emerged from the tunnel. No one of late has curled himself into a fetal position. In the Bay Area, this is progress.

THE SCOUNDREL IS A BRILLIANT ATHLETE, EDUCATED AND RELIGIOUS, A law student and voracious reader. He doesn’t smoke or drink. He’s so clean he squeaks. Friends call him the Eighth Wonder of the World because he might be the only known 31-year-old single Mormon.

He has no warrants outstanding, a generous heart and a warm smile. He is a millionaire 20 times over but has never owned a new car or a decent haircut. He gives freely his time and money, comforts old women in wheelchairs and huddles with Navajos who live in mud huts on Utah reservations.

They’d name streets after him some places. But in San Francisco, Steve Young to many is Public Enemy No. 1.

His crime? Replacing Joe Montana.

Happens to everyone. Seasons change. Quarterbacks get old. Unfortunately, legends do not. From George Washington to John Wooden, we know that replacing a legend in America folklore can sometimes be more difficult than becoming one. We are, by nature, myth makers.

“People here thought Joe would play until he was 70 years old,” says Art Spander, longtime sports columnist for the San Francisco Examiner. “In a way, Steve Young became the Antichrist.”

Montana ruled the kingdom of the 1980s. He transformed a perennial loser into a four-time Super Bowl champion with his flair for the dramatic and a ballet dancer’s grace at the quarterback position. In a game of 300-pound brutes, Montana was poetry, almost effete--his style a perfect pairing for erudite San Franciscans who broke bread and sipped Chardonnay at Candlestick Park as their maestro conducted.

Forty-Niner games were concertos, with Montana lofting rainbow passes, perfectly arced and timed so that a receiver could catch a ball without having to break stride. Montana was grace, cool under pressure, a poker face who could tear an opposing team’s heart out without changing expression.

Off the field, he was a relative wallflower--media-shy, reticent, never giving away too much. No one can ever recall Montana uttering a memorable line. Like Garbo’s, his silence fueled the mystique. Joe let his Super Bowl rings do the talking.

By contrast, Young is a bull in Montana’s china shop, a throwback to the old NFL leatherheads. He comes fully equipped with thick legs, wide-receiver speed, a quick wit and an inquisitive mind. Heck, Young even likes sportswriters. Compared to Montana, Young was a fork in an electrical socket. While Montana soothed 49er fans with his style, Young makes them sweat with his antics. This has become unsettling to the local wine sippers.

Actually, it is not Joe but Steve, a soon-to-be lawyer and book lover, who seems more culturally suited to San Francisco. You picture Young-the-scholar bundled in a cardigan on a chilly summer day, sipping decaffeinated at a local coffee house, paging through the autobiography of Malcolm X.

Young has fallen madly for San Francisco. Unfortunately, the city had already fallen for another. And no sweet-talkin’, charity-givin’, clean-livin’ Mormon was going to change that overnight, whatever his stats.

Young has made his mark as one of the game’s grittiest and greatest running quarterbacks. In 1988, a breathtaking (Young’s breath) 49-yard touchdown run against the Minnesota Vikings was judged by NFL Films as the best run of the last 25 years. But it was only through diligence that Young became a polished passer. Putting both quarterback skills together has made him the most feared offensive player in today’s game, a fact that ultimately made even Joe Montana expendable.

Sid Gillman, the Hall of Fame coach and quarterback guru, says Young is perhaps the best running passer ever, joining an elite trio with former Minnesota Viking great Fran Tarkenton and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Randall Cunningham. “I don’t think anybody’s able to run the way he runs,” says Gillman, who was Young’s coach in 1984 with the Los Angeles Express of the now-defunct United States Football League.

Bill Walsh reinvented the passing game, using short, precisely timed patterns to control the field and the clock, and George Seifert, his successor, adopted that system when Walsh left the pro game to coach at Stanford. Young “fits into that plan beautifully,” Gillman points out.

Young’s passes would never spiral like Montana’s had, but no quarterback could match Young’s gifts as a runner. His legs were his trump card, and he needed it. Young has since refined his style, hanging longer in his pocket of blockers, looking for his receivers. The result: Last year, he rushed for 537 yards and passed for 3,465. His quarterback efficiency rating ranked fifth-best in league history.

Winning over his 49er teammates was another matter. Jerry Rice, the NFL’s premier pass-catcher and Montana’s favorite target, admitted that he had difficulty adjusting to passes that were not as precise as Joe’s. But Young and his teammates sorted out their problems during last season, which took them as far as the National Football Conference championship.

