By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 6, 2011; 12:15 AM
Young was Rodgers, circa 1995. He played the patient yet frustrated understudy who had to wait for an aging legend like Brett Favre to leave before he had a real opportunity to lead.
Young could put up all the numbers and wins he wanted, but until the 49ers won the last game of the NFL season with him behind center - instead of Joe Montana - Young knew he would never truly set himself apart from the greatest quarterback of all time.
"I somehow got down to the field after they beat the Chargers and began hugging Steve," said Leigh Steinberg, the agent who represented most of the game's premier quarterbacks. "I just remember him saying, 'The monkey's off my back, the monkey's off my back.'
"Like Steve, Aaron Rodgers has done so much to win over so many people, but in some fans' minds he is still competing against the unrealistic memory of a legend. To them, Brett Favre won every playoff game, was perfect in every Super Bowl. One of the only ways to win them over is to win it all."
Unless you years ago marked "Steeler Nation" in the residency box, this is why Rodgers and the Packers need the rest of the world to root for them Sunday night.
Green Bay's quarterback isn't just trying to scramble and avoid large men who want to violently slam him to the ground, he's trying to outrun the opponent who never dies: the nostalgic memory of another player in the same uniform at the same position.
"If Aaron Rodgers can pull this off, if he can lead the Packers to a Super Bowl victory over that Steeler defense and really have the kind of game people remember, then he basically knocked Brett Favre out," said Ross Tucker, the former NFL offensive lineman and now one of the game's most candid and sharp analysts. "Right now I see Brett Favre in some imaginary boxing ring, holding on to the top rope like a bloodied and tired fighter. And Aaron Rodgers is coming in for the [knockout] punch to end it. If he wins Sunday, he just landed that [knockout] punch."
Thanks to Favre's messy and embarrassing end in pro football, Rodgers already has something Young didn't 16 years ago: the full support of his fan base. After three years of backing up Favre, Rodgers has had three years of growing pains to gradually win over Green Bay.
He's done it with his nimble feet, his arm, his ability to grasp the moment and a smiling bravado even when the Eagles or the Bears were threatening to come back and end his season. And, yes, Favre indirectly helped.
In his season of staying too long, Favre has yet to call Rodgers and offer a word of encouragement.
For all Favre's inappropriate text messages that finally forced Commissioner Roger Goodell to fine him, for all the personal and professional embarrassments he brought on himself this past year - the year he finally found out he needed the NFL more than it needed him - the most iconic figure in Green Bay since Vince Lombardi couldn't even help his tarnished image by picking up the phone to say so much as "Good luck" to Rodgers.
Montana was in the same boat. In his mind, Young was the guy whom Bill Walsh brought in not to bolster the 49ers, but to take his job. Their competition at the end of Montana's career went way beyond the field, to the point of utter contempt for each other off it.
When I interviewed Montana this past week on radio, he almost bristled when I mentioned the word "competition" and "Young" in the same sentence. "When I was healthy," Montana said, "there was no competition."
If that's the mellowed-out, retired Hall of Famer's response almost two decades later, imagine the brunt of what Young got at the time.
"The problem Steve had had to do with all the Montana loyalists," Steinberg said. "They had so much energy and emotion invested in Montana that he wasn't competing against a player as much an idea or a different time. In the fantasy of ephemeral memory, Montana was always going to be the greatest in their mind - no matter how old he got, how many interceptions he threw, no matter how much he even lost.
"There were some people who actually would have rather lost with Montana than win with Steve Young. There are some fans out there who would actually lose with Brett Favre instead of win with Aaron Rodgers. And you can't fight that - you just can't fight the unrealistic memory of a legend. You can only be who you are and win."
Steinberg added, "Aaron Rodgers has handled it very well. It's one of the most excruciating, difficult things a player who has come into his own can do, move beyond a legend by just doing his job the best he can."
John Elway and Dan Marino were safe because of who came after them in Denver and Miami. Brian Griese and Jay Fiedler were never going to be Hall of Famers.
But Rodgers has a chance to separate himself from Favre on Sunday. He won't yet have the records, pulsating comebacks, durability and longevity of No. 4 - he may not ever. But if he scampers past the Steelers, he runs toward the exact number of Lombardi Trophies as Favre won for Green Bay: one.
Here's hoping, in the near-flawless postseason Rodgers has orchestrated by silencing three stadiums on the road, he parlays it into winning it all, that he feels the acceptance Young felt that night 16 years ago, when he ran to the sideline and, on videotape, was caught saying, "Someone grab the monkey and take it off my back."
The night teammate Gary Plummer helped Young, pantomiming grabbing the imaginary primate off his back as the quarterback held his arms high. "It's gone forever," Plummer said.
Here's hoping Rodgers outruns the memory of Favre for at least a night, that he gets the proverbial monkey off by landing, well, the knockout punch.
Sports can be cruel and unsentimental at times, and this is one of those times. Aaron Rodgers needs to win if only because the best way to make people forget about a legend is to just plain knock him out.