Tollner made right move on wrong-handed Young

January 26, 1995|By JOHN STEADMAN

MIAMI -- There was once an overwhelming bias in football against left-handed quarterbacks. Fortunately, as with other prejudices, it vanished under scrutiny and the test of time. It was an allegation -- then and now -- devoid of credibility.

Enter Steve Young, who throws with the "wrong arm" but is on his way to the Hall of Fame. He'll make what is anticipated to be an imposing presence in the Super Bowl on Sunday when he leads the talent-laden San Francisco 49ers against the San Diego Chargers.

Young is a professional quarterback because of a sheer quirk of circumstance. He comes from Greenwich, Conn., which doesn't produce too many alumni for Brigham Young University and went there because of a personal affiliation.

He just happens to be the great-great-great grandson of Brigham Young himself. Mormon family ties led Young to the Young school in Provo, Utah, which put him in the right place to be recognized -- but not by name -- on a never-to-be-forgotten winter afternoon in the university field house.

Then came another important connection, either by fate or coincidence, but it happened. A newly hired assistant coach, Ted Tollner, was jogging around the perimeter of the enclosure when he picked Young out of a crowd of football players engrossed in throwing passes to one another.

This was February 1981 and Tollner, the incoming offensive coordinator, had no realization of the role he was to have in preparing the future of this well-coordinated youngster who caught his attention.

"I didn't know who he was," explains Tollner, now coach at San Diego State University and, in a way, the man who provided an enormous gift to the 49ers.

Super Bowl teams aren't generally directed by quarterbacks discovered via accident. Young, then a sophomore, was designated to be a defensive safety but Tollner liked the way he threw and wanted to utilize him as a backup to Jim McMahon, the All-American.

Young wanted to play quarterback but Tollner had to convince the head coach, LaVell Edwards, that the kid he saw throwing passes in sweat clothes was better suited to helping BYU offensively than defensively.

"Steve was athletic," recalls Tollner, "and his arm was alive. His release, even then, was quick and compact. I knew the things he could do naturally were hard to teach.

"That's how you judge a quarterback. When it's time to get the ball away, can he make a decision? Steve could. There's a certain joy for him now because he has persevered."

Young still has the kind of running speed Edwards knew he had when the idea was to play him at safety. He's nifty on his feet, is adept at avoiding the rush and getting the ball away with a quick snap.

As the 49ers' maestro, he operates an offense that finds the receivers frequently establishing a triangular pattern, involving a wide-out, either Jerry Rice or John Taylor going deep, a possible hook to tight end Brent Jones or a swing toss to running back Ricky Watters.

Young has a full grasp of the field, prefers to work from a conventional T-formation and loathes the shotgun.

"The key," adds Steve, "is as the ball is snapped you don't change your eye level. You don't lose contact by looking down and then have to look up again. I think a good study for anyone watching a quarterback is to try to find where the eyes are trained because a really good quarterback never loses contact with what's going on downfield."

In his 10th pro season, Young put on a spectacular show. How about 35 touchdown passes and only 10 interceptions? It can't get much better than that. For the fourth time, he was the NFL's highest rated passer and was justifiably named its Most Valuable Player.

When Joe Montana moved on to the Kansas City Chiefs, the former backup couldn't be denied. He quickly joins Montana and John Unitas as the only quarterbacks in NFL annals to top the circuit in completion percentages on two occasions.

When it comes to having a favorite passing target, Young and Rice have had 60 career touchdowns, which is third behind the Dan Marino-to-Mark Clayton combination of 79 scoring plays and the Unitas-to-Raymond Berry total of 63 TDs.

It would be entirely premature to hail him as the equal to Unitas, Montana, Otto Graham or Sammy Baugh but he's coming on fast and, at age 33 has more years to come.

Some coaches used to contend they didn't want a left-handed quarterback because the ball got to the receivers with a rotation opposite to that from a right-hander and was difficult to catch.

Imagine putting out such a torrent of unadulterated nonsense? Frankie Albert, a classy 49er of the past; Ken "Snake" Stabler, Boomer Esiason, and now Young, bidding to be the best of them all, have given left-handers of the world a too-long-denied quarterback identity.

Steve Young has poise, quick reflexes and a passing touch that make him the classic quarterback model -- regardless of which arm he uses.

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