Steve Young, girls flag football, and finding the next calling


ATHERTON, Calif. — The freshman runs a hitch-and-go for Menlo School on a play called “X train.”

This is Laila Young’s first flag football game, but she looks like she played in a previous life, moving so smoothly and decisively. Her sister, Summer, a senior, is also a natural, covering big chunks of turf with long strides.

Laila plays the X position — “I tell her she’s John Taylor, the most underappreciated athlete in history,” her father says. Summer is the Z — “Jerry Rice’s position,” Dad says.

The route Laila runs is a good one, but she has to come back for an underthrown pass. The ball hits her hands and falls to the ground. The play should have been a touchdown and Menlo should have won. Instead, it loses to Sacred Heart 2-0 on a safety.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more forlorn group of people,” Laila’s father says.

Fathers are often looked to for perspective, which is the case now. But Laila’s dad is more than Dad. He’s an assistant coach for Menlo. And he’s a two-time NFL MVP, a Super Bowl MVP and first ballot Hall of Famer.

So father puts his arm around daughter and tells a story, the kind he usually would not tell his children without prompting.

“It was 1991, and we were in the L.A. Coliseum playing the Raiders,” Steve Young begins.

The 49ers went 14-2 in each of the previous two seasons. Joe Montana, their quarterback, was mythical in 49ers lore by then. But during the 1991 preseason, Montana, the reigning MVP, injured his elbow, forcing Young into the lineup. Then they began the season 2-2.

“The 49ers needed to win this game,” Young continued, “but I needed to win this game — me. We trailed 12-6 and we were driving to win. Time was running out. It was fourth-and-7 on the Raider 19. I was running around trying to find somebody to throw the football to and Jerry was open in the end zone, almost like waving his arms. But I didn’t see him until I watched the tape the next day. I threw an incompletion. We lost.”

It was, Young remembers, one of the most bitter feelings of his life.

“The regret you are feeling, Laila, is the same kind of regret I was feeling at the Coliseum,” he tells his daughter. “Part of the reason you go out there is to learn from that, to find a way to make it a positive. There is great potential in not catching that pass. You have to find it.”

This is an opportunity for Laila.

And it’s an opportunity for Steve.

But it’s not just any opportunity.

Coaching this team, in his mind, is a sacred calling.

After the loss to the Raiders that Steve told Laila about, volatile 49ers defensive end Charles Haley raged at Young in the locker room, blaming and threatening. He put his fist through a glass door and wouldn’t calm down until former 49er Ronnie Lott, who had joined the Raiders as a free agent, was summoned to mollify him.

A Montana loyalist, Haley had bullied Young for years by then, so much so that Young often asked team employees where Haley was so he could try to avoid him, even if it meant skipping treatment he needed in the trainer’s room.

In 1987, Young agreed to be traded to the 49ers from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the idea — promoted by 49ers coach Bill Walsh — that Montana might not play again because of back problems. But Montana’s back was strong enough to carry a team on it, and Montana did so in the 1988 and 1989 seasons, leading the 49ers to his third and fourth Super Bowl victories.

By then, everybody was convinced Young would never be Montana, and Young was reminded of it ad nauseam by hostile fans and venomous commentators. The San Francisco Chronicle published an op-ed with the headline “The Gulf War: It’s Steve Young’s Fault.”

For four years, Young was second string. In one of the years, he was so disenchanted he refused to cash paychecks for an entire season — $4 million worth — until the team talked him into it after the season ended.

As the circumstances would have it, the Montana relationship was professional but prickly. Even olive branches had thorns. When Montana invited Young for Christmas dinner, one of Montana’s young children interrupted and asked, “Dad, is this the guy we hate?”

Rice never expressed animosity, but his preference for Montana was clear. He was uncomfortable with the backward spin on Young’s throws (Young is a lefty; Montana a righty) and uneasy about Young’s disregard for staying in the pocket.

Someone who loved the game less would have been crushed by the pressure. Young responded with exuberance. When Rice ran a reverse against the Chicago Bears in 1987, Young blocked defensive lineman Dan Hampton as if he were a monster truck. Teammates called him “Crash” after that.

Fearless and fast, Young ushered in a new era of running quarterbacks. But like most young passers blessed with speed, he was too quick to tuck and run. His coaches challenged him to learn to win from the pocket. It was one he embraced.

The climb was grueling, though. Young experienced anxiety and found joy elusive. On the night before home games, he watched from the team hotel as planes took off from the airport, wishing he were on one of them. And the next morning, he didn’t want to get out of bed.

After that loss to the Raiders, Young flew to Salt Lake City to spend a day with his brother Mike. As he took a seat on the plane back to San Francisco, he questioned if he could make it through the season. Next to him was Stephen Covey, author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”

Young bared his soul to Covey, telling him he wished he were a golfer or tennis player without teammates to concern himself with. Young writes about it in his inspirational book, “The Law of Love.”

