In pursuit of a higher level of consciousness, not to mention a
higher passer rating, Steve Bono, the Kansas City Chief
quarterback, has embraced a rather rigid approach to life. He is
a stickler for detail, a man meticulous in his mannerisms and
particular in his tastes. At 33, Bono is firmly set in his ways.
There's no gentle way to say it, so let's hear it from the
people who know Bono best.
"He's totally anal," says Tina Bono, Steve's wife of seven years.
"He's always been a neatnik, just like his father," says
Cornelia Bono, Steve's mom. "He'd rather be on the cover of GQ
than SPORTS ILLUSTRATED."
"There's nobody who can starch a shirt like Steve Bono," says
former NFL receiver Michael Young, who was Bono's roommate at
UCLA. "He is incredibly.... What's a better word for anal
Sorry, there is none. Mr. Bono, how do you plead?
"That's what I am," Bono says. "I'm not going to lie about it."
He is also humble and unobtrusive, as well as being one of the
most unlikely success stories in recent NFL history. He is the
man guiding the offense of the league's top team, the Chiefs,
who are 9-1 after Sunday's 22-7 win over the San Diego Chargers
and the latest entry in the Who's Finally Going to Win a Super
Bowl for the AFC Sweepstakes. With the off-season retirement of
Bono's buddy and mentor, Joe Montana, K.C. was supposed to
collapse like a sand castle at high tide. Instead, the Chiefs
have ruled their conference, and Bono, in his first season as a
full-time starter, has inherited Montana's crown without getting
a big head.
The King is dead, long live the King of Clean. His Royal
Neatness comes from a blue-collar family, but he has always
adhered to a starched-collar ideology. Take it from Bono's
father, Biagio, who recalls a telephone conversation with his
son after Steve had thrown for a UCLA-record 399 yards in a 1983
game against BYU. "I asked him, 'Are you going to go out and
celebrate?'" says Biagio. "He said, 'Yeah, Dad, but first I have
to wipe up the bathroom floor.'"
Steve, the NFL's answer to Frasier's Niles Crane,
color-coordinates his closet, folds and hangs his clothes
immediately after removing them and waits to do his ironing
until the last possible minute before he dresses, the better to
ensure there are no unsightly wrinkles in his garb. He has been
known to go ballistic over a misplaced stapler, and he counts
the 1985 day on which his Minnesota Viking teammates dumped out
the contents of his briefcase as one of the darkest he has
"During training camp his rookie year, the guys noticed that he
carried this very organized briefcase everywhere he went," Tina
says. "One day they turned it over and let everything drop on
the floor. He called me in a panic; you would have thought
somebody had died."
Says Steve, "It was not a good night. Let's just leave it at
Yes, Bono is ripe for teasing, but he's really not as simple as
the jibes may make him seem. In some ways he's as stiff as his
heavily starched shirts. In others he's as mellow and
unflappable as Montana. True, Steve is unwilling to travel
anywhere without a handkerchief--"even at the beach," Tina
says--but he also was patient enough to wait until his seventh
NFL season before starting his first nonstrike game, flexible
enough to maintain good relationships with Montana and Steve
Young during the years in which the three were quarterbacks for
the San Francisco 49ers and cool enough to lead the Chiefs to
four tight victories in their first seven games of 1995, three
of them overtime wins set up by fourth-quarter Kansas City
Traded to the Chiefs before last season after the 49ers had
decided that he was an unnecessary burden on their salary cap,
Bono has provided K.C. with life after Joe. His statistical line
has been commendable--16 touchdowns, six interceptions and a
passer rating of 84.4, 15th-best in the NFL--and the spin in the
Chief locker room is that Montana's departure actually energized
the Kansas City offense. "Last year people felt that Joe somehow
would make a play to win the game," receiver Willie Davis says.
"Some of the guys who should have been leaders on offense would
just sit back and wait for Joe to do it. This year those people
are stepping up, and that's the difference."
And though you'll never catch Bono basking in it for even a
minute, the limelight has begun to shine on the man who before
this season was best known as being Montana's caddie. Not only
did Bono sign a four-year contract extension last spring that
stands to earn him more than $8 million through 1998, but he
also actually began developing a public persona.
The day after Kansas City's 24-3 win over the Washington
Redskins on Nov. 5, the Bonos hosted a charity fashion show
featuring Chief players, with the proceeds benefiting the
National Kidney Foundation of Kansas and western Missouri. They
had hosted similar events in the Bay Area during Steve's years
with the Niners, but this one raised the most money. The evening
was gratifying for Bono, a man who not only loves to shop but
who also enjoys accompanying his wife on her shopping trips.
