Book Review | QB: My Life Behind the Spiral by Steve Young

I can’t honestly say that I like sports as much as the next guy. This isn’t because I don’t like sports, but I find that most guys like them more than I do.

I can say that I like reading biographies and autobiographies more than the next guy. On a regular basis, I try to work a good, sprawling biography into my mix of reading. When I heard that former BYU and 49ers quarterback, Steve Young, was releasing an autobiography, I put QB: My Life Behind the Spiral on my list of books to read. When I heard that he would be signing copies of the book at an LDS bookstore near the Washington D.C. temple, I sent my wife to pick up copies for various people to give as a Christmas gift. My wife was thoughtful enough to pick up a copy for me.

As I started reading the book, it dawned on me that I had never read a biography of a famous athlete before. For whatever reason, it was never a genre that appealed to me. Steve Young, however, is different.

Steve Young was a friend of my family, and in the book he makes several references to his friendship with my grandma, who took him in when he first moved to Provo to attend BYU. I can’t say that I spent much time with him, but I do remember going to the musical Les Miserables back when I was in elementary school. It was probably its first time touring through Salt Lake City. Steve Young attended it with us as my grandma’s guest. After the play, we lingered in the theater as my grandma, who was one of the many people trying to help the popular quarterback find a wife, insisted that he go ask the actress that played Eponine on a date. And he did. That story didn’t make it into the book, but the story confirmed to me that Steve Young was a stud, and this was while he was still lurking around in Joe Montana’s shadow.

Although I have other Steve Young memories, the best ones were watching him play football during the golden age of the San Francisco 49ers. The book is first and foremost a history of his time spent playing football, and he recounts it all in vivid detail.

As I read through his descriptions of each game, I can remember watching almost all of them. His performance on the field speaks for itself, but to hear what was going on in his head and in the locker rooms and in between each of these games brings an added dimension that in retrospect paints a picture of a character that is as well-rounded and dynamic as any of the best characters I have read in fiction.

And this, folks, is when you know you are in for a treat when reading an autobiography. It was a quick read, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

This book will probably appeal most to those who were fans of the 49ers at the time. On a different level, this book appeals to and will resonate with members of the LDS faith. Steve Young was the LDS celebrity that filled the chronological space between the Osmonds and Mitt Romney as one of the highest profile Mormons in the country. The book documents well the dynamics that result from an individual trying to navigate two very disparate cultural worlds as Steve Young reconciled his life as a pro football player with the rigorous moral standards of the LDS church. Non-Mormons will still be intrigued and fascinated because the football theatrics depicted in the biography are that good. I also suspect this book will become a staple in the libraries of many Mormons as it sits on their shelf next to their books by Gordon B. Hinckley and Gerald Lund’s The Work and the Glory series.

I gave this book five stars on Goodreads because it does several things that I think a good book should do. It is well-written. It takes a topic that you probably already have an acquaintance with unless you were living under a rock in the early 1990s (Steve Young’s football career) and adds a lot of context that will make you appreciate his accomplishments more. This appreciation will then lead you to examine your own life and look for ways that you can apply some of the same things that Steve Young learned to become a better person. This is a feel-good book about a morally-centered person that accomplished great things while playing games and even greater things outside of the relatively frivolous world of sports. These are the kinds of stories our culture could always use more of.

Although this wasn’t a history book, all biographies are essentially a study of history through the microcosm of one person’s life. While the book doesn’t speak directly to the present day cultural and historical zeitgeist, it does give an intriguing frame of reference for measuring our current moment against. At the conclusion of a football season where the season’s biggest story wasn’t related to anyone’s performance on the field, but instead people were focused on the pre-game antics of a 49ers quarterback, it is interesting to be reminded of a time when a 49ers quarterback scandalized the nation by declaring on national television that well into his thirties he was living the law of chastity.

As history rears its head and overshadows our games and their promise of escapism with the specters of racial strife, cultural division, and the elusiveness of justice, it is hard to know what to make of a relationship like the one between Steve Young and Jerry Rice. One of them was black and one of them was white. Coincidentally, the same year that Steve Young first started as a 49er, Michael Jackson’s hit song “Black or White” was released. The simplistic and obvious point of the song is that skin color doesn’t matter and in the case of Steve Young and Jerry Rice it didn’t. You just had two players with their own strengths, who when added together became better than the sum of their parts. If we want to give our culture a fighting chance to overcome its problems on the social justice front it couldn’t possibly hurt to have fewer protests and more role models like Steve Young and Jerry Rice.

One of the final strengths of the book is that it is well-structured and tightly-focused. That said, Steve Young occasionally mentions his charitable efforts and how great his life now is during his post-football career. This is a man who made it to the top of the world of professional athletics and he has the fame, the celebrity, the fortune, and, miraculously, the health to show for it. Not all athletes that rise to his level leverage their success into things other than their own self-aggrandizement. While this wasn’t the book to tell this story, I believe the story of Steve Young’s post-football career should merit its own book when the time comes.


 

QB: My Life Behind the Spiral Book Cover QB: My Life Behind the Spiral
Steve Young with Jeff Benedict
Biography
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
October 11, 2016
hardcover
400

Steve Young produced some of the most memorable moments in NFL history.  “The Run” – his electrifying 49-yard game-winning touchdown against Minnesota.   “The Catch II” – his last-second touchdown strike to Terrell Owens to beat Green Bay in the playoffs.  Then there was his record-setting, six touchdown passes in Super Bowl XXIX.
But Young’s most impressive victories were personal ones that were won off the field when no one was watching.  QB is a remarkably revealing memoir of an athletically gifted Mormon boy with a 4.0 GPA, a photographic memory, and a severe case of childhood separation anxiety.  At the same time, Young was absolutely fearless – and unstoppable -- whenever he had a ball in his hands.
As an eighth string quarterback at BYU, Young persevered through homesickness and a coach who said he’d never make it as a quarterback because he was a lefty who couldn’t throw.  Determined to prove his coach wrong, Young became an All-American, finished second in the Heisman voting, and was the top draft choice coming out of college.  After signing the largest contract in sports history, he was so overwhelmed by impossible expectations that he nearly walked away from football to become a lawyer.  Instead, he ended up in San Francisco, pitted against Joe Montana in what became the greatest quarterback controversy in league history.
Young’s quest – both in football and in life – was always more about grit than anything.  His “get it done” mentality brought MVP awards and Super Bowl championships to San Francisco.  As an author, he gives readers the sense of being inside his helmet while he runs through opponents both on and off the field.