Covey made him think about how 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo saw players as partners, how Walsh looked at players holistically, how offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren understood quarterbacks like few others and how Montana set an example to follow. “I don’t know of anyone that I’ve ever met, anywhere in the world, who is in a better place with a better platform to go see how good he can be,” Covey told him.

On that plane ride, Young’s outlook changed.

Eventually, the 49ers traded Haley and Montana. The rest of the players who were invested in Montana moved on. The 49ers became Young’s team. He won everything a quarterback can win and transitioned from runner/thrower to passer — pure passer — better than anyone ever, leading the NFL in passer rating six out of seven seasons.

Remember the great potential in failure that he told Laila about? This was it.

Haley continued to torment Young as a member of the Cowboys, but it was different coming from an opponent.

During the 1998 season, 49ers coach Steve Mariucci brought up the idea of bringing back Haley. He asked his player leaders who was in favor of signing the free agent.

Young was the first to raise his hand.

These days, Young looks forward to seeing Montana. He and Rice live near one another and are closer than ever. Rice frequently gives of himself to the Forever Young Foundation, the charity Steve and his wife, Barb, oversee.

Young’s football journey is celebrated with a ring nearly the size of a golf ball, but it was about so much more. It was about reconciliation and resourcefulness, subjugation of self and survival, determination and vindication.

So when he finally retired in 2000 after 17 seasons of professional football, Steve Young had much to share.

Quarterbacks whose careers go on and on usually have a similar look. Their faces are longer and thinner, with gray stubble more often seen under hard hats than football helmets. On their foreheads are deep creases from carrying the hopes of teams and cities. Around their eyes, dark weariness.

Young never looked that way. At 61, he still doesn’t.

His skin is smooth; his blue eyes clear. He wears his hair in a tousled, boyish style.

Clean living helps. A Mormon — Young is the great, great, great-grandson of Brigham Young — he doesn’t drink alcohol or caffeine. He takes a four-mile jog a few times a week and even sprints some. Every night before he turns in, he spends an hour on mobility.

He often stretches in public places, which gets eye-rolls from his kids.

“Dad, this is fricking embarrassing. Why do you have to stretch everywhere? It’s weird.”

During Menlo’s warmup before practice, Young moves fluidly as he does carioca exercises with his players.

You never would guess that during his football days, he had a herniated disk, torn groin muscle, a knee injury that tore four ligaments and a meniscus, a compressed peroneal nerve that cut off sensation to his leg, neck sprains, broken ribs and a torn shoulder labrum. Oh, and somewhere near 10 concussions, including one that effectively ended his career.

Inexplicably, none of his joints hurt.

He inexplicably has avoided any post-career surgeries.

He has no cognitive issues, inexplicably.

At one point, Young was the face of concussions; now, his recall is about as precise as his throws were.

Anxiety is just a memory.

“Something happens when you play in front of 80,000 people for 18 years,” he says. “I think you get it burned out of you a little bit in a good way.”

In 2007, Young cofounded HGGC, a private equity firm. Young, the chairman of the company that manages $6.9 billion in investments, looks out his Palo Alto office window and points to a palm tree. It’s about three football fields away. It’s in the yard of his home.

That home — not the office — is the center of Young’s world now. He goes back and forth from office to home all day. “If my wife needs something — anything, it’s happening,” he says.

His goal was to marry and have children before he retired from football — he hoped to share his sport with a family — but Young didn’t meet Barb until he was close to retirement. They wed the year he walked away from football. Children came quickly.

Braedon, 22, and Jackson, 20, are gifted entertainers. An actor and singer, Braedon recently graduated from the Manhattan School of Music. Steve describes Jackson, who is pursuing his undergraduate degree, as a “festival of fun.”

Neither had much interest in football, however.

Summer wears her father’s No. 8 and has his fire. She has told her parents she intends to be great at something. Last spring, she ran the 100- and 200-meter dashes on the track team. In the final meet of the year, she tried the high jump for the first time. Within three weeks, the 17-year-old qualified for the California state tournament and jumped 5-6, good for ninth place and a college scholarship offer from Navy on the drive home.

Laila, 14, is also quite an athlete, gritty and fast. A competitive dancer, she moves as if she is all soft tissue, no bones. She gets Dad to dance with her, and, good sport that he is, he permits her to post it on TikTok.

Football, Barb says, is “a part of Steve’s being.” But for the longest time, it was not a part of his home.

Barb never followed the sport. Games didn’t play on the family-room television. If Steve wanted to watch, he would tune in on his phone, maybe as he cooked lunch for the kids.

Dad is the one who drives the kids to school in the morning, picks them up after school and transports them to their activities. “He loves carpool,” Barb says. “It’s his favorite thing.”

Steve Young, right with Tom Brady, was an ESPN analyst for 22 years before he was let go in June. (Simon Bruty / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

When he was part of the ESPN “Monday Night Football” pregame show, Young usually dropped the kids off for school Monday morning, flew to the game site, then flew back home in time to drive them to school Tuesday morning.

