Sometimes People don't understand that you gave it your all. You laid it out there, made every part of yourself vulnerable, held on to nothing—not even that private, inner kernel of fortitude that can lift you above the harshest scrutiny—and still you lost.
Flash back to the San Francisco 49ers-Kansas City Chiefs game on Sept. 11, with Niner quarterback Steve Young battling Chief quarterback and demigod Joe Montana. It is late in the game and K.C. is winning, and people are saying, "Yeah, that Steve Young, he ain't Joe. He's good, but he can't win the big one." There are two minutes left in the game, and Young, who has led the league in quarterback ratings for three straight years—the first time anyone has done that—is sitting on the bench watching Montana run out the clock. Forget that three of the 49ers' starting offensive linemen are hurt and that Young has taken a beating you wouldn't wish on a criminal. Forget that San Francisco traded Montana because Young is such a talent. The Chiefs are going to win, 24-17, and the buzz is, That Young, he should try harder.
On the sideline Young turns away, gray-faced, hoping no one will see, and vomits. Right there on the turf. Again and again. Teammate Steve Wallace puts an arm around Young as the clock ticks down. He knows, the Niners know: The blue-eyed guy from Brigham Young University—the great-great-great-grandson or Brigham "Young, the Mormon "leader who was as tough as a desert lizard—is empty. "He didn't have anything left," Wallace says later. He means, literally.
Now zip ahead to Sunday's game at Candlestick Park and the battle between the 8-1 Dallas Cowboys and the 7-2 49ers. Young takes a snap early in the first quarter, fakes to running back Ricky Walters and then bootlegs around left end. Alone. No blockers. Naked as a skinny-dipper. He picks up 25 yards and stuns Dallas's No. 1-ranked defense. Everybody in the NFL knows that Young can run. He even played some running back for the old USFL Los Angeles Express before he came over to the bigs, with the Tampa Bay Bucs in 1985. But to run like this at the start of the Niners' biggest game since they lost 38-21 to Dallas in last season's NFC Championship Game?
"They were willing to sacrifice Young," Dallas coach Barry Switzer marveled later, pondering that bootleg and several others that garnered Young 60 yards on eight carries for the game. "We were kind of surprised."
So was everyone who had not noticed the fire that has grown into a quiet inferno inside Young, or the dedication that the entire San Francisco organization has shown in its drive to dethrone the two-time Super Bowl champion Cowboys. Injuries? Who cares about those when you can dream about being, the, new Team of the '90s, just as you were the Team of the '80s, the winner of Super Bowls after the '81, '84, '88 and '89 seasons.
After the 49ers did indeed whip the Cowboys 21-14 on Sunday, behind Young's two touchdown passes and his one-yard touchdown sneak, they celebrated in a riotous on-held fashion that didn't seem much in character with the but-toned-down Niners of yore. In the locker room afterward they laughed off pain that was dulled by the sweet joy of vindication.
Cornerback Deion Sanders had little trouble snapping on his jewelry despite his freshly dislocated left middle finger. "I looked down and I was Hipping off people, and I didn't even mean to," he said. And inside linebacker Gary Plummer smiled as he hobbled out the door on a slightly sprained left knee that was already hooked up to a portable electrical stimulator. "Ken Norton got another victim," he said. "Me."
So far this season Norton, Plummer's teammate and fellow linebacker, has blown out 49er defensive end Richard Dent's right knee; cracked teammate Dana Stubblefield's teeth hard enough that Stubblefield, a defensive tackle, had to get several of them capped; nearly taken Los Angeles Raider running back Napoleon McCallum's left leg off at the knee; and generally bounced around the 49ers' revamped defense like a charged particle. Norton had four tackles and an assist against the Cowboys—his former team, which chose to let him go as a free agent during the off-season.
