I’m not sure if people agree on exactly when the 49ers dynasty began: I think the best candidates are either the 38-35 comeback win over the Saints in December 1980 or the win over Dallas during the 1981 season or, if we go back to first principles, the January 1979 day when Eddie DeBartolo hired Bill Walsh. But I’m pretty sure it’s agreed that the 49ers dynasty ended at the same time Steve Young’s career ended: September 27, 1999, when Young suffered a concussion during a Monday night game vs. the Arizona Cardinals. Since I’ve looked at the start of the dynasty, I thought it appropriate to cover the end as well. So, here’s some of how the San Jose Mercury News described what happened:
Eight days after suffering a dreadful beating in a 28-21 win over New Orleans, a game in which Young absorbed 21 hits, the 49ers quarterback bowed out of a 24-10 win over Arizona because of a concussion late in the first half. It was the first time in two years that Young, who turns 38 in two weeks, missed part of a game because of a head injury, and it raised the question the 49ers fear most: What happens when Young isn’t around?
The 49ers found out in the second half, relying on their defense and a last-minutes 68-yard touchdown run by Lawrence Phillips to hold off sputtering Arizona.
“Yeah, I worry,” Young said. “I’m much more sober about it than ever before. I’m going to deal with it realistically.”
Young, who last suffered a concussion in the 1997 season opener at Tampa Bay, is expected to be examined today before a determination is made about his future. Mariucci said the concussion was not as severe as Young’s previous one, but team doctors cautioned against terming the concussion “mild” until Young is examined again.
“He was woozy initially,” Mariucci said. “It’s clearing up. It was clearing up very quickly. He is hopeful to play in the next game and feels that maybe he could have played in this game, but I was on the conservative side and made the decision to keep him out.”
Young, who paced the sideline in the second half, asked to return to the game, but Mariucci would not let him. Mariucci said he and team doctors agreed Young should sit the second half out.
“I told him I love him too much to put him back in there,” Mariucci said.
Hit several times in the first half, Young finally caved in with 30 seconds left in the first half when he was sandwiched in a high-low blitz by Arizona cornerbacks J.J. McCleskey and Aeneas Williams on a pass attempt.
McCleskey belted Young from behind just before Williams, blitzing from Young’s right, hammered Young in the chest. Young toppled as he did one game earlier when New Orleans safety Chris Hewitt belted him in the helmet, but this time he did not get up.
Concern for Young was immediate as Mariucci ran onto the field to stand over Young. Young did not budge, and TV close-ups showed his eyes closed.
“Usually, if he’s hit and he’s hurt, he’s moving around,” wide receiver Terrell Owens said. “But he was motionless. I went over, and he was out cold.”
Young said he blacked out “for a few seconds” before Mariucci arrived.
“When I went out there, he wanted to get up right away,” Mariucci said. “He was stunned at first, as maybe a boxer would be, but then got back in his corner and shook it off.”
Asked if he saw the future of Young — and the team — flash before his eyes, Mariucci paused.
“No . . . yes . . . of course,” he said. “You just hope he’s OK.”
After several minutes, Young stood up and walked off the field. Once he reached the sideline, he paced up and down once, returned to the bench where doctors and trainers surrounded him, then jogged off the field at halftime. Young’s only appearance after that was on the sideline.
Before leaving, he was 13 of 23 passing for 92 yards and a touchdown with one interception, but the most important number is one that never showed up on the stat sheet — it was head injury No. 1 this year for a quarterback whose family two years ago urged him to retire.
There will be similar calls now that the 49ers have shown little ability to keep opponents off him. Despite rushing for 210 yards — more than the team gained in its first two games combined — the 49ers could not keep the heat off Young, who several times was forced into hurried throws and dumped six of his 13 completions to running backs.
Young was lost on what some teammates described as “a freak play.” Hammered by Williams from the front, Young fell backward and appeared to strike his helmet against the knee of left tackle Dave Fiore before hitting the ground. Fiore didn’t remember Young striking him, and Young, well, it’s unclear how much he remembered.
“That was a tough call,” said strong safety Tim McDonald, who had an interception and a fumble recovery. “I like our chances a lot better with Steve.”
A month later, in late October 1999, the Mercury News took a look at Young’s other known concussions:
Even after 16 years, memories of Steve Young’s first known concussion on a football field are as vivid to one witness as memories of the one suffered by the 49ers quarterback last month.
“He could barely make it off the field,” said Robbie Bosco, who temporarily replaced Young as Brigham Young University’s quarterback in a 1983 game against Utah State. “He needed help to get to the sidelines.”
