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


Steve Young, girls flag football:

Laila Young is stepping onto the flag football field for the very first time, yet her movements suggest she’s played before, displaying grace and confidence. Her sister, Summer, who’s a senior, is equally skilled, covering substantial ground with her long strides.

Laila takes on the X position, likened to “John Taylor, the most underappreciated athlete in history,” according to her father. Meanwhile, Summer plays the Z position, described as “Jerry Rice’s position” by Dad.

Laila runs an effective route, but she must adjust for an underthrown pass. The ball touches her hands and slips to the ground. The play could have been a touchdown, securing a victory for Menlo. However, they end up losing 2-0 to Sacred Heart due to a safety.

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

Fathers often provide perspective in such moments, and that’s precisely what’s happening here. Yet, Laila’s dad is more than just a father; he also serves as an assistant coach for Menlo. He happens to be a two-time NFL MVP, a Super Bowl MVP, and a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

So, with his arm around his daughter, he shares a personal story—something he wouldn’t ordinarily discuss with his children without prompting.

“In 1991, we were at the L.A. Coliseum playing the Raiders,” Steve Young begins.

At that point, the 49ers had achieved 14-2 records in each of the previous two seasons. Joe Montana, the legendary quarterback, was an iconic figure in 49ers history. However, during the 1991 preseason, Montana, the reigning MVP, injured his elbow, thrusting Young into the starting lineup. The 49ers then began the season with a 2-2 record.

“The 49ers needed to win this game,” Young continues. “But I needed to win this game—me. We were trailing 12-6 and driving towards victory. Time was running out. It was fourth-and-7 on the Raider 19. I was scrambling, searching for someone to throw the football to, and Jerry was open in the end zone, almost waving his arms. But I didn’t see him until I watched the tape the next day. I threw an incompletion. We lost.”

Young vividly recalls the intense regret he felt at that moment, describing it as one of the most bitter emotions he’s ever experienced.

“The regret you’re feeling, Laila, is the same kind of regret I felt at the Coliseum,” he tells his daughter. “Part of the reason you step out there is to learn from that, to find a way to turn it into something positive. There’s immense potential in not catching that pass. You have to discover it.”

For Laila, this is an opportunity.

And for Steve, it’s a unique and deeply meaningful opportunity.

In his perspective, coaching this team is akin to a sacred calling.

Following the loss to the Raiders, Steve Young recounted a turbulent incident in the 49ers’ locker room. Charles Haley, a volatile defensive end, directed blame and threats towards Young, even putting his fist through a glass door. It took Ronnie Lott’s intervention to calm him down.

Haley had been a longstanding tormentor of Young, even to the extent that Young would inquire about Haley’s whereabouts to avoid him, even if it meant skipping necessary treatment in the trainer’s room. Young’s arrival at the 49ers in 1987 came with the idea that he might replace Joe Montana, who was dealing with back problems. However, Montana’s back proved strong enough to lead the team to Super Bowl victories in 1988 and 1989, making it clear that Young would not be Montana.

Throughout this period, Young was often reminded that he would never be Montana, facing hostility from fans and harsh criticism from commentators. The San Francisco Chronicle published an op-ed titled “The Gulf War: It’s Steve Young’s Fault.” For four years, he remained second string, and at one point, he refused to cash paychecks for an entire season—$4 million worth—until the team convinced him to do so after the season’s conclusion.

The professional relationship with Montana was marked by professionalism but also prickliness. Even when extending olive branches, there were thorns. During a Christmas dinner hosted by Montana, one of his children asked, “Dad, is this the guy we hate?”

Jerry Rice, while not openly expressing animosity, clearly preferred Montana. He was uncomfortable with the different spin on Young’s throws (Young being left-handed, Montana right-handed) and uneasy about Young’s tendency to leave the pocket.

Despite the pressure, Young responded with enthusiasm. He brought a new era of running quarterbacks, displaying fearlessness and speed. Yet, like many young quarterbacks with speed, he often opted to run rather than stay in the pocket. His coaches challenged him to win from within the pocket, a challenge he embraced.

The journey was arduous. Young faced anxiety and struggled to find joy. On the eve of home games, he would watch planes taking off from the airport, wishing he were on one of them, and the following morning, he often struggled to get out of bed.

After the Raiders’ loss, Young visited his brother Mike in Salt Lake City and questioned whether he could endure the season. On the plane back to San Francisco, he found himself seated next to Stephen Covey, the author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” Young confided in Covey, expressing his desire to be a golfer or tennis player without the burden of teammates. Young wrote about this experience in his inspirational book, “The Law of Love.”

Covey made Young reconsider how 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo saw players as partners, how coach Bill Walsh viewed players holistically, how offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren understood quarterbacks uniquely, and how Montana set an example to follow. Covey told Young that he had an exceptional platform to discover his true potential.

This pivotal plane ride changed Young’s perspective. Eventually, the 49ers traded Haley and Montana, and the players invested in the Montana era moved on. The 49ers became Steve Young’s team, and he achieved everything a quarterback could win, transitioning from a runner/thrower to a pure passer better than anyone else, leading the NFL in passer rating for six out of seven seasons.

