In the 1990s, Steve Young rose to fame as the star quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. Now the Hall of Famer and Super Bowl MVP reflects on the challenges and triumphs of his brilliant 15-year NFL career and reveals the surprising reason he didn’t serve a mission.
In his autobiography, QB: My Life Behind the Spiral, Young gives fascinating insights into his dynamic football career, as well as deeply personal, never-before-told stories from his life.
In the following excerpt, Young reflects on his frustrating first season with Brigham Young University in 1980. Disheartened by his rank as eighth-string quarterback, he had redoubled his efforts to impress the coaches by practicing even harder and studying the moves of the team’s star quarterback, Jim McMahon. Young recalls:
BYU finished the regular season 11–1. Jim McMahon led the team to 11 straight wins. We were ranked in the top 20 and headed to a bowl game against Southern Methodist University. Thanks to a strong second half of the season, I was named MVP of the JV team.
When LaVell Edwards called me into his office just before the end of the semester, I figured he was going to invite me to travel with the team for the Holiday Bowl game.
“Steve, we’re going to move you to defense.”
I was stunned.
“But I can be a quarterback here,” I said.
“You shouldn’t be a quarterback. You’re our fastest guy.”
But at this moment I felt like my speed was actually working against me.
“You could play any position,” he continued. “Besides, we’ve got too many quarterbacks.”
It wasn’t the conversation I had anticipated. Especially given that my throwing had just improved dramatically.
I didn’t bother arguing. His mind was made up.
The Mission Question
The Christmas break gave me time to think about my future. I decided to step away from football and serve a two-year mission. It wasn’t a snap decision. I’d been mulling it over all semester. My father had served a mission after his freshman year at BYU, and I had always aspired to do the same. LaVell’s decision to make me into a defensive back spurred me to go sooner rather than later.
I completed the necessary paperwork and notified my bishop. The plan was set. I would leave in the spring, right after I completed my freshman year.
My parents were pleased. But as soon as I committed, I started to feel anxious. A mission is a great opportunity. But I knew myself too well. There was no way I’d survive being away for two years. The thought of total separation overwhelmed me. I didn’t understand the source of my fears. But I knew they were real.
There’s no way, I told myself. I’ll never make it.
I was barely hanging on at BYU. I was calling home a few times a week. The dresser drawers in my dorm room were empty because I never bothered to unpack for the entire fall semester.
The more I thought about a mission the sicker I became. I decided to talk to my dad. I knew he didn’t relate to my anxiety. He and I are wired differently. But I knew he’d give me sound advice.
Still home for the holidays, I sat opposite my dad at the kitchen table and told him my dilemma.
“It just doesn’t feel right,” I said. “I think the best thing is for me to just go back to school.”
He’d been on enough late-night phone calls from Provo. He knew my struggle with separation. He also knew that I was finally getting used to Provo. It wasn’t home, but I could survive there. A two-year mission in a faraway place was another story.
“Well,” he said, “you better go talk to the bishop.”
We had just gotten a new bishop, Kay Rasmussen. He was a vice president at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, a big publishing house in New York City. Bishop Rasmussen didn’t know me particularly well, but he had previously interviewed me and determined that I was qualified to serve a mission. I felt terribly guilty as I drove to the church to tell him that I wasn’t going to go through with it.
Rasmussen was from Idaho, and he spoke slowly and softly. He had a way of putting people at ease. Still, I struggled to get the words out. “I really think the right thing for me to do is continue going to school at BYU,” I said.
He leaned forward. “Can I tell you something?” he said.
I tensed up. Here it comes.
“A couple of weeks before you came home for Christmas break I was sitting in church, looking out over the congregation,” he said. “And I got the impression that you were going to come see me at some point to tell me that you felt the right thing to do was return to BYU.”
“That’s not all,” he continued. “I also got the impression that I should tell you that you should return to BYU.”
He wasn’t kidding. He was dead serious. I was speechless.
I had fully expected him to try to talk me into going on my mission. Instead, he gave me three simple pieces of advice: Serve Jesus Christ. Live your religion. Be a great example.
Then, without elaborating or trying to explain his impressions, he simply reiterated that it felt right to him that I return to school.
“Bishop Rasmussen, I’ve always wanted to serve a mission. I want to do the right thing.”
“Steve, your mission might be to do what you were born to do in terms of playing football.”
He put his arms around me and wished me well. The meeting was over.
I felt a tremendous sense of relief as I left his office. But I was also confused. The last thing he said to me—the part about being born to play football—made no sense. I wasn’t even the eighth-string quarterback anymore. I had been demoted to defense. My dream of playing quarterback at BYU was all but over, and if I couldn’t play quarterback I had no interest in playing football. So I wasn’t sure what to make of my bishop’s comment.
That comment, however, would soon prove prophetic.
Young began training for defense, all the while practicing his quarterback skills on his own. Soon LaVell Edwards was convinced that Young should stay with offense after all. By 1982, just two years after his disappointing “demotion,” Young was BYU’s starting quarterback. In 1983, he broke 13 NCAA records and was runner-up in the Heisman Trophy balloting. Young concluded his college football career by scoring the game-winning touchdown in the 1983 Holiday Bowl.
In 1984, he signed an unprecedented 10-year, $40-million contract with the Los Angeles Express, where he played professional football for two seasons before ending his contract with the struggling team. He then played two seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before being traded to the San Francisco 49ers in 1987, where he served as back up to legendary quarterback Joe Montana.
Despite his successes, or perhaps because of them, Young still struggled with his decision to not serve a mission. He shares:
People thought my status as a football player had influenced my decision not to serve a mission, unaware that I was an eighth-string nobody when I made that decision. It was only the fear and anxiety that had held me back. But now that I was a successful quarterback, I worried that kids would think I had shirked my responsibilities. I tried to make up for that by quietly living a personal code I had established for myself: never to do anything as a professional athlete—on the field or in private—that would set a poor example for kids.
Get your copy of QB: My Life Behind the Spiral to read more about Steve Young's faith, his struggles with anxiety, the blessing from an Apostle that helped him find his wife, and his greatest football triumphs.