QB : my life behind the spiral

A facetious question posed by an NPR radio host lured me into reading Steve Young’s memoir, QB: My Life Behind the Spiral. Did the pro football Hall of Famer receive special treatment at Brigham Young University where he played quarterback because he is the great-great-great grandson of Brigham Young?

With outstanding high school achievements, Young was readily admitted to the university, but the football team listed him as number eight on the depth chart for the quarterback position (future Chicago Bears Super Bowl winner Jim McMahon was number one). The quarterback coach was adamant, telling him, “I don’t coach lefties. You’ll never play quarterback at BYU.” Assigned to the defensive squad, he threw passes on his own, day after day. When that coach took a job elsewhere and McMahon became injured, Young was put in and began his ascension to All-American college quarterback.

With his photographic memory and disarming candor, Young provides the reader with an adrenalin charged perspective of the game of football: offensive and defensive strategies, the impact of coaching changes, team rivalries, personal alliances, rituals, and self-doubts. No active player could remain employed putting this kind of information into writing.

After two seasons with the soon to be defunct Los Angeles Express and then the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in 1987 Young joined the San Francisco 49ers. The head coach assured him that legendary quarterback Joe Montana had sustained career-ending injuries. That was not case, however, for four tortuous years. At one point Young didn’t even cash his paychecks because he believed he hadn’t earned the money while sitting on the bench. He found purpose off the field, visiting a 10-year-old 49ers fan struggling with brain cancer, and studying at BYU during the offseason to earn a law degree.

Steve Young is the first and only left-handed quarterback to enter the National Football League Hall of Fame. When he took over the position for the 49ers after Montana was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs, Jerry Rice, the best wide receiver ever, had to be retrained to learn what to expect when catching a football thrown by a left hander. Young and Rice went on to win a Super Bowl and during their years together completed 50 more touchdown passes than Montana and Rice did.

Media references to Young’s ancestry and religion tend to emphasize celebrity and sensationalism. What I wanted to know is how he navigated the disparate worlds of the Latter-Day Saints and the beer drinking culture of America’s favorite sport. With Mormonism always an integral part of his life, he seamlessly addresses this issue.

Unable to attend Sunday services during the season, the night before games he gathered with a few Mormon players, each of whom was qualified to give others the sacrament. While on the field, opponents tried to distract him by making disparaging remarks about his faith.

After defeating the archrival Dallas Cowboys in a Conference championship game, Young reminisces: “I look up and see the scoreboard flashing that I am the Miller Lite Player of the game. I smile. I’ve never had a beer in my life. I’m a thirty-three-year-old dry Mormon.”

Young explains the scriptural basis for not using alcohol, and his personal belief that he would have great endurance and be protected from serious injury by following the health code. When hurt, he opted for traction, chiropractic adjustments and electric stimulation, with medication as a last resort.

Like other elite athletes, Young stayed on the field no matter how battered his body was. He describes being blitzed by one of the hardest hitting cornerbacks in the league. “His helmet hit me first. Then the rest of his body went through me…..On the way down my head smashed into my lineman’s thigh.” While lying on the ground, flat on his back, he worried more that his neck was broken than about being knocked out. Yet he refused a stretcher and groggily made it to the sideline. He then demanded to be put back in and was incredulous that his coach refused.

That hit was made during a Monday Night Football game and it aired over and over on news broadcasts and the internet. Though Young felt fine within two weeks, as a precaution, neurologists never cleared him to play again. His career was over.

One of Young’s former teammates who is not a Mormon has early dementia and was among 500 former players in a class-action suit alleging that the NFL  promoted a culture of excessive use of painkillers and other narcotics that had long-term effects on the players’ quality of life. Young has no lasting impairment from his concussions. Perhaps his health code did preserve him.