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Knocking sense into Steve Young

From the Sidelines
   By Andrew Krause

As a lifelong San Francisco 49ers fan, I've been lucky enough to root for two of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play in the NFL. Under the leadership of Joe Montana and Steve Young, the Niners have reigned as one of the league's dominant powers since the early '80s and have produced countless memorable moments, from Montana's touchdown pass to John Taylor in the waning seconds of Super Bowl XXIII to Young's pinpoint dissection of the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX. But in addition to their highlight-film heroics, Montana and Young have given Niner faithful plenty of frightening moments. Montana was knocked cold by New York Giants defensive linemen in the 1986 and 1991 playoffs, and Young had already suffered three concussions since 1996 entering this season.

QB Steve Young (No. 8) has taken more than his share of hits during his long career.
No injury to either of these future Hall of Famers, however, was quite as scary as the one on the night of Mon., Sept. 23. Leading the offense at the close of the first half against the Arizona Cardinals, Young dropped back to throw and was leveled by blitzing Cardinals' defensive back Aeneas Williams. The camera panned to Williams' celebration before focusing on Young, who was on the ground, not moving. It soon became clear that Young's eyes were shut and that he was unconscious. Teammates began waving frantically for medical personnel, and the hearts of millions of television viewers briefly stood still. The sight of Steve Young—humanitarian, law school graduate, and perennial All-Pro—lying prone on the field was overwhelming. Luckily, Young was revived, and soon walked off the field under his own power. This time.

The 49ers have played three games without their franchise quarterback, winning one and losing two with backup QB Jeff Garcia at the helm. As a fan, part of me would love to see No. 8 trot back onto the gridiron, scramble around like a madman and toss more touchdowns. With Young, the Niners might have a chance to salvage this wacky NFL season and maybe even make a title run. Without him, San Francisco will be in a dogfight for a playoff berth. But even as the fanatic in me wishes he would tough it out and lay himself on the line again for his team, I know that it is time for Steve Young to retire.

Young has nothing left to prove in football. Yes, the Niners have fallen just short of the Super Bowl in each of the past three seasons, and yes, he has only one title to his credit. But were he not playing in the shadow of Montana—the winner of four Super Bowl rings and widely regarded as the greatest quarterback of all time—Young's legendary status would not even be questioned. Though his career did not really take off until he was over 30, when he replaced Montana, Young has compiled a higher quarterback rating, a better touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio, and a higher career winning percentage than Montana. The only category in which Young falls short is in titles, and to be fair, Montana had a stronger supporting cast for most of his tenure in San Francisco.

At the age of 38, Young is already nearing the point at which his body will no longer allow him to compete at the highest level. The countless interviews Young has given since his latest concussion reveal the same competitive fire and love for the game, but when weighed against the risks he faces, Young must take the more cautious course. Four concussions in less than three years is a disturbing number, and if Young were to return, there would be little hope of protecting him from future injury. The San Francisco offensive line has been miserable for the entire season, allowing Young to be sacked nine times in their first two games. Young was hit by the New Orleans Saints' defense over 20 times in week two—by far the worst pounding of his career. Doctors are still puzzled to a certain extent about the long-term effects of concussions, and medical recommendations can often come down to guesswork. The truth is that there is no way to know which hit will be the one to cause permanent damage. The only certainty is that those hits will keep on coming.

For several years, Young has resisted the advice of family and friends to hang up his spikes. There are few gutsier men in football than Steve Young, and retirement might seem to him too much an abandonment of his teammates and fans. One could correctly argue that every football player risks serious injury week in and week out, but the circumstances in Young's case are different. He is a target on the field and defenses will be gunning for him. A linebacker could earn a place in history if he were the man to knock Steve Young out of football.

Young must think about his life after football and decide whether it is worth it to risk 50 years of potential happiness for a few more weeks of football. If that is not sufficient motivation, Sports Illustrated reported on Mon., Oct. 11 that 62,500 high school athletes suffer concussions every year. Young, the consummate role model on and off the field, could help young athletes properly recover from their injuries by publicly acknowledging the severity of the problem.

I hope that Steve Young will let my everlasting memory be of him eluding defenders on the run and finding Jerry Rice in the end zone rather than being wheeled away on a stretcher.

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