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San Francisco • To those in Steve Young's inner circle, his victory lap after the January 1995 NFC Championship game represented a triumph of the human spirit-a defining embrace between a demanding fan base and a quarterback who had long suffered in the shadow of Joe Montana.
It was also completely out of character.
"Steve is the last guy in the world to take a victory lap," recalled former 49ers tight end Brent Jones. "It made me stop, look and just laugh at the moment because that was just pure reaction and joy and exuberance-all of those things rolled into one."
Young let loose on Jan. 15, 1995, after getting past Dallas in the title game finally with a 38-28 49ers victory at Candlestick Park.
"This is one of the greatest feelings of all time," he said that day. "I wish anybody who ever played the game could feel it. ... I've been waiting too long."
Although the formality of beating the San Diego Chargers in the Super Bowl was still to come, everyone recognized at the time that getting past Dallas represented the true gateway to the 49ers' fifth Lombardi Trophy.
This was Steve Young's coronation. He had finally done what Joe would have done, getting the 49ers back to the big stage. And in a giddy whirlwind of happiness, relief, exultation and atonement, Young cradled a football in his left arm, raised a triumphant right index finger and ran toward the sideline.
He wound up atop a dugout pumping his fist as a delirious record crowd chanted "Steve! Steve! Steve!" at the quarterback previously known as the Guy Who Couldn't Win The Big One.
"It was spectacular," Jones said. "It was probably a combination of a lot of things, including the realization that in San Francisco, that's how you're judged. He had reached the pinnacle."
To spare Young from taking another uncharacteristic solo jaunt into the spotlight, we asked the Hall of Famer to choose a person close to him to explain exactly what that moment signified.
He gave us two: his longtime friend Greg Madsen, because he was there that day, and his uncle Bob Steed, because he wasn't.
Let's start with Uncle Bob.
Steed, who is 10 years older than his nephew, had been in the stands for every other significant moment of Young's career. He was the one who talked Steve into going to BYU, the one who urged him to stay patient when the school toyed with moving him to safety, the one who would occasionally call into sports-talk radio to stick up for his nephew.
But Uncle Bob skipped that NFC title game. It was the only game he ever missed.
"I just could not stand to watch him lose again if he lost," Steed said. "I couldn't. I just couldn't. I said, 'I just can't do it one more time.' I was so scared they were going to lose."
"How's that for being chicken?"
Steed had reason to fret. Dallas had halted the 49ers in NFC title games in the 1992 and '93 seasons, reinforcing Young's reputation as a regular-season wonder who lacked Montana's postseason magic.
Steed had been in the stands for the January 1993 NFC title game, when Dallas silenced the 49ers 30-20. And he was there for the title game the next season, when Dallas did it again, 38-21.
But, fearing a third strike, Steed steered clear of the game in January 1995. He didn't even turn on the TV until he got wind that the 49ers were up 21-0. Then he sweated it out as the 49ers withstood 380 passing yards from Troy Aikman and 192 receiving yards from Michael Irvin.
"That game was just the defining moment," Steed said. "That was the one Steve needed so badly. That (victory lap) was just years and years of frustration. That is so anti-Steve. But I think he was so relieved that he just kind of lost it for a minute. That game was everything."
'METAPHOR FOR LIFE'
Madsen, who grew up a 49ers fan in Los Altos, remembers the day Young called to tell him he had arranged a trade from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Young told his buddy he was headed to San Francisco to be Montana's backup.
"Yeah, I definitely questioned it," Madsen said. "I'm like, 'Dude, you're crazy. You could be making millions of dollars and be a starting quarterback on almost any other team. What are you thinking?' "
But Madsen bit his tongue. He knew Young not as a teammate (Madsen didn't play football) but from their many late-night discussions as students at BYU. And he knew the value Young placed on personal growth.
"Football for him was a metaphor for life," said Madsen, 51. "He was about bettering himself and putting himself around great people. He made a decision that to be his best self, he should be an understudy under the person he thought was the best ever to play the game."
But Madsen happened to be a Montana fan. So the long and prickly saga that followed came as no surprise. Young started only 10 games his first four seasons in San Francisco. And when he did play, he inevitably suffered in comparison with Joe Cool.
And then, at last, came the playoff breakthrough against Dallas. It wasn't one of Young's best games, far from it. He completed 13 of 29 passes for 155 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He also ran 10 times for 47 yards, including a 3-yard touchdown run in the third quarter to keep the game out of reach.
But his best run at Candlestick Park that day came after the final whistle. That's when Young shook loose from a lifetime worth of tackles and found nothing but daylight.
Madsen found it only a little out of character. He saw it as an example of Young's passion.
"I think it was just a moment of, 'I love you guys,' " he said. "He couldn't contain himself."
©2013 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)
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