Remember The great potential in failure that Steve Young told Laila about manifested in his own life. Charles Haley continued to torment Young when he was with the Cowboys, but it was different coming from an opponent.

In 1998, 49ers coach Steve Mariucci proposed the idea of bringing back Haley to the team. He asked the player leaders for their opinion on signing the free agent.

Steve Young was the first to raise his hand in favor of bringing Haley back.

Today, Young looks forward to seeing Joe Montana. He and Jerry Rice live near each other and have grown closer over the years. Rice frequently contributes to the Forever Young Foundation, the charity overseen by Steve and his wife, Barb.

Steve Young’s football journey is celebrated with a ring nearly the size of a golf ball, but it signifies much more. It represents reconciliation and resourcefulness, the ability to overcome personal struggles and survive, determination, and ultimate vindication.

When he finally retired in 2000 after 17 seasons of professional football, Steve Young had a wealth of experiences and lessons to share.

Quarterbacks whose careers endure often show signs of aging, with weathered faces, deep creases, and weariness from carrying the weight of their teams. But Steve Young, now 61, defies these expectations.

Young’s appearance remains youthful, with smooth skin, clear blue eyes, and tousled hair. His clean living habits, as a Mormon who abstains from alcohol and caffeine, contribute to his well-preserved look. He maintains his physical fitness through jogging, sprinting, and daily mobility exercises.

During his coaching role with Menlo School’s flag football team, Young’s fluid movements surprise observers, considering his history of football injuries. He endured multiple physical ailments during his playing career, including herniated discs, torn muscles, knee injuries, nerve damage, neck sprains, broken ribs, and concussions. Remarkably, he hasn’t required post-career surgeries and doesn’t suffer from joint pain or cognitive issues.

Young attributes his relatively pain-free post-career life to the experience of playing in front of large crowds for 18 years, which he believes toughened him in a positive way. In 2007, Young co-founded HGGC, a private equity firm managing $6.9 billion in investments, which he now chairs. However, his focus has shifted to his home life.

Young’s home is now the center of his world. He frequently shuttles between his office and home in Palo Alto, prioritizing his family’s needs. Although Young had hoped to start a family before retiring from football, he didn’t meet his wife, Barb, until he was near retirement. They married the year he left football, and their children arrived soon after.

Their sons, Braedon and Jackson, have pursued careers in entertainment rather than football. Summer, on the other hand, shares her father’s competitive spirit and athletic talent. Laila, the youngest, is a skilled dancer and athlete.

Football remains a part of Steve Young’s identity, but it wasn’t always a part of his home life. Barb never followed the sport, and games weren’t a regular fixture on their TV. If Steve wanted to watch a game, he would do so on his phone while taking care of the kids, whom he drives to school, picks up after school, and chauffeurs to their activities – a role he relishes.

Steve Young, seen here with Tom Brady, served as an ESPN analyst for 22 years before his departure in June. (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 is working with Menlo’s quarterback, Paige Miller. Miller praises Young, saying, “He’s amazing because he’s connecting with us on an emotional level.”

On the practice field behind the school, the girls eagerly await instruction on how to throw a football from one of the best in the game.

Young takes a moment to think about how to explain the mechanics of throwing a football to someone who has never done it before. He reflects on his own early days at Brigham Young University, watching upperclassman Jim McMahon and perfecting his own technique.

Teaching the fundamentals at this level is a different challenge altogether.

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

It’s not just about the physical aspect; Young understands the mental hurdles as well.

Miller shares her struggles, saying, “I can throw the ball, but I get in my own head and often have trouble.” Young offers sage advice, encouraging her to stay calm and take a deep breath, comparing it to finding peace.

One of Summer’s friends even hails Young as the best coach they’ve ever had.

Young is an unpaid volunteer, but the rewards he gains through coaching these girls are immeasurable. He rediscovers the pure joy of the sport through their enthusiasm, both as something familiar and something new.

For Summer, being part of this team is a special experience. She says, “You grew up going to the boys’ games, and you never really got to experience it yourself. It’s a sport I always wanted to play, and now I get to play.”

To her father, it’s more than just an after-school activity.

Young passionately states, “This is America’s game, and they’re playing it. 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 teaching these girls how to play football; he’s preparing them for the highs and lows of the game, instilling self-reliance, teamwork, and an unyielding spirit.

Through his coaching, he helps these young Knights discover a level of determination and achievement they might not have known was within them.

As Young watches the girls strive to surpass their own limits, it brings a tear to his eye.

He reflects on the influence of coaches in his life who molded him into the person he became. To Young, a coach is more than just someone who teaches how to throw a ball or run a route; they shape the character of individuals.

This is why, to him, coaching these girls is a sacred calling.

When he retired from the NFL, Young stated that what lay ahead was more important than what he was leaving behind. This coaching experience is what he was referring to.

In a recent practice, Menlo’s quarterback Ava Kallen faced a dilemma as her receivers weren’t open.

Approaching Young, she sought guidance.

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

Young: “You can run it.”

Ava: “I can?”

Young: “Yes, absolutely, try it.”

Ava’s face lit up with newfound confidence, and Steve Young’s face mirrored that excitement.

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


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