Except one. The Super Bowl problem.

“Anywhere else, Steve Young is a hero,” the 49ers’ veteran lineman Jesse Sapolu said after the NFC title game loss to Dallas last January. “But he plays here in the footsteps of No. 16, so anything less than a Super Bowl win is not going to be enough for anybody. It’s not fair. But I guess that’s life.”

San Francisco is in denial.

YOUNG PLOPS HIS DINNER TRAY DOWN ON A MESS HALL TABLE IN THE community college cafeteria, takes a curious whiff at what he guesses is cod, then digs into another plate of questions. A midday workout has given him a case of the slows. Air conditioning has forced him into a two-piece sweat suit, the collar upturned to keep the chill off his neck. Outside, a hot August afternoon has cooled into evening. Practice is over, the day soon to follow, yet you wonder if the sun ever really sets on the 49er quarterback who replaced Joe.

“You get used to the pace,” Young explains in an interview here at the team’s training camp in Rocklin, outside Sacramento, before the 1993 season began last month. “It wasn’t easy. None of it was easy. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m oblivious to everything. I’m not. But something makes me turn back into the fire and say: ‘I’m going back in again. It’s hot, but I’m going back in.’ I don’t know. Maybe I don’t know any better.”

Montana the 49er is gone, having requested and received a trade to the Kansas City Chiefs last April when it became clear that he would not be the No. 1 quarterback for San Francisco. To get him, Kansas City gave up a first-round draft choice for 1993, a third-round draft choice in 1994 and safety David Whittmore.

But even with their hero gone, Montana zealots swamp sports-talk radio and fire off letters to San Francisco editors. Lowell Cohn, a Chronicle columnist, recently received this indictment from a fan: ". . . and don’t fool yourselves into thinking just because Steve is the starting QB us Montana supporters will rush to his side saying, ‘We’re not worthy,’ because you would be deadly wrong. Many of us just don’t like Steve Young and never will because he is a kiss-ass.”

The evidence against Young is flimsy at best: In two seasons as starter in place of Montana--who, remember, was unable to play because of injuries--Young became the first quarterback ever to lead the NFL in passing in consecutive seasons. In the second, 1992, he threw 25 touchdown passes and seven interceptions (Montana, in his best season as 49er starter, never threw fewer than eight interceptions). Young was named the league’s Most Valuable Player, leading his team to a 14-2 regular season record.

Yet, as the 49ers rolled toward the playoffs, talk had returned to Montana, then 36, out with injuries for nearly two seasons but itching to make another comeback. In the team’s final regular season game against Detroit at Candlestick Park, Montana trotted on the field to a hero’s welcome and threw two touchdown passes in the second half.

Young played nervously in a first-round playoff victory over the Washington Redskins. He says Montana’s presence had nothing to do with his jitters: “It really didn’t.” You wanted to believe him.

In the conference title game against Dallas, Young played well enough to win, passing for 313 yards. But the Cowboys prevailed, 30-20, over a collapsing 49er defense, and the wolves sniffed for a scapegoat. “He didn’t win the Super Bowl,” columnist Spander explains. “It is his fault because Joe ‘would have.’ This guy (Young) is good. But it’s like replacing Vince Lombardi. It’s like replacing John Wooden. You all know that story--you can’t do it.”

After the Dallas loss, a disconsolate Young walked down another dark hallway, the recurring metaphor of his career, this one leading to the players’ parking lot at Candlestick. Outside, he posed for a photo, kissed a woman in a wheelchair. Columnist Cohn followed the quarterback and heard a member of the stadium cleanup crew tell him: “One day you can fill Joe’s shoes.”

A few months later, the old magician decided to shop his wares around the league, and 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr. did not stand in his way. Montana, after talking with a handful of clubs, settled on the Chiefs. Then, at the last minute, the 49ers got misty-eyed and offered Montana his job back--No. 1 quarterback. The proclamation was unfurled April 18 to a blare of media trumpets. Seifert named Montana the “designated starter,” a decree that effectively sent the NFL’s MVP back to the bench.

While the city was gripped with Montana fever for 48 hours, Young was in Provo, cramming for a law school final at BYU. “Everyone was asking, ‘What were you thinking?’ ” Young remembers. “Well, I kind of missed it. Which probably was good. It was a very bizarre time.”