"He has always loved clothes and jewelry," Cornelia says.
Growing up with four younger sisters in Norristown, Pa., a
modest suburb of Philadelphia, Steve inherited his
fastidiousness from Biagio, a tool and dye maker. When Steve
wasn't dressing to impress, he was honing his athletic skills.
Not only was he one of the nation's top football prospects when
he concluded his career at Norristown High, he was also
recruited for baseball and basketball and can still execute a
When Bono arrived at UCLA, in glitzy Westwood, he became the
Prince of Prep, sporting more plaid than a J. Press catalog and
ironing even the tiniest creases out of his shirts. Yet for all
his attention to fashion, there is no way to explain how Bono
botched one of the most important wardrobe decisions of his life.
"He showed up at my dorm wearing red velour bell-bottom
sweatpants, a button-down shirt with red and white pinstripes
and a pair of sandals," Tina says, as she rolls her eyes. "He
looked like a total geek, but he was tall, and he had manners."
As she recounts this incident, Tina is sitting in the spotless
living room of the Leawood, Kans., house she and Steve bought
last year. Looking ahead to the Spanish-style place they plan to
build this off-season in Palo Alto, south of San Francisco, the
Bonos have filled their present house with furniture suitable
for a Spanish villa. As a concession to their three-year-old
son, Christoph, some of the sofas and chairs are covered with
sheets. While rocking four-month-old daughter Sophia, Tina
recalls the way Steve, in typically methodical fashion,
initiated their courtship during their junior year at UCLA.
Bono and Michael Young, in search of the perfect room from which
to view UCLA's female population, resorted to some devious
measures. "They were building these posh new dorms, The Suites,
and Steve and I went over there and scoped out the prime spot,"
Young says. "Then I snuck into the office of the guy who was in
charge of room assignments. I saw that we had a lame room, so I
erased our names and switched them with some other guys on the
As a result Young, Bono and two other players ended up in room
F-11, with a view of the Bel Air hills through the back window
and even more enticing scenery up front. "Every coed that passed
through The Suites had to walk by our window," says Young, who
ended his 10-year NFL career last year and now works for the
Denver Broncos' marketing department. "We had the primo room,
and it paid huge dividends."
This was no typical bachelor pad. It was so neat that the
football coaches used it to impress recruits. "And Bones's
closet was a sight to behold," Young says. "Not only was it
color-coordinated, but it was also broken down by weather:
summer-to-winter clothes, long-sleeved-to-short-sleeved. Every
shoe had a shoe tree in it, and his underwear drawer was a thing
One spring day, when Bono saw Tina Ventzke walking into her room
in The Suites, he went right to her door, inexplicably hideous
outfit and all, and told her he wanted "to be neighborly." Steve
and Tina, who were married in 1988, forged a relationship based
on their mutual interests, including a zest for fine dining that
was brought to fruition during Bono's five seasons with the
49ers. While most of the players lingered near the team's Santa
Clara-based training facility, Bono got the most out of San
Francisco, frequenting its trendy restaurants.
Though he'd had some moments in his last two seasons at UCLA,
Bono was a marginal pro prospect who went to the Vikings as a
sixth-round pick in the 1985 draft. He appeared in only two
games in two years for Minnesota before he was released and then
was signed and cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers before the '87
season. That left Bono to face a big dilemma when NFL players
went on strike that September. Offered work by the Steelers as a
replacement player, he consulted Biagio, a longtime member of
the International Association of Machinists. Biagio told Steve
that as he was technically out of work, he was not part of the
striking NFL Players Association and had a right to seek
employment. "And my father was on strike at the time," Steve
Pittsburgh kept Bono on after the strike but released him at the
end of the 1988 season. When no teams came calling during the
ensuing spring, and his football career appeared to be over, he
acquired a stock broker's license and began an internship with
Merrill Lynch in Westwood. But a call that summer from 49er
offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren, now the Green Bay Packer
coach, persuaded Bono to come to camp and compete with Plan B
free-agent signee Kevin Sweeney for the third-string job. Bono
beat him out. Under Holmgren's tutelage Bono acquired the
footwork, balance and timing that combined with his attention to
detail would enable him to flourish in the West Coast offense,
first with the 49ers and now under offensive coordinator Paul
Hackett in Kansas City. The same obsession with detail that Bono
applies to his wardrobe and his palate makes him a dependable
quarterback who reads defenses methodically and precisely.
