TEN THOUSAND SPIRALS
For the past two years I've helped Steve Young research and write his life story for his family. I asked him if I could post an excerpt. This is from a chapter called, "Ten Thousand Spirals."
BY STEVE YOUNG with JEFF BENEDICT
August 18, 1980. I entered the Smith Field House on Brigham Young University’s campus to get my equipment and locker assignment. I was eighteen and fresh out of high school. Close to one hundred players milled around in street clothes. I was the only guy from Connecticut. I didn’t know anybody and nobody knew me. Depth charts for each position were taped on the wall. I ran my finger down the quarterbacks list:
I scanned all the way to the eighth and final spot before I found the name I was looking for: Steve Young.
I spun around, leaned back against the wall and dropped my head. I had never been eighth in anything. At Greenwich High I was captain of the football, basketball and baseball teams.
What am I doing here?
There are two sides to me. The anxiety-ridden side, which often fills me with fear when I most need to be at my best. This is the part of me that I don’t want anyone to know about. But there’s also the ultra-competitive side. The side that hates losing and is evident every time I play sports. That’s the paradox. I’m lonely and I desperately want to catch the next flight back to Connecticut. But at I also want to prove that I can be as good as Jim McMahon.
DOUG SCOVIL COACHED THE QUARTERBACKS under LaVell Edwards. Before joining BYU’s staff, Scovil had been the quarterback coach for the San Francisco 49ers, where he’d worked with John Brodie, Steve Spurrier and Norm Sneed. Edwards had total trust in him. But Scovil had no faith in me. Not as a quarterback, anyway.
In our first official practice the team split up by position. All the quarterbacks and centers followed Scovil. We had four centers. Two of them – Bart Oates and Trevor Matich – were headed to the NFL. One of the guards was Andy Reid. They were giants compared to the guys I played with in high school.
The quarterbacks were impressive, too. All of them were pro-style passers with big arms. Especially McMahon. He effortlessly hit targets fifty yards away. I was intimidated just standing near him.
“Three-step drops,” Scovil barked.
One by one the quarterbacks got under center, took the snap, dropped back three steps, and let loose. I’d never done a three-step drop. In fact, I had never dropped back to pass. In high school I ran the wishbone. We almost never passed. So all of this was new to me. My nerves were a mess. Worse, I was wearing high-top sneakers instead of cleats.
I placed my hands under Bart Oates and he snapped the ball. The moment I stepped back I slipped and landed flat on my butt. The ball hit the ground. Coach Scovil rolled his eyes. My teammates laughed. But it wasn’t funny. Not to me.
Things got even more embarrassing. I didn’t know how to throw a football. Not properly, anyway. I had a decent arm. But no one had ever taught me the mechanics of throwing a spiral. My legs, not my arm, earned me all-state honors as a high school quarterback.
McMahon, on the other hand, was the best passer in college football. Next to him I felt like I was in way over my head. The centers had the same impression. After the first few days of camp, Oates and Matich were standing around critiquing the quarterbacks. Oates pointed at me. “That guy sucks,” he said.
“He can’t throw,” Matich said.
“He’s a lefty,” Oates said.
Scovil thought I was a joke, too. He was convinced that lefties didn’t make great drop back passers. His proof was the Hall of Fame. Every modern era quarterback inducted to the Hall of Fame had been right- handed. After one week of camp, I was assigned to the practice team, otherwise known as the meat squad. “You’ll never play quarterback at BYU,” Scovil told me.
I called my dad and told him I wanted to come home. “They don’t even know my name here!”
His advice was direct: “Steve, you have to suck it up.”
I WENT TO PRACTICE every day determined to prove Scovil wrong. I’d strap on my helmet and remember his words: You’ll never play quarterback at BYU.
I took my frustrations out on BYU’s defense. I did everything possible to make them look bad. It was my way of letting Scovil and everybody else know that they were making a mistake by relegating me to the practice squad. One way or the other, people were going to know my name.
BYU’s first game was on the road against New Mexico. They ran the wishbone. The practice squad was assigned to simulate New Mexico’s offense. I was the only one who knew how to run the option. I ran wild in scrimmages. No one on our defense could catch me. The defensive coaches screamed at the linebackers. “Contain him! Contain him!”