It ended when Joe, perhaps skeptical of the 49ers’ 11th-hour promise, decided to stick with the Chiefs. (DeBartolo has since vowed that Montana will return at the end of his career to be honorably retired in a 49er uniform.)

Young, when it was over, dipped into his seemingly endless supply of positive thoughts, insisting that he never felt betrayed by the 49er management. After all, he reckoned, the club signed him to the richest contract in football last July, a five-year deal worth $26.5 million. OK, so Montana never cozied up to him through the years. OK, so Joe once told a reporter that Young was “on a big push for himself.” Young rolls with the punches. He says he and Montana never exchanged a cross word. And what of Montana’s cold shoulder? “I can’t stop it. We’re two hyper-competitive people . . . . I don’t feel any anger. I just don’t. The impact he’s made on my football career is pretty great. I recognize that and move on. I think it will be fine. I really do.”

WITH NO INTENTION OF CHANGING FOOTBALL HISTORY, TED TOLLNER went for a jog one afternoon in January, 1980. He was the new quarterback coach at Brigham Young, and as he was turning laps on the indoor track in the field house, he came upon a group of hopeful BYU quarterbacks tossing footballs in an unsupervised workout. Tollner was window shopping, or evaluating, not truly tampering, which might have drawn the wrath of the NCAA.

“I’m not going to say I didn’t stop once in a while,” says Tollner, the former USC coach and a current Rams assistant. The kid who caught his eye was a raw left-hander who was making no progress and thinking of quitting the program in disgust and going off on a two-year Mormon mission.

The young lefty, Steve Young, a scrub-faced freshman, was listed as the eighth-string quarterback behind starter Jim McMahon. LaVell Edwards, the BYU coach, was preparing to switch Young to defensive safety. Steve was practicing both positions during this winter of his discontent.

Then Tollner jogged by, fortuitously while the freshman was taking an offensive turn. He was intrigued with Young’s athleticism and quick release. “I either like a guy or not,” Tollner says, “But I was pretty strong with my opinion of him.” He talked Edwards out of moving Young to defense. And Young never went on his Mormon mission. Still hasn’t.

Everyone assumed that the quarterback’s road was paved with Mormon influence. He was, most folks at BYU knew, the great-great-great grandson of the church leader for whom the school was named. More than once, he’s heard: “He’s related to Brigham Young.” More than once, people have whispered that he had “a free ticket.”

“Probably everyone has a story like this,” he suggests, “but I easily could have quit and no one would have blinked.”

Why didn’t he? “My dad wouldn’t let me.” Nor would Tollner.

Young, a tremendous athlete, had only one flaw as a quarterback: He didn’t know how to throw. He had been a running quarterback at high school in Connecticut. But he was a quick study and soon learned to pass by mimicking McMahon, himself now an NFL veteran. By his senior season, Young had developed into the nation’s top college quarterback and finished second in voting for the Heisman Trophy. It was a long, strange trip.

Jon Steven Young was born in Salt Lake City, his family moving to Greenwich, Conn., when Steve was 8. He is the oldest of five children. His father, LeGrande, is a corporate lawyer.

The relationship to Brigham Young was not a regular dinner-table topic, although Steve would later take it upon himself to read up on the subject. “He was the first one to learn how to settle a desert,” Young says proudly. “Think about the deserts of the Southwest now. There were a lot of things he was kind of ingenious about. The stories of getting across the plains. The stories were brutal. He was a great leader, I think.”

As leader of a religion in which the taking of multiple wives was once accepted practice, Brigham Young might be surprised to know that a distant descendant, a guy named Steve, will still be unmarried when he turns 32 this month.

“I should have got married in college,” Young says, “it would have solved a lot of problems.” He came within days of the altar in 1987 before slamming the brakes. “That’s why you get engaged,” he says, “to figure out if that’s what you really want to do. It was a crash-and-burn deal. It wasn’t pretty.”

Young is saddled with the burden of being perhaps the nation’s most visible Mormon. “I don’t want to put that pressure on me, because religion is very personal,” Young says. “But I think I’m one of the people that people look to.”

He lives accordingly. Five years ago, he estimates, he was making 100 speeches a year to various youth groups. With more demands on his time now, he has reduced the number to about 20. As part of the contract he signed with the 49ers in July, Young will donate $1 million to a children’s foundation he created in the Bay Area. Young says he has no choice in the matter: He is a role model.

