By Vic Carucci
National Editor, NFL.com
CANTON, Ohio -- He was a kid from that football “hotbed” of Greenwich, Connecticut.
As Steve Young’s father, LeGrande (Grit) Young, mentioned in his presentation speech for his son’s induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the popular sports in Greenwich are squash, tennis, sailing and “a crisp game of badminton.”
Somehow, Steve managed to find football, overcome the fact that in an 8-to-10-year-old league he played receiver while the coach’s son played quarterback, and perform so well that he earned first-ballot enshrinement into the Hall as a former quarterbacking great for the San Francisco 49ers.
Somehow, he managed to shed the reputation of being too much of a runner and not enough of a thrower, and develop an understanding that his left arm could be as effective a means of advancing the ball as his feet.
Yet, the greatest hurdle of all that Young cleared on his way to football immortality came during the four seasons (1987-1990) he spent as a backup in San Francisco to Joe Montana.
It was a highly frustrating, agonizing experience for Young. After making his mark at Brigham Young University, he had been the “$40-million man” for the Los Angeles Express. He had been a starter for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had made him the first pick of the 1984 supplemental draft.
But he would remain parked on the bench as long as Montana, one of the greatest quarterbacks (if not THE greatest quarterback) in the history of the game, was his teammate. Montana was a living legend. Young was sideline spectator except for the 10 starts he made over those four seasons.
There were times when Young thought seriously about wanting to be traded. And each time, someone -- a family a member, a coach -- would talk him out of it. Each time, someone would advise Young to be patience, that he would eventually get his chance.
Finally, in 1991, when Montana suffered an elbow injury that would bother him over two seasons (before he moved onto Kansas City in 1993), Young got his opening. He had massive cleats to fill and any number of Niner fans would remind him as much by booing his poor, un-Montana-like performances.
But Young would eventually go on to become one of only two quarterbacks to win six NFL passing titles (Sammy Baugh was the other), two league Most Valuable Player awards, and MVP honors of Super Bowl XXIX. He would show that Montana wasn’t the only quarterback capable of running Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense to perfection. Along the way, he made some spectacular plays, with his arm and his legs, that have burned indelible images on the memory of football followers everywhere.
The relationship between Young and Montana, a 2000 Hall inductee, was strained, at best. However, during his acceptance speech, Young mentioned Montana in discussing the defining challenge of his career -- sticking around San Francisco long enough for the opportunity to achieve his own slice of greatness.
“Joe Montana was the greatest QB I had ever seen,” Young said. “I was in awe. I was tempted many times by the opportunity to play for other teams, but I was drawn to the inevitable challenge to live up to the standard that I was witnessing.
“I knew that I was a decent player, and for some reason, God blessed me with a big-picture knowledge that if I was ever going to find out just how good I could get, I needed to stay in San Francisco and learn -- even if it was brutally hard to do. I had the faith that the opportunity would create itself at the appropriate time.
“I was tough to live with during some of those years, but as I look back, I’m thankful for the struggles and trials that I had and for the opportunities that were given me. When the opportunity for me opened up, being a regular quarterback was no longer an option.
I would have gotten booed out of Candlestick so fast that I would have had to rise to a new standard of performance that Joe set.
“I many times thought about quitting as I heard boos during my sleepless nights. But I feared calling my dad. I knew what he would say: ‘Endure to the end, Steve.’”
Young did. And it paid a handsome price.
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