Norton's performance was just one indication that San Francisco's mad acquisition of defensive players since last January has paid off. All told, the 49ers have 27 new players on their roster, and six of them are defensive starters. Sanders, Plummer, Norton, rookie linebacker Lee Woodall, rookie defensive tackle Bryant Young and pass rusher Rickey Jackson, signed as a free agent, combined for 27 tackles in Sunday's game.
The Niner secondary, lit up like highway flares in the three preceding games against the Cowboys, snuffed out Dallas this time. With three interceptions of quarterback Troy Aikman—two by omnipresent safety Merton Hanks (page 26) and one by Sanders (with the bird flapping)—the San Francisco defensive backs allowed the 49er defensive line and linebackers to focus on Cowboy running back Emmitt Smith, who had only 78 yards rushing on 26 carries.
The San Francisco DBs defensed seven passes (versus one for the Dallas secondary), and a major reason for their success was the stimulating influence of Sanders, the erstwhile baseball player-slap fighter (see Atlanta Falcon receiver Andre Rison's highlight film) who greets big games the way a rooster greets a big sunrise. During a midweek stretching session in a pouring Bay Area rain, Sanders had told his teammates, "If I see anybody tight, I'm gonna slap 'em."
This was welcome news to veteran 49er Jerry Rice, the best receiver you will see in this lifetime and a man distinctly unhappy about anything but win after win after win. Rice, who can get so tight before games that he sometimes refuses to speak to anyone, his wife and children included, seems to have decided that the Niners can use a little flash and nastiness to counter Dallas's strutting ways. "If they want to play like that," he said of the Cowboys during the week, "why can't the 49ers? It's like you're going to school, and you've got this bully who's taking your lunch money every day. What are you going to do? Eventually you take a stand."
Rice's stand against Dallas consisted of an end around that netted 11 yards and five receptions for 93 yards, including a third-quarter, game-breaking 57-yard touchdown catch that put San Francisco ahead for good, 14-7. On that play Rice humbled Cowboy cornerback Larry Brown, who had the impossible task of covering, man-for-man, the leading scorer of touchdowns in league history. Racing up the left sideline, Rice leaped for Young's pass, turned in a circle like a ballet dancer as he came down and left the fallen Brown to clutch desperately at Rice's buttocks, his calf and, finally, his shadow as it vanished toward the end zone. Upon crossing the goal line, Rice acted respectful, as though he had been to that hallowed area before. And indeed he has—133 times since he came into the league in 1985.
Still, the hero of the day was the 49ers' lefthanded quarterback, the fellow who will always labor in the vacuum created by the man he sent packing, Saint Joe. Oh, certainly, Dallas could have won if Aikman, who was playing with a sore right thumb, had not thrown those two costly interceptions to Hanks. Both were picked off at the goal line (one in the second quarter and one in the fourth), and both came when it seemed as though the Cowboys were getting into a rhythm that would carry them to their fourth consecutive win over the Niners. But that's football. "I don't want to hear about no injured finger," noted the digitally challenged Sanders.
At the least, Young deserved a break. A nice guy who has to be considered among the very best quarterbacks ever to play the game—no other NFL quarterback has finished consecutive seasons with a rating over 100; Young has done it three times in a row and is on target for a fourth—he has always swallowed hard when confronted with the Montana comparison. "I learned from the master," he has often said. But he has recently established his own church too. Montana has never thrown for 4,000 yards; Young threw for 4,023 last year. Montana has never put together a streak of 183 passes without an interception; Young did it last year. All that separates Young from Montana are four Super Bowl victories and a mess of other big-game wins.
Young got one of those big-game victories on Sunday, and if his fire keeps burning, he should get a bunch more. Of that game against Kansas City, when he blew chunks from sheer exhaustion, he says, "I don't think I could have gone another series. The idea is that I'd be disappointed if I didn't leave it all on the field." Effort, his meal, you name it. "I think people realized that there is no quit, ever, in me."
