“What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step.” — C.S. Lewis
On January 22, 1989, you could hear a pin drop in my house. Friends and family were huddled around our bulky Sony television set like a campfire.
The San Francisco 49ers were playing the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII.
To this day, the matchup remains one of the most exciting games I’ve ever seen.
Down 16–13 with just 3:10 remaining, the 49ers got the ball on their own 8-yard line. Led by Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana, they marched 92 yards to victory.
Some still call, “The Drive”, the greatest finish in NFL history.
One of the players standing on the 49er sideline that evening was a young man who not only marveled at Montana’s superhuman command of the position but not so secretly coveted the opportunity to do the same.
His name was Steve Young.
The great-great-great-grandson of Brigham Young, Steve eventually enrolled in the school named after the leader of the Latter Day Saints movement where he was a member of the football team.
But Young’s lineage proved no guarantee for success.
In fact, he described his freshmen year as the loneliest of his life. To make matters worse, players who didn’t suit up for home games sat in the stands instead of the sidelines with the rest of the team.
“My dorm was one block from the stadium. I decided to use my complimentary ticket and went to the game. Nobody knew that I was on the team. Feeling as alone as I ever had in my life I wiped a tear from my cheek and found my seat…I think that’s where the distaste I had for watching started.”
Two weeks later Young decided he’d had enough. He phoned his father to tell him he was hanging it all up.
“I’m done,” he said. “I’m coming home.”
There was a pause before Young’s father replied, “You can quit but you can’t come home because I don’t live with quitters.”
His father’s words fueled a metamorphosis. By his second year in school, Young had gone from 8th on the depth chart to backup quarterback.
By his senior year he was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, an award given annually to the most outstanding player in college football.
But Young’s introduction to the NFL resembled his first few weeks in college.
In 1985, he signed with the Tampa Buccaneers. Not only did the team go 2–14 but Young wouldn’t get an opportunity to play until the 9th game of the season.
“The worst part was watching from the sidelines. Back-up quarterbacks have far too much time on their hands, which was a particularly bad thing for me. I didn’t know people in Tampa. After practice I often got in my rental car and drove around by myself. Many nights I ate dinner alone at Wendy’s.”
Young later noted his experience in Tampa Bay didn’t teach him how to play football but how to survive.
In1987, lured by the promise he’d play by legendary coach Bill Walsh, Young headed to San Francisco. The only problem was the position he was promised was already helmed by arguably the greatest to ever play quarterback:
Over time, the little two-step of playing but mostly watching started to take its toll on Young’s psyche.
“The musical chairs approach at the starting quarterback position was driving me nuts. I resented Bill for putting me into games when we were behind and it was too late to catch-up. Joe resented Bill every time he got pulled and I went in. The only thing we shared was mutual frustration toward Bill.”
But rather than be thwarted by the quarterback controversy, Young decided to use the competition as an opportunity for re-invention.
“Do you know what the secret to life is?”
“One thing. Just one thing.”
“You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit.”
“That’s great but what’s the one thing?”
“That’s what you gotta figure out.”
Those were the words Steve Young poured over again and again.
Only the sage advice came not from some elusive tome, or scholarly text but from Jack Palance and Billy Crystal in the movie, City Slickers.
It was the film that brought Young solace the evening before a big game. And it turned out the role that gave Palance his first supporting role Oscar would help propel Young to a starring one.
In1991 with Joe Montana injured, it was finally Steve Young’s turn to scrap the moniker, “back-up” quarterback. The 4 years Young had dedicated to “staying ready” when the right opportunity presented itself had finally paid off.
Not only did he lead the team to a 10–6 record but in 1992 he became the NFL’s MVP.
“Succeeding a legend is no picnic,” he said. “But it’s also the best thing that has ever happened to me.”
Young went on to lead the league in passing for 3 seasons in a row and would go on to win the 3rd of his NFL record 6 passing titles.
But he still didn’t have a Super Bowl ring.
Just after he’d scaled one mountain he was now staring blankly from the base of another.
The words of Jack Palance continued to ring true.
“My one thing is faith. Faith is an energy in my life. Faith is taking that next step. To not stand still. To not worry.”
He would need that faith because, for the 3rd year in a row, the San Francisco 49ers would face the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship game.
They’d lost two straight years.
But this time Young viewed the seemingly formidable challenge as an opportunity to find out how great he could be.
“What you’re really looking for in life is a platform to find out how good you are,” he said.
That afternoon Young and the 49ers finally defeated the Cowboys 38–28. Young had emerged from the shadows and become a leader in his own right.
Just a few weeks later, Young and the 49ers defeated the Chargers 49–26 in Super Bowl XXIX.
Aday later Young waved to a crowd of excited onlookers from a giant float on Disneyland’s main street. He and star wide receiver Jerry Rice celebrated the team’s recent victory.
Cries of, “Steve you’re the greatest!” echoed in the future Hall of Famer’s head. For a moment Young started to drink the cool-aid.
But it only took the simple words of a child to bring him back to earth reminding him of the importance of perspective.
“For about 4 minutes I lost my mind. I am the man! I am the greatest! And I just remember at the end two little kids are sitting down there and the younger one, maybe 6 years old, looks at me and says, Mickey Mouse. It was a classic for me. I’m the man! I’m the greatest. Then twenty seconds later I’m Mickey’ Mouse’s bodyguard. It just goes to show you can put the flag on top but then you got to climb down and life goes on.”
What makes Young’s story remarkable is the demanding climb he endured. As he weathered adversity, self-doubt, and even humiliation he grew to appreciate the importance of striving towards higher elevation.
Ultimately, it was his ability to stay ready that gave him the tools necessary to reach for greater heights and find out how good he could be.
His story also reminds us of the importance of finding and honing our one thing.