Yet, unlike some religious athletes who lace their postgame quotes with biblical phrases, invoking God’s will in victory or defeat, Young believes in the separation of church and sport. “I just feel that it should be more subtle. It’s about being a good human being. It’s almost too important to trivialize with football.”

As a kid, he longed to earn the respect of the older kids on the block. His father, he says, never pushed him into sports and didn’t care what his children did so long as they gave their best.

Having grown up poor, LeGrande taught his children the value of a dollar, a lesson that has served well his oldest son, the football star, who still lives a rather Spartan life for someone who’s earned more than $25 million since turning pro.

Steve, the spendthrift, a snapshot: After years of renting a room from a teammate with the 49ers, Young finally purchased a home in Palo Alto last winter. Twenty-five hundred square feet. That’s closet space at Aaron Spelling’s.

Young entered professional football in 1984, during the midst of a bidding war between the NFL and the USFL, a spring league that sprouted in 1983. The L.A. Express not only offered Young the richest contract in football history to that point--a deferred deal worth $37.2 million through the year 2027, but also the chance to play immediately.

The Express was an off-field experience he’d like to forget. It began when he almost came to blows during negotiations with William Oldenburg, the team’s bombastic owner. Young was so distraught after the ordeal that he contemplated not reporting. His father, the lawyer, stepped in. A deal is a deal, he said. So Young went along for a wild ride with the L.A. club.

Within a year, Oldenburg had run into financial difficulties and stopped paying his players. Until a new buyer could be found, the league’s remaining owners took control of the franchise and agreed to pay salaries, but not other operational expenses. Water was shut off at the team’s headquarters in Manhattan Beach for lack of payment. Weeds grew on the practice field for want of a groundskeeper. En route to a game at Pierce College, where the team was to be showcased for potential buyers in the San Fernando Valley, the bus driver pulled over and refused to proceed until he was paid up front, in cash. Young passed the hat around among his fellow millionaires and satisfied the demand.

The USFL folded after the 1986 season. But Young had been drafted before the 1985 season by the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, for whom he played in 1985 and 1986. The Buccaneers were the lowest of the lowly, an organization that lost a record 26 consecutive games in the 1970s. For two seasons, Young ran for his life on teams that went 4-28. He saw his 1987 trade to the 49ers as a career saver. He would learn to play quarterback from one of the game’s great teachers, Walsh, and tutor behind the game’s greatest quarterback, Montana.

That he would grow impatient as Montana refused to wilt would be a small price to pay. That following his ascension to the No. 1 spot he would be dissected under lights like a laboratory rat--well, it still beat digging ditches. That he would be judged in San Francisco not by league MVP awards but by Super Bowl titles was an acceptable term.

“That’s the reason I’m here,” Young says at the Rocklin practice field as he looks forward to the current season. “I’ve said that all along. Because that’s what it’s about. Don’t walk away from it because the expectations are high.”

Even during the worst of it, in 1991, as Young’s agent was pleading for him to get out of San Francisco, Young refused to leave.

“I mean, the 49ers dogged me in April” with the offer to bring back Montana as No. 1, he says. “But think back to all the disasters that happened in the USFL and all the crazy weird situations that I’ve been in,” Young says, trying to add some perspective. “This is like living in a huge mansion, and you see a mouse running by. It’s no big deal. You know what I mean? The complaints here, by comparison, are not that huge.”

AT THE TEAM’S SUMMER TRAINING CAMP AT SIERRA COLLEGE IN ROCKLIN, the faithful clung to chain-link fences separating them from their 49er heroes. Except something was missing. Someone.

Joe.

Nilo Velazquez, manager of the Sierra College Bookstore, guessed that training-season attendance at the camp had been halved, from about 80,000 to 40,000, because of Montana’s absence. The fans who came shopped as though Montana had never left. They stood in long lines to get a crack at the team’s souvenir shop, a double-wide mobile home behind the bleachers on the main field, where they gobbled up Montana-as-49er memorabilia: posters, $135 figurines, $32 silver medallions, key chains, license-plates holders, cigarette lighters, cups, plaques, wristbands.