"If there's a criticism," Hackett says, "it's that sometimes he
won't let it all hang out. You want to tell him, Just throw it,
don't worry about being perfect. Just let it rip."
The ease with which Bono has stepped into the Chiefs' starting
job no doubt had something to do with what he learned from
Montana, the consummately cool field general who shares Bono's
Pennsylvania heritage and low-key demeanor. Bono at first felt
self-conscious about buddying up to an icon and finally voiced
his apprehension to Montana in the summer of 1990. Montana told
him to relax, and the two became running mates, going out for
beers while Young, a nondrinker, kept to himself. With Montana
sidelined by surgery on his throwing elbow in '91, Young
struggled during the first half of the season before injuring
his knee in a game in which the Niners trailed the Atlanta
Falcons. Bono stepped in and played brilliantly, nearly pulling
out the game. He lost his first start, the next week, against
the New Orleans Saints and then led San Francisco to five
consecutive victories and nearly into the playoffs.
Bono became a favorite among fans in the Bay Area as well as
among 49er offensive players, who preferred his methodical style
to the wildness that at the time often cropped up in Young's
game. "The way Steve Bono approaches playing quarterback is a
lot like the way he combs his hair," says former Niner tight end
Jamie Williams. "He spends so much time in the mirror making
sure his hair is combed exactly right. You can never say
anything bad about his hair because he's put in his work, he's
put in his time. If you look at Steve Young's hair and the way
he plays, there's some symmetry there. His hair is all over the
place, and you never know what he's going to do."
The Montana-versus-Young years in San Francisco were fraught
with controversy, but despite his closeness to Montana, Bono
stayed above the fray. "The whole Joe-Steve thing was crazy, but
I understood both sides," he says. "Steve's a very hard person
to get to know, but I made a very concerted effort."
Ultimately what drove Bono away from Young and back to Montana
in Kansas City was not bitterness or money but a desire for
playing time. But Bono started only two games for the Chiefs in
1994--they lost both, though each time he threw for more than 300
yards--and he had a hard time adjusting to the tight ship run by
Chief coach Marty Schottenheimer. As meticulous as Bono is about
preparation and schedules, he bristled when, after a dentist's
appointment caused him to be five minutes late for a mandatory
weightlifting session, the Chiefs socked him with his first, and
only, NFL fine. He was also put off by the long hours of
preparation mandated by the coaching staff, and he fretted over
what he saw as K.C.'s lack of chemistry--issues that
Schottenheimer has addressed this year to Bono's satisfaction.
"Last year was the toughest he's ever had--and Steve has played
on some pretty bad teams, so that's saying something," Tina
says. Not only has Schottenheimer eased up on his players, but
he and Hackett have opened up the offense a bit, too. To protect
Montana, Hackett had shied away from deeper routes and
slower-developing pass plays; this year he is taking advantage
of Bono's strong arm and pinpoint timing. "Joe had the best
touch of all time," Hackett says, "but Steve can really stick a
ball to a receiver."
Bono has been sitting at The Tavern, a hip bar in Kansas City's
Plaza district, for almost an hour, and not one patron has asked
for an autograph. He is discussing what has to be the most
shocking NFL record of 1995: his 76-yard touchdown run (well, it
was more like a lope) against the Arizona Cardinals last month,
the longest scoring run by a quarterback in league history.
Even more amazing than the run was what Bono had said in the
huddle after receiving the play from the sideline. Convinced
that the play-action bootleg would burn Cardinal coach Buddy
Ryan's aggressive defense, Bono, who normally exudes the
personality of a tackling dummy during games, told his stunned
teammates, "Guys, I'm taking it to the house."
Bono puts down his microbrewed beer and changes the subject to
his favorite topic: food. Last year he joked that "the worst
restaurant in San Francisco is better than the best restaurant
in Kansas City." While that may have been an exaggeration, Bono
considered K.C.'s gustatory offerings so mediocre that he
consulted with the owners of one of his favorite Bay Area
Italian haunts, Il Fornaio, about opening an establishment in
"A lot of the restaurants here are well-intentioned, but they
don't understand how to put things together," he says. "They'll
order all these interesting ingredients and mix them in strange
combinations. So what Tina and I will do is order a dish, but
without two or three of the ingredients, and then order a couple
of other ingredients that belong in there on the side."
Bono is getting warmed up now, his deep voice and hearty laugh
resounding across the bar, as two young women finally notice him
and approach for autographs. They tell him that they are huge
fans; he replies politely, puts his flawless signature to paper
and turns to finish his thought. Methodically, perhaps
unconsciously, he takes a napkin and wipes a drop of spilled
beer from the bar.