But I was too fast and no one was used to a running quarterback. Kyle Whittingham was the captain of the defense. He hated me because I made him look bad. He could never get a clean hit on me. Fed up, one day he chased me out of bounds and hit me so hard I went airborne and landed on my head.
He stood over me. “Now just sit there!”
I popped right up and hustled back to the huddle. The next play I ran to the outside and blew past Whittingham.
I scored so many touchdowns so easily in scrimmage it was ridiculous. BYU never solved the wishbone. Despite being heavily favored, we lost the season opener on the road to New Mexico 25-21.
Our home opener was the following week. I didn’t even get invited to dress. I was given a complimentary ticket and invited to watch the game from the stands. Instead, I called home and told my dad I was quitting. My bags were packed.
He cleared his throat. “You can certainly quit. But you can’t come home. I’m not living with a quitter. So you can decide for yourself.”
IT’S MIDSEASON AND I’M the starting quarterback on the JV squad. Scovil and Edwards know I’m athletic. They know I have speed. But I don’t even dress for varsity games. I’m not in their plans.
On November 1st BYU played UTEP at home. My dorm was one block from the stadium. I decided to use my complimentary ticket and went to the game. I blended in with the fans as I approached the gate. Nobody knew that I was on the team. Feeling as alone as I ever had in my life, I wiped a tear from my cheek as I passed through the turnstile.
Somehow, some way, I am going to get on that field, I told myself.
McMahon had a huge night, leading BYU to an 83-7 win.
I left before it was over. I was tired of feeling like I wanted to quit, tired of calling home. The next day I was the first one to show up for practice. And I hung around when the practice squad players were dismissed at the end of practice. Some of the varsity players noticed and snickered. I didn’t care. I was determined to outwork everyone else and I figured I might learn something by watching McMahon.
I followed this routine for the rest of the season – first one to arrive, last one to leave. And I studied everything McMahon did. His footwork. The way he maneuvered in the pocket. His arm motion.
I noticed that he held the ball with his index finger above the strings, pointing toward the tip. On the release his index finger guided the direction of the ball. His accuracy was superb.
Working out by myself, I started imitating him. Instead of spinning the ball out of my hand like a top, I positioned my hand further up on the strings and put my index finger higher up. My accuracy immediately improved. So did the trajectory of my passes. I discovered that sound throwing has a lot more to do with mechanics than arm strength. And it begins with something as simple as the proper grip.
BYU FINISHED THE REGULAR SEASON 11-1. McMahon led the team to eleven straight wins. We were ranked in the Top 20 and headed to a bowl game against SMU. 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 had a feeling he was going to tell me I could travel with the team to the bowl game.
“Steve, we’re going to move you to defense.”
“I can be a quarterback here,” I said.
“You shouldn’t be a quarterback. You’re our fastest guy. You could play anywhere. Besides, we’ve got too many quarterbacks.”
I didn’t bother arguing. His mind was made up.
He went on to explain that after the Christmas break he wanted me to start working out with the defensive backs.
Dejected, I flew home to Greenwich for the holidays, where I’d have some quiet time to think about my future. I decided to step away from football and serve a two-year mission. 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 a defensive back spurred me to go sooner 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 felt 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. Mormon missionaries don’t come home on holidays. Family can’t visit them either. Even telephone calls are restricted to Mother’s Day and Christmas. The thought of this kind of complete separation from family and home overwhelmed me. I didn’t understand the source of my fears. But they were real.
There’s no way, I told myself. I’ll never make it.
I was barely hanging on at BYU. I called home a few times a week. The dresser drawers in my dorm room were empty. I had never bothered to unpack for the entire fall semester.
The more I thought about a mission the sicker I became. I spent hours on my knees. The more I anguished over the decision the more I felt I wasn't going to go through with it. Yet I couldn't rectify staying home. My whole life I had wanted to be a missionary.
I decided to talk to my dad. He didn’t relate to my anxiety. We’re wired differently. But I knew he’d give me sound advice.
Seated opposite each other at the kitchen table I 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.”