Rick Oltmann, a Citrus Heights hydrologist and a 49er fan since 1956, was typical of the tortured, sporting a fire-engine red Kansas City Chiefs T-shirt and a gray 49ers baseball cap with red and gold trim. Oltmann said his children bought him the T-shirt so he could wear it in tribute to Montana. “He’s one of a kind,” Oltmann explains “You can’t expect people to live up to that level. Young could be the best quarterback the next five years, but he still won’t be Joe.”

Bill Bedwell, another sentimentalist, says the team should have kept the older Montana and traded Young. “I’m still pissed off,” he says of the trade. “What has Steve Young proven to the city? Is he a winner?” Nothing personal. “He’s real warm, not a show boater,” Bedwell continues. “He’s a mellow man, a gentle man, a confident man. But he A-I-N-'T Joe.”

The passion for Montana goes beyond numbers. Fireman Joe rescued the 49ers from a football inferno. The Niners were the Bay Area’s first professional franchise, born in 1946 as members of the All America Football Conference. The baseball Giants didn’t arrive until 1958, the Oakland Athletics and once-Oakland Raiders not until the 1960s.

Spander of the Examiner: “Here’s this town, this narcissistic town, thinks it’s the greatest, Queen of the West, we have the best restaurants, we’re elegant; L.A.'s a bunch of boors, Johnny-come-latelies . . . . Meanwhile the team stinks. People go to the games basically to get drunk.”

Walsh and Montana ushered in an era of elegance. Fans still drank, but now they ordered from a wine list. Coach and player came to the 49ers in 1979 at rock bottom. Walsh’s first team went 2-14. His second improved to 6-10. But the following season, 1981, Walsh and Montana led the 49ers to the first of their four Super Bowl wins, the others following the 1984, 1988 and 1989 seasons. Montana’s legend was born in the NFC title game in 1981, at Candlestick against Dallas, when he lofted a last-minute, game-winning, end-zone touchdown pass to Dwight Clark that would forever be known simply as “The Catch.”

No one remembers that Montana threw three interceptions in the game.

“Joe Montana never threw an interception,” says Ralph Barbieri, host of a lively weeknight sports talk show on KNBR radio. “Joe Montana never threw an incompletion. Nobody remembers any of this.”

“It was like Joe invented football,” Spander says. “Like someone once wrote years ago, Arnold Palmer invented golf. Nobody knew it existed. Joe personified, incarnate, was the 49ers.”

The Montana myth swelled with each comeback, on and off the field. He returned miraculously from 1986 back surgery. In 1988, when he was hobbled again, Walsh seemed eager to plug Young into his sophisticated pass offense, as though to prove it was the system more than the man. But Young wasn’t ready.

And when the team was sputtering with a 6-5 record, Montana returned again and the 49ers did not lose another game en route to their third Super Bowl, in which the quarterback led his team on a dramatic last-minute drive to victory.

The 49ers won the Super Bowl again the next season. Even though Montana missed almost two complete seasons in 1991 and 1992, 49er fans waited dutifully for his return.

“I liken it to those old Civil War stories,” Spander says, “where they’re waiting for their guys to come back, and the South will rise again. They kept waiting for Joe, and the Joe thing just swallowed them up, and two years ago it distracted this team something awful . . . .”

HOW COULD YOUNG FORGET Los Angeles? The Raiders. The Coliseum. Charles Haley.

Despite a 10-6 record, the 49ers didn’t make the playoffs in 1991, grounds for quarterback deportation. Young might have thought his MVP performance last season would have eased the transition. The truth is: Any quarterback after Joe will be a Joe Schmo.

Even Most Valuable Players. Young could go on to win a Super Bowl and a Nobel Prize. Won’t matter. Cripes, imagine the public outcry had Montana’s replacement not been as great as Steve Young.

The 49ers will be Super Bowl contenders again this season. In San Francisco, it’s the law. While the defense is suspect, the offense has shown no appreciable drop-off. In Dallas, the defending Super Bowl champion Cowboys appear vulnerable.

The patience of 49er fans will likely extend through the regular season, which the team started with two wins and a loss. But at playoff time, Montana time, expectations will soar. Comparisons will be inevitable.

It comes with the territory, this expanse of Montana.

“It kind of frustrates me,” Young says, “because it’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. People keep asking: ‘How does it feel not to get the respect? How does it feel?’ And I go: ‘I walk down the streets of San Francisco, and people are great.’ They love the 49ers. They love what we’re doing. They sense the same thing, that we’re building on. Let’s go. I get all of that, even more so every day. The toughest times are behind.”


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