(WASHINGTON, D.C.) I am writing this post from the sideline at Fed Ex Field, where the Redskins opened the NFL season against the Eagles on Monday Night football. The game ended well over an hour ago. It’s close to midnight. But I’m still here, watching Stuart Scott, Steve Young and Ray Lewis interview Eagles’ quarterback Michael Vick on ESPN’s postgame show.
But this post is not about football. It’s about my connection with one of the guys at the table – Steve Young. Sitting in an empty stadium has given me time to think back to his influence on me as a boy. Growing up I was never much of a BYU fan. In fact, I always rooted against them, except during 1982 and 1983. Those were the two years when Steve quarterbacked BYU’s football team.
He was an amazingly entertaining college football player who could kill you with his arm and dazzle you with his feet. In his senior year he became the most accurate passer in college football history.
But my affinity for Steve went much deeper than football. You see, we both grew up in Connecticut. He attended Greenwich High. I attended Waterford High. He was the only Mormon at his high school. I was the only one at mine. He was four years ahead of me and we didn’t know each other. But that didn’t matter. I felt like he understood what it was like to be in my shoes. So I cheered for him.
As a teenager I was self-conscious about being the only Mormon in my town. Minority status – whether brought on by race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or what have you – is not easy. Fortunately, I had great friends who accepted me. Still, being different leads to self-consciousness.
In my case there were plenty of times when I felt socially awkward because of my beliefs. Mormons don’t drink or use tobacco products. Nor did I dare go past first base with a girl. For Pete’s sake, my mother wouldn’t even let me look at the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue until she had ripped out the pictures. And that was back in the day when the models still wore bathing suits.
Needless to say, by the time I had turned sixteen and was old enough to attend parties I ended up spending most Friday nights home in my room instead. It was easier to avoid temptation than flirt with it. But I was pretty lonely.
Then along came Steve. His success on the football field broke down barriers for a kid like me. The way he carried himself inspired me. Eventually he became the Super Bowl MVP for the San Francisco 49ers. He had a reputation throughout the NFL as a guy who was different.
Different in a good way. He went to law school in the offseason. He was the ultimate competitor, but never a bad sport. When he lost he didn’t blame others. When he won he didn’t gloat. No matter how many times he got knocked down he always got back up. Those attributes transcend the game.
Corporate America gravitated toward him. He became a spokesman for Nike, Visa, Forbes, Macy’s, Advil, and a bunch of other brands looking for a famous athlete with a clean image. When the milk industry discovered that Steve had never had a beer in his life and had guzzled milk at high school parties, he got picked to be the face of national campaign promoting milk.
By that point in Steve’s career I had become completely comfortable in my own skin. I had also fallen in love with a woman, gone to law school, and become a writer. I had even developed a reputation for ordering milk when I went out with colleagues and friends. Once when I was having a meal with singer David Crosby, his wife Jan, and three of our close friends, the waiter took everyone’s drink order. I was last to order and I requested a chocolate milkshake.
The waiter hesitated and looked at me like, seriously?
I just smiled.
Then David changed his order to a chocolate milk shake. Pretty soon the entire table switched. The waiter brought six chocolate shakes. Why not?
Looking back, I treasure the way that I was raised. I love the fact that my mom confiscated the swimsuit issue and that we went to church every Sunday. Among other things it was great preparation for my profession. I am right at home interviewing people who are different, misunderstood or alone. Most famous people I know fit all three categories.
Eventually, Steve and I ended up in the same industry. He talks about football on television. I write about football in magazines and books. We both have a lot of other interests, though. Those other interests caused our paths to finally cross a while back. For me it was like finding a long lost best friend. The connection was instant.
The best kind of friend is one who listens and understands, but never judges. That’s what I found in Steve.
Before the Monday Night game, Steve introduced me to former Baltimore Ravens’ linebacker Ray Lewis. He retired after the last Super Bowl and recently joined the ESPN Monday Night broadcast team.
When Lewis shook my hand I thought my bones were going to crumble. I gave him an advance copy of my new book THE SYSTEM. He thanked me, read the jacket copy, smiled, and said, “Oh, boy!”
But what really impressed me was the instant chemistry between Steve and Ray. Steve was already in ESPN’s production truck when Ray showed up for the pre-game briefing. They locked hands, patted each other on the back, and paid each other a heartfelt compliment. They belong to a small fraternity of elite players who are considered among the best in the history of the game. Very few people – even among NFL players – know what it was like to walk in their shoes.
A while later we went on the field. Redskins and Eagles fans shouted: “Ray Lewis.” “Steve Young.” Current players approached to shake their hands. At one point RGIII ran over to hug Steve.
Then it was time. The Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” blared through the sound system. Smoke filled one end of the stadium. Fireworks went off. The crowd roared. Cheerleaders strutted.
As the Redskins sprinted onto the field, I thought about the pressure on RGIII. Then I glanced at Steve and my mind went back to January 15, 1995, at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. It was the NFC Championship game between the Cowboys and the 49ers. Steve Young, Jerry Rice, and Deion Sanders on one sideline. Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Charles Haley on the other. John Madden and Pat Summerall had the call. Cheerleaders shook. Fans screamed. The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” pulsed. Steve had the weight of a city on his shoulders that day. Now that was pressure. And he delivered. He led the Niners to the Super Bowl.
Amidst all the swirl, a sixty-year-old security guard assigned to escort Stuart Scott approached me. He knew I was Steve’s friend. “I watched that guy play since he was at BYU and all through the 49er years,” he said. “I have so much respect for him. That guy knew how to play under pressure. Love the way that guy carried himself.”
“I know what you mean,” I told him. “I know what you mean.”