At the time, no one could know that this concussion would be the start of a string of at least eight during Young’s career, a series of head injuries that threatens to make his Sept. 27 game against the Arizona Cardinals his last.
There are anecdotal reports from players, including some who played in the Sept. 20 49ers-New Orleans Saints game, who suspected from Young’s behavior in the huddle that he had sustained additional concussions. Ralph Zobell, BYU’s sports information director, said he had been requested by Young ‘s agent, Leigh Steinberg, not to release information on his college injury history.
In light of the way Young has played during his career, it’s surprising that he has had only eight concussions.
“He was an option/roll-out quarterback in high school,” said his coach in Greenwich, Conn., Mike Onorato, who is now retired. “He ran the ball on almost every down and got whacked a lot.”
But Young’s only high school injury, Onorato said, was a slight shoulder separation that kept him out of the last two quarters of a game in his junior year.
Young went to Brigham Young not as a quarterback but as a defensive back. It wasn’t until spring practice before his sophomore season that he switched back to offense, said Dick Rosetta, a sports columnist for the Salt Lake City Tribune who was the paper’s BYU beat writer at the time.
“Steve had the toughest mindset I’ve ever been around,” Rosetta said. “I just know the guy is going to go down fighting.”
Young’s reaction to the concussion in his senior season at BYU was typical of what would follow.
“He wanted to get back in the game,” said Marv Roberson, who has retired as the university’s football trainer.
Roberson described Young on the sideline as “just woozy, so I sat him out. But he answered the questions, the usual protocol. He did all the right stuff, and I let him back in.”
With the Cougars trailing 34-31, Young directed a winning drive in which he ran twice, the second time for a 5-yard touchdown that gave BYU a 38-34 victory.
BYU Coach LaVell Edwards said he didn’t remember the severity of Young’s concussion, but he remembers the game and Young’s part in it.
“He couldn’t remember the game when it was over,” Edwards said.
Bosco, now quarterbacks coach under Edwards, said he never expected Young to re-enter the game.
” ‘There’s no way he should be playing,’ ” Bosco said he was thinking. “With him healthy, I don’t think it would have been as close. We used to joke about that game all the time. I asked him, ‘Why did you come back in? It was my chance to play.’ He would have to be hit by a truck dead before he would be taken out of a game.”
He suffered the first of seven reported NFL concussions in a 1986 exhibition game as he played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Young’s injury was described in press reports as “mild,” and he completed only 6 of 18 passes for 54 yards in that game, a loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Young’s three most recent concussions stand out because they are the first to result in his sitting out games. Young didn’t play in the game after his 1987 concussion with the 49ers, but that was because Joe Montana returned as the starter.
Young’s fifth known concussion came during a 1996 game against the Houston Oilers, and he returned to action the next week. Two weeks after the injury, however, he suffered a concussion against Dallas, which kept him out of the next game.
The effects of the concussions since appear to have taken longer to clear, which many physicians view as an ominous sign. Young missed one game after his 1997 concussion and has missed four this season because of the concussion he suffered against Arizona.”
Here’s the Mercury News’s summary of the concussions:
1983: Missed one series of Brigham Young -Utah State game, but returned to lead team to a come-from-behind victory in Young’s senior season.
1986: Suffered “mild” concussion in Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ exhibition loss to St. Louis Cardinals but missed no games.
1987: Started for 49ers against New Orleans in place of injured Joe Montana and was injured during a first-quarter scoring drive. Questioned by a suspicious team doctor after the score, Young was benched for the remainder of the game, and Montana returned.
1992: Replaced by Steve Bono after suffering a concussion early in a game against New York Giants, but he returned to start the next week.
1996: Hurt on the third play of a game against the Houston Oilers and was benched.
1996: Two weeks after the injury in Houston, he suffered a second concussion in a game against the Dallas Cowboys. He sat out the next game.
1997: Suffered a concussion on the fifth play of the season-opening game against the Buccaneers and missed the next game.
1999: Knocked unconscious late in the first half of a Sept. 27 game against the Arizona Cardinals and has not played since.”
Finally here’s a long quote from Young in mid-October of ’99: “This is the third game (I’ve missed). This is not the end of the world. . . . Hopefully, I can get back. I think more than anyone who hasn’t been to med school I think I understand concussions now. I’m the resident expert at it. . . . I know I can’t risk the future. I have a full life ahead of me, and I don’t want to miss any of that. So I know that’s very important, and the risks you face playing football have to be weighed in. But to the extent that I’m capable of handling those risks I really want to play football. I really intend to have a full life, and I really intend not to risk things that should not be risked.”