Steve Young is a brilliant man, charismatic, conversant, compassionate, a social activist, tough as nails, a consummate teammate, and one fabulous football player.
But I hope he has taken his last snap in the NFL. There are risks every time any player walks onto a field, from biddy ball to the NFL. But it seems Young, after this latest concussion, is running far too great a risk for somebody so smart. I've finally stopped scanning the news wires to see if Young has called a news conference to announce his retirement because while he may never play another down, it is apparently not in him to just call the whole thing off right now. There is a lot of gray area to negotiate, a lot of soul-searching to do.
For the third straight week, Young will be out of uniform because of a concussion he suffered either Sept. 19 or Sept. 27, depending on whom you talk to. Whenever, it was at least his fourth concussion in three years. As recently as Oct. 13 Young was still suffering headaches and dizziness. He has asked his neurologist, Gary Steinberg, the chief of neurosurgery at Stanford Medical School, to keep their conversations private. But Steinberg said in a recent press briefing, "Let's just say we've had a number of talks about his playing football."
Do you have a "number of talks" if everything is fine and dandy? Doesn't a "number of talks" mean the chief of neurosurgery at Stanford is very, very concerned for his patient's welfare? There are a lot of things even the top neurologists don't know about the effects of concussions. But most agree there is some cumulative effect. And while Young has suffered four concussions since October 1996, his agent Leigh Steinberg says Young has suffered at least seven. Young doesn't count it as an "official" concussion if he doesn't have to leave the field, but that doesn't mean there wasn't trauma.
Young's immediate family made it known in 1997 that they thought it was nuts for Steve--with all he has going for him--to risk serious injury that might result from another concussion. His mother has repeatedly told him to quit now: "Get a life, get a wife." And what now, that he has suffered a fourth concussion? When contacted last week by the San Jose Mercury News, Young's father, LeGrande, told the newspaper, "Two years ago, we got into trouble by commenting. We have no comment. I'm sorry."
Young hasn't talked the past few days about this most recent concussion. But let's make this clear: probably no athlete knows more about concussions in general. Steinberg has brought in the nation's leading neurosurgeons to talk candidly with all his clients about the issue. "Steve's not in denial about this," Steinberg said last night. "There have been times when he was, but this is not one of them."
Young hasn't said much publicly in recent days about this most recent concussion. But it's not like we don't know why it's so important for him to play again, even if that means risking another head injury.
He loves the game.
He loves being quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers. Desperately and dearly. How many jobs on the planet are cooler than that? And it didn't get good to him until relatively recently. He's been around since 1984, but he played in the defunct USFL with the Los Angeles Express for one season. He played in Tampa back when the Buccaneers were dreadful (1985-86). And he had to sit behind Joe Montana in the late 1980s and endure Montana's coldness directed toward him. I'll never forget a woman calling a Bay Area radio talk show one day, saying she hoped Young, then emerging as the team's best quarterback, would break his leg so that the 49ers would keep Montana in the lineup.
Young endured all that garbage with great dignity. But it wasn't until 1991 that he finally became the No. 1 guy. He was already 30. At 35, he was probably the best athlete of any quarterback in the league. Even now, with injuries having robbed him of a step here and a foot off the fastball there, only Brett Favre can break a defense in so many ways.
At the very least, Young doesn't want to walk away with his team somewhat vulnerable. The offensive line is leaky. The defense is soft. There's no running game whatsoever. Young and Jerry Rice are the last links to the 49ers as they used to be. The great irony is that Young simply doesn't need this, but the 49ers probably need him now more than ever to be competitive. And Young sits there watching a league loaded with mediocre teams, figuring there must be a way to get into deep January, even with such a flawed team. Nobody as talented and as productive as Young can ignore the way John Elway bid adieu. Young sat courtside in Salt Lake City for Michael Jordan's heroic final games against the Utah Jazz.
No parents or siblings or fretful writers can know how badly he wants one more chance to win it all. The very thing that makes anyone great is want-to, an almost absurd ability and desire to endure anything just to play. It's a basic instinct for Steve Young to endure and play, to be counted on, to never let the team down. To walk away, while his arms and legs still work, goes against every urge he's ever felt. And now, we want him to shut it off, just like that?
Because the chances that any old blow to the head will cause another concussion are greatly increased. Because he has earned his law degree and can contribute to society in some very meaningful way, perhaps even in public service. Because he has three Super Bowl rings already and has nothing left to prove to anyone on a football field.
So, the people who admire him most seem to be the ones most afraid he will play again and get popped in the head again. But there's probably a greater chance Young will play this season than retire before it ends. As his coach, Steve Mariucci, recently told reporters in California, "In Steve's mind, there is some hope. Somewhere, he's reaching for some hope that says, 'Hey, I'll be back.' That's what he's thinking about. That's all he thinks about."
Asked if Young's career may be finished, Mariucci said, "I hope not. I don't think so. He does not talk about retirement at all, even with me behind closed doors. He says, 'Let's not go there.' "
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