Super opportunity awaits Aikman or Young 8s UP NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME


San Francisco -- They would appear to be just as comfortable as businessmen in corporate America as they are as quarterbacks on football fields.

They are poised and mature athletes, articulate and analytical about the game they play with such skill.

In an era of trash-talking players, Troy Aikman of the Dallas Cowboys and Steve Young of the San Francisco 49ers almost seem out of place with their low-key profiles.

Aikman, the 28-year-old right-handed pocket passer who is working on a $50 million contract, and Young, the 33-year-old left-handed scrambler who once signed a $40 million contract, both have a keen sense of where they are and where they are going.

The two highest-paid players in the NFL are more interested in winning than paychecks.

They'll duel today in the NFC title game at Candlestick Park when the 49ers play the Cowboys in what many view as the "real" Super Bowl. The winner is expected to earn a Super Bowl ring Jan. 29 in Miami.

For Aikman, it would be his third championship ring. He would join Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana as the only quarterbacks to win more than two titles.

For Young, who got two rings as a backup to Montana, it would be his first as the starter.

Nobody knows better than Aikman what winning one would mean to Young. When Aikman made his first Super Bowl appearance after the 1992 season, he was savvy enough not to take it for granted.

He talked about how he had to savor the experience because a player never knew if he would make it back. He mentioned how Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins made it to the Super Bowl in 1985 -- after his second year -- and has yet to return.

"No matter what I do the rest of my career, at least I can say I got to the Super Bowl and was able to win it," Aikman said after the Cowboys beat the Buffalo Bills, 52-17, two years ago.

Now Aikman can look at Young's situation and say, "I know the heat's on Steve. I'd like to see Steve win a Super Bowl, but some other time when I'm not in the championship game against him."

Said Young, who has spent much of his career in Montana's shadow: "I feel like there's a big brass ring out there that has been a major force behind me playing."

Off the field, Young always has been a winner. He has donated $1 million to a children's foundation that bears his name.

He also gives 10 percent of his salary to his church and often calls his parents on his cellular phone from the sidelines when a game is wrapped up.

"I know people can't believe he's so lily-white, but he's 100 percent genuine," said 49ers center Bart Oates. "There is no dark person hiding under an enamel coating of cleanliness."

Said guard Jesse Sapolu: "Just goes to prove, the superstar can be the boy next door."

When Young broke a thumb in the preseason, he was rushed to the hospital for X-rays. The hospital wanted to treat him immediately, but Young preferred to wait while a 77-year-old woman named Margaret Helsaple, who had a hip problem, was treated.

"Such a nice boy . . . more kids should be like him," she said later.

Now Young has to prove that nice guys don't always finish last -- or even second. He has won four consecutive passing titles and two MVP trophies, but he is still looking for a title to call his own.

Young had to overcome a few bumps to get this far this season. In Week 2, when the 49ers lost to Montana's Kansas City Chiefs, Young had the grace to say, "Maybe the student still had something to learn from the master."

But the master is at home, and Young is going for the Super Bowl. Slowly, the 49ers fans are beginning to accept the fact that Young is better at this stage of his career than Montana, who is five years older.

Three weeks after the Chiefs defeat, coach George Seifert yanked Young during the second half of a 40-8 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles to protect him from taking more of a beating behind an injury-riddled line.

Young stalked the sidelines in a rage after being lifted. Seifert later said he mishandled the situation.

The next week, trailing the Detroit Lions 14-0, Young had to almost crawl off the field after taking one shot. He rallied the team to a 27-21 victory, and the 49ers haven't looked back.

"Some things happened," Young said. "The loss against Philadelphia, then some tough wins on the road, and suddenly we became an emotionally bonded team. The chemistry is great. There's a sense that the sense of togetherness is there."

And Young has become the leader.

The comeback has become his trademark. When most of his friends told him he should leave the 49ers because he would never eclipse the Montana legend, he stayed.

Young had the maturity to know that he was with a good team and his turn would come. He remembered the bad days, when he spent two years with the Los Angeles Express of the U.S. Football League and two more with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He didn't want to risk getting mired in another bad situation.

He always had dreamed of playing in the NFL, but couldn't pass up the $40 million deal the Express offered when he left Brigham Young in 1984. He wound up making less than a fourth of that sum in a buyout.

Young never been had obsessed with money and suddenly he was in a situation where the money was the only focus.

"I felt in some way like my life was going down the tubes," he said. "You're in a crisis and the whole world is watching."

When the Express collapsed, he found himself in another nightmare in Tampa Bay in 1985. In 1987, the Bucs drafted Vinny Testaverde and traded Young to the 49ers.

Then came the years of sitting behind Montana, and the years of hearing he wasn't as good as Montana, even when he played well. He got the blame when San Francisco's defense couldn't stop the Cowboys in the past two NFC title games.

But the pressure no longer seems to bother him. "It's tough. It's hard. But you get used to it," he said.

He compares it to driving 110 mph in the desert.

"Then you go 55 and it seems like you're crawling," Young said. "You get used to the speed in the same way you get used to the criticism and the scrutiny. You almost become comfortable with it."

Aikman's path to the top has been easier. He won a Super Bowl in his fourth season and one in his fifth.

But this has been a frustrating season. He has had a concussion and thumb and knee injuries, and has had to cope with the burden of trying to win a third straight Super Bowl.

"I don't whine about the situation," Aikman said. "We've won the last two Super Bowls. At the same time, when you report to training camp and all you discuss is San Francisco and the championship game and the Super Bowl, having to answer those questions for four months before you even get into a position to play that game is very redundant, and I think it was very taxing on everybody. I know it was for me.

"If we had gone 16-0 and lost [to the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs], nobody would have cared we were 16-0 in the regular season. It doesn't matter. We knew when we started the season it didn't matter what we did during the regular season. It all comes down to what we do in the playoffs. We've put ourselves in a position now to do the things we wanted to do."

Before the impressive 35-9 rout of Green Bay, Aikman struggled and was getting flak for completing one touchdown pass in five games.

"I found it all to be really absurd, to the point of being comical," he said. "I don't feel a need to come out and defend my performance over the last two or three weeks, but I didn't think it was that bad."

Nobody has to defend his performance in the playoffs. He's 7-0 in postseason starts.

"The sense of urgency in the playoffs gets me going," Aikman said. "I like that. I like the fact that the winner takes all and the losers go home."

The odds are against Aikman today. Emmitt Smith is ailing, and if it rains, Aikman will have to throw a wet football, which isn't one of his strengths.

"Based on my experience in rainy weather and what I've seen other quarterbacks do, I'm not very good at it," he said.

On the other hand, he's good at winning big games.

"I know I can do whatever it takes for this football team to win another Super Bowl," Aikman said. "And there's not a lot of

quarterbacks out there that can say that right now."

=1 Young is still waiting to become one of them.

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