The fire raged just as fiercely in the 49ers' game against the Philadelphia Eagles on Oct. 2, when coach George Seifert yanked Young in the middle of a series with the Niners trailing 33-8. Seifert was afraid that Young might get badly injured by the jazzed-up Eagles; Young was outraged that he couldn't keep battling. On the sideline Young vented his rage at Seifert. TV cameras caught him mouthing words not found in any playbook. Hello, new image. San Francisco, not coincidentally, has not lost a game since. "It helped significantly," says 49er president Carmen Policy of Young's outburst and its effect on the team.
For his part Seifert apologized to Young for his lack of sensitivity in pulling him from the game. "It's good for Steve Young to yell and actually cuss on the sidelines when something bad happens, as opposed to holding it all in," says Seifert. Holy therapy! We should all be treated so lovingly by our bosses.
Young now jokes about his tantrum, calling it "a watershed event." Says Young, "I think people were pleased to see that—that there is a human being in there. Hey, it was fun to yell at the coach."
Of course, as Young goes, so go the fortunes of Seifert himself. It may seem ludicrous that a man who has led his team to 75 career wins faster than any other coach in NFL history should be fighting for his job, but that was pretty much the case for Seifert before the Cowboy game. Policy and Niner owner Eddie DeBartolo had brought in the defensive studs to complement the 49ers' high-octane offense with the express purpose of knocking off the Cowboys, and there wasn't much Seifert could do to please the bosses except win. You can bet that Seifert will continue to apologize to his quarterback whenever it seems appropriate.
The coaching situation on the Dallas front was another story, with first-year leader Switzer only recently beginning to feel comfortable in a position that had previously been about as much fun for him as gum disease. After the Cowboys lost in overtime to the Detroit Lions in Week 3, Switzer began to think seriously about getting out of coaching at the end of the season. At 57 he is more or less financially set, and he is fed up with being called a no-good bum from Oklahoma by Dallas fans. In August a couple of players showed up late for morning meetings during training camp, and something inside Switzer churned. The players were hung-over, and Switzer quietly took them to the end of the field and chewed them out royally. "They ran me out of Oklahoma because of crap like this!" roared the man whose college program was everyone's favorite example of athletes running amok. "I'm a nice guy. I'm gonna treat you nice. But don't——with me!" Enough said.
As time went by, Switzer found that the players liked him, liked his easygoing, low-ego way, and that soothed him. Sitting in his office last Thursday, he cheerfully watched film of the Eagle offense against the 49er defense as though he were watching a new Spielberg hit. "Isn't that pretty?" he said. "Tight end motion, influence. Offensive guard on Sam, walling the backside off. Damn, it's beautiful! I love it. You got film, I'll watch it."
People forget—if they ever knew at all—that Switzer, for all his party-hearty image, is a football man. He doesn't do much now except study and think about football, learning as much as he can about the pro passing attack. He lives frugally in a rented two-bedroom apartment while he waits for a house to be built for him near the Cowboys' camp in Valley Ranch. He's single and pretty much alone, except when he's with his players and staff.
When safety James Washington grabbed a camera and its monopod from a sidelines photographer and brandished it like a club during a brawl in the Cowboys-New York Giants Monday-night game on Nov. 7, Switzer was more amazed than angered. "What were you going to do," he asked Washington, who was fined $10,000 by the NFL for his actions, "line 'em all up and take their picture?"
Switzer readily admits that he wants his players to enjoy themselves, but he doesn't want them to interpret his friendliness as weakness. "It hurts to cut them," he says. "But I'll do it. I have to—it's a business."
As he watched film, he paused to think about the upcoming 49er game. It is a big game, he acknowledges, but coaching is not going to make the difference. "Players don't give a damn who their head coach is," he stated. "The head coaches who do the best are the ones who have the best——talent."
On Sunday there was a lot of talent out on the field, much of it belonging to the Cowboys. But for a few hours at least, the 49ers had the best quarterback anywhere. And Saint Joe was 2,000 miles away.