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Bono Has Own Bandwagon With Chiefs : Pro football: After years in background, quarterback comes into his own as Montana’s replacement.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two former UCLA quarterbacks will square off on national television Thursday, one of them playing for the team that has the best record in the NFL.

Troy Aikman? No, no, it’s Bono.

Steve Bono and the Kansas City Chiefs are 10-1. Aikman and the Dallas Cowboys, the Chiefs’ Thanksgiving Day opponent, are 9-2.

Bono has reached lofty heights in this, his 11th NFL season--his first as a full-time starter. Some have even compared him to his mentor and friend, Joe Montana.

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But Bono is one person not jumping on the bandwagon. He says he is trying to stay focused on football.

“Maybe there will be a time when I can look back and smile, but for now there is business at hand,” he said.

“You can’t get carried away with what people are writing or saying, whether it’s positive or negative. Either way, it’s a distraction.”

Those who recall Bono’s somewhat disappointing days at UCLA--he came in as one of the top recruits of 1980 but didn’t establish himself as the starter until he was a senior--and the early part of his pro career marvel at how coolly this once up-tight quarterback handles game pressures now.

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Michael Young, Bono’s best friend, teammate and roommate at UCLA, said, “He is playing with the confidence he had coming out of high school. He was so nervous throughout his career at UCLA that his hands would shake when he was up under center.”

His college coach, Terry Donahue, said, “Steve had to find a situation where he could relax and feel comfortable. It appears he’s found that situation.”

Says Bono, “It’s pretty obvious I’ve improved as a quarterback, both physically and mentally. But I’d say mentally is where I have improved the most.”

Bono might have found stardom as a Chief, but he found his confidence in San Francisco, while he was with the 49ers.

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He credits Montana and Mike Holmgren, now the Green Bay Packers’ coach, who was the 49ers’ offensive coordinator the year Bono arrived, with instilling that confidence.

“Joe’s attitude and the team’s attitude was, when we were behind, as long as there was time on the clock, we were going to win the game,” he said. “Our thinking was, we never lost a game, we just ran out of time.

“I learned a lot just being around Joe, watching him and listening to him.”

As for Holmgren, Bono said, “Mike never said, ‘You have to do it like Joe does it.’ He worked with me on developing my strengths, my skills.”

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He said he reminds himself of that old 49er attitude when things look bleak for the Chiefs.

“My thinking, and our team’s thinking, is, we are not going to lose as long as there is time on the clock,” Bono said.

And that philosophy seems to be working.

But there were times over the years when it appeared the clock had run down on Bono’s career.

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He was cut twice by the Minnesota Vikings, twice by the Pittsburgh Steelers and was in the middle of a training program at a stock brokerage firm in Westwood in the spring of 1989 when the 49ers called, asking if he would be interested in trying out for the No. 3 quarterback spot.

The 49ers had picked up Kevin Sweeney, a Plan B free agent from Dallas, and although Sweeney, while at Fresno State, had broken Doug Flutie’s NCAA passing yardage record, the 49ers weren’t sold on him.

Bono joined the 49ers, then beat out Sweeney.

And now, at long last, he’s a No. 1, making like Montana.

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Bono laughs at that suggestion.

“There is only one Joe Montana,” he said. “I understand why people make the comparison, since I played behind him in San Francisco and here in Kansas City. But it’s ridiculous to compare me to him.”

Bono, who played in only one game for the 49ers in 1989 and was inactive in 1990, got his break in 1991. With elbow surgery sidelining Montana for the season, Bono moved up to No. 2. And when Steve Young suffered a knee injury in the second half of a game against Atlanta, Bono stepped in and led the 49ers to five victories over the next six games.

He had two 300-yard games, one for 306 yards against the Rams at Anaheim Stadium.

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After the 1993 season, Bono signed a contract that was to pay him $1.5 million a year. But because of the salary cap, the 49ers asked him to take a 50% pay cut the next spring, to $750,000, re-signed him at that figure, then traded him to Kansas City, where he was reunited with Montana, who retired last spring.

The Chiefs got Bono for a future draft pick and gave him a two-year contract worth $1.25 million a year. Last spring, he got a four-year extension that stands to earn him more than $8 million through 1998.

He’d have to have traded lots of stocks to have matched that. And he wouldn’t be having nearly as much fun.


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