When I heard former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young speak at his 2013 induction into the Greenwich High School Sports Hall of Fame – wittily, for 45 minutes, without notes – I thought, Here’s a real golden boy.
Brilliant, handsome, talented, rich, famous, with a stunning wife, four lovely kids and a varied professional life beyond the spiral as a lawyer, equity fund founder/manager and creator of the Forever Young Foundation. Check.
A child of East Coast privilege – grounded by a protective mother and a tough-minded father, who taught their children to make their own way in the world. Check.
An NFL and Super Bowl MVP and a pillar of the Mormon community, an all-American dream. Check, check and check.
But success, like hindsight, is always 20/20. What appears to be a smooth path to the top is often pitted with heartbreak, and the one who seems so golden can cloak a darkness, the shadows that give shape, as it were, to his form in the light.
In his new book, “QB: My Life Behind the Spiral” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 389 pages, $30), Young chronicles his battle with severe anxiety, a struggle he waged privately (remarkably) in the glaring arena of the NFL. Anxiety is the through line in this absorbing autobiography, beautifully written with Jeff Benedict. (Young’s recollections of key games – written in the present tense – are particularly riveting, giving the reader the thrilling but also uneasy sense of being on the field, experiencing every brutal play.)
“QB” was insightful for me not only as the author of a forthcoming novel about an equally charismatic quarterback whose brilliant on-field leadership masks his insecurities off it (“The Penalty for Holding,” Less Than Three Press, 2017) but as a fellow anxiety-sufferer. How well I recognize the symptoms – the homesickness; the feelings of unworthiness; the eagerness to please; the paradoxical sense of dread before doing something you love and are superb at. And, even when you succeed, the gnawing, nagging doubt that it will ever be enough.
As he developed as a player and a person, Young began to explore the roots of his anxiety, locating it in his own DNA. But reading the book, you’ll conclude that it was exacerbated by the gladiatorial culture of the NFL, with its – in some cases – indifferent, two-faced owners, promising the players lifetime work one minute and trading them the next; fragile, explosive coaches, pushing players and themselves to the brink; doctors who let injured players stay in the game too long; and teammates who took sides in the survival-of-the-fittest narrative of the locker room. (Young’s longtime rivalry with coolly confident superstar Joe Montana, whom he hoped to supplant as the Niners quarterback, is a key subtheme here, as is the paradox that the anxious are often competitive people who gravitate to what makes them anxious. For me, it’s the crushing pressure of deadlines; for Young, the literally crushing rhythm of the gridiron game. Or maybe smart, talented people – who tend to have interesting careers – are anxious, because they are so smart and self-aware.)
Some readers may wonder, too, about the exacting roles played by a fiercely protective mother, a father who dismissed his son’s fears as the need to buck up and a religion that exhorts its followers to marry young and do missionary work.
Yet if faith, family and football offered Young challenges, they were also ways through his anxiety. His visits to disabled, disadvantaged children and to Jerusalem, where he walked in Jesus’ footsteps; his search for family and community among his teammates and fellow Mormons; his love of football – it could only be love, considering how many concussive hits he took – all of these enabled him to succeed as a player and person in spite of himself as much as because of himself. (And all of this without any medication or self-medication as Mormons do not drink, smoke or engage in premarital sex.)
Not surprisingly, Young’s anxiety subsided with his career and the blossoming of his marriage to the former Barbara Graham, with whom he runs the Forever Young Foundation. But by then a particularly violent block in a televised 1999 game against the Arizona Cardinals – which led to his umpteenth concussion and national outrage – forced his and the Niners’ hands.
Ultimately, this is the story of a man who used his beautiful mind, as well as a tremendous sense of discipline and gratitude for a “charmed” life, to hurdle past anxiety into the end zone and a meaningful second act.
Call it luck. Call it destiny. Call it God’s blessing. But in a world where many former players are enfeebled by dementia – like Chicago Bears star Jim McMahon, whom Young succeeded at QB during their playing days at Brigham Young University – Young was one who got out alive.