He gets the kids where they go in a 2011 Toyota Sienna minivan with 120,000 miles on it. His dream is a Mercedes Sprinter that seats 15. He would cover the floors with rubber mats, load it up with Summer, Laila and friends, and then hose it down at the end of the day.

Laila has vetoed a trade-up, however. In that old Sienna, the crumbs of her childhood are in the gaps between the seats. Her father goes along.

“He’s the most amazing dad,” Barb says. “He loves being involved in anything they are doing.”

He also loves sharing his knowledge. That’s why he valued his 22-year association with ESPN before he was let go this summer in a round of layoffs.

Young’s perspective probably is more relevant than ever because of his pioneering playing style. Many of today’s quarterbacks are reminiscent of him, or would like to be.

“I was the oddity in the old days, but I’d be the prototype today,” he says. “You have to have a dynamic athlete at quarterback because there are too many yards to be gained because defenders can’t launch anymore and defenses can’t cover as much ground. The middle is now unpatrolled. The game they are playing today is my game.”

Young hopes to still provide commentary about the game he loves. But this fall, he connects to football in a different way.

They call Atherton the wealthiest city in America. Ty Cobb lived there then, Stephen Curry lives there now, and neighbors don’t turn their heads. Of course, the neighbors have included billionaires Paul Allen, Charles Schwab and Eric Schmidt.

Girls in Atherton traditionally have participated in sports such as gymnastics, water polo, golf and tennis. This is the first season Menlo has a flag football team, as California is sanctioning high school girls flag football for the first time. The enthusiasm is palpable.

They call themselves the Menlo Knights, but they could be the 49ers. The Menlo playbook is the Bill Walsh playbook. “Black 59 Razor” is the same play with Montana or Paige Miller calling it. Young led a team outing to the 49ers-Giants game, where they watched from a suite and met NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

Knights head coach John Paye, a teammate of Young’s for two seasons on the 49ers, asked Young to assist. Young had never coached before, but he is a natural teacher who has led adult Sunday school classes for 16 years.

Steve Young works with Menlo quarterback Paige Miller. “He’s amazing because he’s connecting with us on an emotional level,” Miller says. (Dan Pompei / The Athletic)

The girls line up on the practice field behind the school, waiting for instruction. They want to know how to throw a football. And they want it explained by one of the best to ever do it.

Young has to think about what to say to someone who has no idea how to throw a football. The motion, he realizes, is not intuitive. He thinks back to his early days at Brigham Young, watching upperclassman Jim McMahon, and reflects on how he developed his mechanics.

This is the sport at the substratum level.

“Your thumb has to come down, not out,” he tells Miller, a Menlo senior. “And your elbow has to be pointed at the target.”

There is the physical, and there is the mental, as Young remembers well.

“I can throw the ball, but I get in my own head and often have trouble,” Miller says. “So he tells me to take a deep breath, be calm, like peace. He’s amazing because he’s connecting with us on an emotional level.”

One of Summer’s friends told her Steve is the best coach she’s ever had.

An unpaid volunteer, Young is compensated in ways he never anticipated. Through these girls, he experiences the joy of the sport — joy that is familiar; joy that is fresh.

And Summer loves being on this team more than anything else she’s ever done. “You grew up going to the boys’ games, and you never really got to experience it yourself,” she says. “It’s a sport I always wanted to play, and now I get to play.”

To her father, it’s not just after-school recreation.

“This is America’s game, and they’re playing it,” Young says. “We talk about inclusion a lot now. This is what it feels like and looks like. And it feels like we should have been doing this for 30 years.”

Young isn’t just instructing the kids on how to play football.

He’s preparing them to deal with highs that couldn’t feel higher and lows that couldn’t feel lower.

He’s teaching these Knights how to depend on themselves — and one another.

He’s helping them to uncover ferocity they didn’t know they had.

He’s showing the girls how to push themselves to where only their imagination could conceive them being.

And it brings a tear to his eye.

“There were coaches in my life who had my development and who I was going to become in their hands,” he says. “A coach is like a parent, a priest, a policeman — the people in our society that we trust to do good with the power they have. A coach is a powerful position because so much human development can happen. It’s not just how you throw a ball or run a route that a coach can influence but who you will become as a person.”

That is why to him, this is a sacred calling.

When he announced his retirement from the NFL, Young told the world that what was ahead for him in many ways was more important than what he was leaving behind. This is what he was talking about.

In a recent practice, Menlo quarterback Ava Kallen struggled to find a teammate to throw to.

She approached Young.

Ava: “What do I do if the receivers aren’t open?”

Young: “You can run it.”

Ava: “I can?”

Young: “Yes, absolutely, try it.”

Her face lights up.

Steve Young’s face lights up, too.

(Top photo of Laila, Steve and Summer Young: Dan Pompei / The Athletic)

“The Football 100,” the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Preorder it here.


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