It was the next hit, the knock to the noggin that was sure to come, that would have certified San Francisco quarterback Steve Young as stupid.
But Young is smarter than that--head finally winning over competitive heart--and Monday the most valuable player of Super Bowl XXIX is expected to officially announce his retirement to preserve his health.
He could have pushed on, forcing San Francisco to fail him on a physical examination thereby freeing him to play elsewhere like a lingering Joe Montana, but now he goes out a 49er, his reputation and good senses still intact.
“Steve is moving on with his life,” San Francisco General Manager Bill Walsh said Thursday, and while suggesting “it’s very emotional,” it is also the very best news for the 49ers.
San Francisco not only will save $3 million toward its salary cap, keep Young out of harm’s way and begin fresh in rebuilding a franchise in need of an overhaul, but will avoid the embarrassment of watching Young conclude his career in Denver or Seattle.
Young, 38, played his final game on a Monday night in Arizona last September, suffering a concussion after being hit with a blindside blitz. It was the fourth concussion in three years for Young, who had taken such a serious beating the week before against New Orleans that he said later he couldn’t recall throwing the winning touchdown pass.
At a postgame news conference that night, Young acknowledged for the first time he was scared by the ramifications of repeated concussions during his career.
He spent the rest of the season on the sideline awaiting medical clearance. The 49ers, at a loss without Young, took a nose dive, making it easier for Young to sit out the season rather than rushing back in time for a late-season surge or playoff appearance.
Young said he needed more time to decide if he would play this season, but Walsh made it obvious in off-season remarks that he was more interested in reinventing himself than trying to eke out another competitive year with Young. Walsh took over a 49er team that went 2-14 the previous season, and after rebuilding, had San Francisco winning the first of three Super Bowls under his direction two years later.
When it became apparent that Young would not be allowed to put on a 49er uniform again, he turned to former San Francisco offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan, the coach in Denver who was in need of a veteran quarterback.
But how could the Broncos take on the liability of signing Young after he failed to earn medical clearance in San Francisco? Did Young have any other choice but to announce his retirement?
Young has consistently maintained that he remains on top of his game, but he looked slower on the run the last two years, making him more vulnerable to absorbing the big hit. In his prime, there was no catching him, but he wasn’t the same scrambling quarterback who set an NFL career record with 43 rushing touchdowns.
Three years ago the 49ers asked Young to remain in the pocket to keep him healthy, but he bristled at being corralled and convinced Coach Steve Mariucci to let him play unfettered.
Off-season surgery, however, took running back Garrison Hearst away from the 49ers, which allowed opposing defenses to focus on Young. He lasted less than three games into the 1999 season.
While elusive on the playing field, playing in medical denial would have been out of character for Young, an extraordinary athlete with the brains to know better.
Young, who recently married and has a law degree, made the right decision at the right time for the right reasons. He led the NFL in passer rating a record four consecutive seasons (1991-1994) and led the league in completion percentage five times (1992, 1994-1997).
Young played in 25 games for the Los Angeles Express (1984-1985) before signing with Tampa Bay in the NFL, took a beating in 19 appearances with the Buccaneers and then was traded to San Francisco in 1987 for second- and fourth-round draft selections.
After sitting behind Montana, who finished his career in Kansas City, Young dominated the game along with wide receiver Jerry Rice. When Young led the 49ers to an NFC championship game win over the Cowboys after the 1994 season, an exuberant Young ran around Candlestick Park, satisfied finally to emerge from the giant shadow cast by Montana.
Five years from now his bust will be readied for display in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Young will be remembered as a two-time NFL most valuable player, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection and a left-handed passer with the legs to get him into the end zone if there were no passing lanes.
Best of all, he won’t be remembered for losing his head and playing one game too many.
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He Leaves His Heart in S.F.
Steve Young’s 43 rushing touchdowns are the most by a quarterback in pro football history. A look of at some of his other accomplishments:
* Named NFL player of the year by The Sporting News (1992 and 1994).
* Played in Pro Bowl seven times (1992-1995, 1997 and 1998 seasons).
* NFL MVP in 1992 and ’94, in addition to being named Super Bowl XXIX MVP.
* Most accurate passer in the 80-year history of the league (96.8 rating).
* Holds NFL career record for highest completion percentage (64.3).
* Most seasons leading league in touchdown passes (4).
* Most consecutive seasons leading league in passer rating (4, 1991-1994).
* Holds NFL single-season record for highest passer rating (112.8 in 1994).
* Matched Sammy Baugh’s NFL record with his sixth NFL passing title with rating of 104.7 in 1997.
* Holds NFL record for most consecutive 300 yards games with six in 1998, breaking Joe Montana’s record of five in 1982.
* Second on NFL’s all-time quarterback rushing list with 4,239 yards, trailing only Randall Cunningham (4,799).