BYU's odd couple, McMahon and Young, meet on field of play


SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- An unlikely friendship between two quarterbacks who have almost nothing else in common will be renewed today at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia when the Eagles do battle with the San Francisco 49ers.

Assuming that his health is equal to the occasion, the game will allow Eagles quarterback Jim McMahon, 32, a chance to see -- and then maybe help beat -- Steve Young, 30, his one-time protege at Brigham Young University.

Given their diverse attitudes toward BYU, beer, religion, headbands, money, the media, sunglasses and a host of lesser stuff, it may seem odd that Young, the straight-arrow great-great-great-grandson of Brigham Young, is looking forward to his visit with McMahon, the NFL's answer to Bart Simpson.

But there was a time in McMahon's collegiate, possibly pre-Moosehead years, when the Eagles quarterback had a significant impact on Young, as the 49ers quarterback readily admits.

"He was a few years older than I was when we were at BYU," Young said Monday, after practice at the 49ers' training complex. "But a lot of my technique -- a lot of just learning how to drop back and throw the football in those days -- was from him."

When someone pointed out that he probably shared little else with McMahon, Young said: "No. But he's not as crazy as they think. I very much consider him a friend."

Young might have added that he can use all the friends he can get this season as he takes on the pressures and singular criticisms known only to those who succeed legends.

Fate dictated that for Young a month ago, when medical examinations showed that Joe Montana, whom he had understudied since 1987, had a tendon problem in his right elbow that could be corrected only by surgery -- and at the cost of his 1991 season.

Enter Young, the new starter, to impossibly high expectations and harsh criticism from fans, the media and even his own teammates. Everyone simply wanted him to be Montana and hardly forgave him that he wasn't.

Over their cracked crab and Chablis, San Francisco tailgaters whined that Young couldn't see the whole field; that he threw too hard, too high and too far; that, being a left-hander, he favored the left side of the field, and that he made too many mistakes -- something Montana never did.

Jerry Rice, the 49ers' star wide receiver, complained last month that Young hadn't thrown enough passes his way in the team's season-opening 16-14 loss to the New York Giants and has since quit talking to reporters.

Montana -- the greatest quarterback statistically in the history of the NFL as well as the author of four Super Bowl championships -- hardly made it easier when he told The Washington Post: "Steve is on a big push for himself. And any time you have a competition, there is always that certain amount of animosity toward each other. I can say we have only a working relationship. That's all it is. After that, he's on my team, but as far as I'm concerned, he's part of the opposition. He wants what I have."

Young obviously can't deny that accusation, but he can point out plenty of candidates to share the demerits for the 49ers' 3-4 start.

After he threw two interceptions in a 12-6, touchdown-less loss to the Los Angeles Raiders on Sept. 29, Young was asked about Montana's lingering aura and said: "Obviously, it's there. But I'm used to it. It wasn't that much of a distraction. I was ready for anything. For me, I focus on each game, try to win ballgames and get a streak going. That's what we need to do -- get a streak going. A season is made up of one-game increments. You get a winning streak going one game at a time."

The Eagles and time will tell if Young got the 49ers "streaking" Sunday, when he completed his first 16 passes and wound up 18-for-20 for 237 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-3 bashing of Detroit.

"If we had played this way all season," said Bobb McKittrick, the 49ers' offensive line coach, "we'd be 7-0."

And Young -- the former "$7 Million Dollar Man" of the USFL's Los Angeles Express, the talent who never quite made good on the chance he had with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1985 and '86 -- would be closer to his goal of being a consistent starting quarterback in the NFL.

"I'm shooting to be a good, quality player in this league," Young said. "I feel I've developed a reputation for being able to play. Now I just want to be consistent at it. That's all. Just be a good player."

Indeed, that Young has few other desires is evident in his lifestyle, which could pass for that of Ralph Nader.

Despite the millions he has made from football, Young drives a 5-year-old Jeep, lives in a room he rents from 49ers guard Harris Barton in Palo Alto, Calif., and, apparently, stocks his wardrobe with stuff from an unnamed, going-out-of-business denim mill.

In the off-season, Young attends BYU's law school, hoping to harness his delight in talking with people -- reporters even -- as a criminal prosecutor.

That is just one more difference between Young and McMahon, a Catholic who never enjoyed high esteem in the Mormon community -- or just reward for his football achievements as a Cougar. But, then, McMahon rarely hid his contempt for a lot of things at BYU or in most of the state of Utah.

McMahon set 71 NCAA passing and total-offense records at BYU, leading the Cougars to a 23-3 record for the 1980 and '81 seasons, along with two Western Athletic Conference titles and two Holiday Bowl victories.

But when a Utah state legislator tried to honor McMahon by official proclamation for the team's success in 1981, the idea was

shot down by other members of the legislature.

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