One of the most emotional games in 49ers' history is just four days away. It's Steve Young vs. Joe Montana, a meeting both quarterbacks have said will be "fun," but, in fact, is a confrontation that burns deeper than either of them ever will admit.
At least, it's certain they won't admit it this week.Montana and Young, teammates with the 49ers from 1987 through 1992, have vowed to keep low profiles before Sunday's game at Arrowhead Stadium.
They both insist it's just another game.
And, if you believe that . . .
Rarely has there been a game with such an undercurrent, and it has everything to do with their history. It's all quite simple, really. Montana and Young do not like each other.
In their six years together with the 49ers, Montana seemed to view Young as a threat. One theory is that, whenever Montana looked at Young, he saw Bill Walsh, who he thought tried to phase him out in 1988. Montana's insecurity may be part of the personality that has made him so competitive and, perhaps, the best quarterback ever, but Young never understood why Montana was so miserable to him. Montana and Walsh long since have patched things up, but not Montana and Young.
For his part, Young tried to treat Montana with deference, but felt that Montana snubbed him. Young once described their relationship as like "brothers," in the sense that Young was the younger brother unable ever to please the older one. Then, when Montana was hurt and Young, thrust into the lineup, looked to him for assistance in 1991-92, Montana didn't offer any. Young was known to believe that Montana actually tried to make life more difficult for him during this time.
For anyone wondering, distance has not improved the relationship. On a conference call Monday with writers from around the country, Montana said he and Young had not spoken to each other since Montana was traded to the Chiefs 17 months ago.
Young has not discussed their relationship recently. He was not available to the media yesterday and is scheduled for his own national conference call today. No revelations are expected.
"Their relationship was doomed from the beginning," said Carmen Policy, the 49ers' president. "Steve Young hadn't come in as a draft choice to be an understudy. He came to the 49ers in a significant trade with the obvious intent of him becoming the starting quarterback.
"It wasn't a case where Steve was going to learn from the master. Joe saw him as a competitor for the starting position."
The problems were all quite subtle. There apparently was no single incident between Montana and Young that divided them.
Montana used to complain to coaches that Young got too much practice time and that Young got too much attention. He once told writers that no one knew who Dan Marino's backup was in Miami, the implication being that they were paying too much heed to the 49ers' backup.
Also, Montana used to believe that Young lobbied for more playing time. Montana thought Mike Holmgren, the former offensive coordinator, played favorites with Young, whom Holmgren coached at BYU. Young thought Holmgren tried to bend over backwards to avoid that.
In a 1991 interview, Montana said there was a "certain amount of animosity" in his relationship with Young, adding, "As far as I'm concerned, he's part of the opposition."
"Steve is on a big push for himself," Montana said at the time, about a month before he underwent major surgery on his injured elbow, which essentially ended his career with the 49ers. "I can say we have only a working relationship. That's all it is."
Young never returned the volley, either on or off the record. Even today, his agent, Leigh Steinberg, explains it would be a no-win proposition. "You don't fight with God," Steinberg said.
The Montana-Young debate at one time threatened to tear the 49ers' organization apart, and it's still a sensitive topic with some players and among those who work in the team's headquarters building. When a memo went out recently notifying team employees that no tickets would be available to them for Sunday's game, some took it as a hint they wouldn't be welcome out of fear they'd be cheering for Montana instead of for the 49ers.
In fact, after the 1991 season, Seifert admitted the team had become "polarized and fragmented" over the quarterback controversy, saying, "It was everywhere - within the building, within the team, within the community."
So now, they'll finally be on the field. Together. Against each other: Montana, with his four Super Bowl rings, and Young, with his three straight NFL passer rating titles. And, based on the opening weekend games, not much has changed: Montana, the top-rated passer of all time, had a 122.7 rating for his first game, and Young, the second-rated passer of all time, had a 118.2 rating.
But remember. It's just another game.