Zach Wilson became more familiar with Steve Young’s football career last summer, listening to the Hall of Famer’s memoir, “QB: My Life Behind the Spiral,” while traveling to California to train with another former BYU quarterback, John Beck.
Wilson learned everything didn’t come as easy for Young — a three-time Super Bowl winner with the San Francisco 49ers — as Wilson thought, he recently told NBC Sports’ Peter King.
One story from the book in particular resonated with Wilson, who is one of the top quarterback prospects in the 2021 NFL draft class. It involved one of Young’s friends, Jim Herrmann, finding checks from the 49ers — equaling a quarter of a million dollars, Herrmann figured — that Young hadn’t cashed.
The reason Young hadn’t cashed the checks? “I don’t feel like I’m earning the money,” he recalled from that moment during the 1989 season.
“Like Steve not cashing his checks. It’s so cool his mentality of, ‘I haven’t earned it yet.’ He’s always hungry for more and some people just feel like they’ve arrived. He was just not like that at all. That was such a cool lesson for me to learn.” — Zach Wilson
“Like Steve not cashing his checks. It’s so cool his mentality of, ‘I haven’t earned it yet.’ He’s always hungry for more and some people just feel like they’ve arrived,” Wilson told King. “He was just not like that at all. That was such a cool lesson for me to learn. Even if I am fortunate enough to go early in the draft and make it to a good team, I haven’t done anything yet. You have to keep working for it.”
Young’s career a lesson in perseverance
Young, of course, had one of the best careers a quarterback has ever experienced: in addition to the three Super Bowl championships, Young was Super Bowl XXIX MVP, a seven-time Pro Bowler, two-time NFL MVP and had his No. 8 jersey retired by the 49ers. Young was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005.
Yet, before his pro career really began to flourish, Young had his own struggles. He was the first overall pick in the 1984 NFL supplemental draft of USFL and CFL players by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, before playing two years for the Los Angeles Express in the ill-fated USFL. Things weren’t much better in Tampa Bay, and he was traded to San Francisco in 1987, where he had to fight for playing time with another Hall of Famer, Joe Montana.
Eventually, it all paid off in a 15-year NFL career that included passing for 33,124 yards and 232 touchdowns, while also rushing for 4,239 yards and 43 touchdowns.
Wilson sees parallels between himself and Young
“I think that’s what’s interesting about my career as well. I wasn’t a big recruit. I didn’t have a lot of offers. I went to BYU as just a normal three-star recruit. Nothing special. Nobody expected me to play early,” Wilson told King.
Wilson signed with BYU out of Corner Canyon High, then took over for Tanner Mangum as the team’s starting quarterback partway through his freshman season in 2018. His pro potential didn’t really become apparent until the success of BYU’s 11-1 season in 2020, though.
Young, meanwhile, sat behind several quarterbacks on the depth chart when he joined the BYU program, including another future NFL quarterback and All-American, Jim McMahon. Eventually, Young became the starter and was the Heisman Trophy runner-up in 1983.
“I ended up having a chance to play as a freshman, something that I had to work for — nine quarterbacks in the quarterback room at the time. And then I was nobody last year and I was fighting for my starting job back and having shoulder surgery,” Wilson told King. “Things didn’t go as well as we wanted to and the coaches opened up a competition to try and win the starting spot back. I was so determined to try and win that job back and prove that it was mine.”
Wilson proved that and more last season, completing 74% of his passes while throwing for 3,692 yards, 33 touchdowns and three interceptions, as well as running for 254 yards and 10 touchdowns. Now, he’s one of the top QB prospects for the 2021 NFL draft, along with Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State’s Justin Fields, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance and Alabama’s Mac Jones.
Young appreciated hearing Wilson’s response to that story.
“Nobody knows how much grit you have till you have to have it,” Young told King. “So you’ve got to fight for a job. Say you get benched. Look at you; don’t look at anyone else. Most often, victimization takes over, but it never does any good to play the victim. Work on yourself. Work on your game. You better have that level of grit to fight for a job and to fight to win a game, because in this game, you’re going to be tested over and over again.”