Our congregation 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 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 and 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. Then he shared one more thing. He said that he had a strong impression that he shouldn't tell me any of this until I came to him.
“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. It was one of the most spiritual experience of my life up to this point.
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 was the eighth string quarterback. And I had been demoted to defense. My dream of playing quarterback at BYU was all but over. 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.
TOM HOLMOE WAS A JUNIOR safety and a legitimate NFL prospect. He was also a Lutheran from Los Angeles, another supremely talented non-Mormon athlete that LaVell had managed to recruit. When I got back to Provo, he started working out with me every day, teaching me backpedaling drills and coverage techniques.
I liked Holmoe. But I hated defense. I didn’t want to back pedal. I wanted to run the offense. It killed me to be doing pass coverage drills while the quarterbacks were in the same facility working out with the receivers. I should have been with them.
I was barely back in school when I heard on the news that Doug Scovil had been hired as the new head coach at San Diego State.
“No way!” I shouted.
I pumped my fist in the air. The quarterback coach who hated lefties was gone. It was midnight back east. I called my dad anyway.
“I’ve got my shot!” I said.
“What are you talking about?”
“Scovil is gone.”
“What do you mean he’s gone?”
“He took the head job at San Diego State. I’m going to get my shot.”
I couldn’t sleep. The next day I asked Holmoe if he’d throw with me after we finished our defensive drills. I also stepped up my private workouts. I had an oversized duffle bag stuffed with footballs. There was a huge net hanging at the far end of the field house. I squatted behind an imaginary center; took the snap; did the three-step drop; and threw into the net. From the beginning of January to the end of February I threw over 10,000 spirals. My arm hurt. But I wanted to be a quarterback.
SHORTLY AFTER DOUG SCOVIL LEFT, Lavell hired San Diego State’s former offensive coordinator Ted Tollner as our new quarterback coach. LaVell spent the winter recruiting and was seldom around. But Coach Tollner spent a lot of time in the field house. He saw me throwing day after day. Eventually he stopped me.
“What are you doing?” he said.
“Well, they’ve got me at DB. But I want to play quarterback.”
He didn’t say much more. I continued throwing. A few days before the start of spring practice, Tollner had a talk with LaVell. He asked if LaVell was still determined to move me to defense. When LaVell said that he was, Tollner asked if he’d seen me throw lately. LaVell hadn’t. So Tollner convinced him to watch me before finalizing his decision.
I was working out by myself when I noticed LaVell trailing Tollner as they walked toward me. Tollner put up some targets and said, “Let’s show Coach Edwards what you can do.”
On Tollner’s signal I dropped back and hit the target. He kept moving the targets further back. I kept nailing them. My spiral was tight, my arm motion fluid and my footwork clean.
Edwards turned to Tollner. “Well, so much for that idea,” Edwards said. “He’s staying at quarterback.”
Tollner motioned me over with his index finger. LaVell looked at me. “I’ll give you two weeks of spring ball,” Edwards said. “Then we’ll see where you’re at.”
March 15, 1981, the first day of spring ball. McMahon hurt his throwing arm and had to sit out. I ended up taking the majority of the snaps. We played our annual blue-white scrimmage on April 3 at Cougar Stadium. The fans and the media expected to see McMahon. But LaVell rested him and started me in his place. I completed most of my passes. Plus, I ran all over the place.
After the game, one football writer declared me the best athlete on the roster. Ted Tollner told me it was official – I was not switching to defense. LaVell named me Jim McMahon’s back up heading into the 1981 season. In a four-week span I jumped from eighth to second on the depth chart.
My competitive side had bested my anxious side and I was on my way.
Steve Young is an analyst for ESPN Monday Night Countdown and a managing partner and co-founder of Huntsman Gay Global Capital. He is the highest rated quarterback in NFL history and was twice named league MVP. He was named MVP of the 1995 Super Bowl after throwing a record-breaking six touchdown passes. In 2005 he became the first left-handed quarterback inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Jeff Benedict is a special features writer for Sports Illustrated and the author of twelve critically acclaimed books, including the New York Times bestseller The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football. His work has also appeared in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. He has spent the past two years helping Steve Young write his life history.