Steve Young: “Life is more athletic than just wearing one pair of shoes.”
Last week, we were honored to have Steve Young, three-time Super Bowl- winning quarterback and Pro Football Hall of Famer, speak to a packed room of friends from our portfolio and network. Steve is an incredibly accomplished athlete and now a successful businessman as a Managing Director at HGGC, a private equity firm.
Steve’s humor and humility moved everyone. The transcript below is lightly edited for clarity but is Steve in his own words as he shared his stories on — facing anxiety, taking accountability for mistakes, his dad’s influence on his football and post football career, and managing the transition in his life now as a dad, businessman and husband. There are inspiring insights for anyone wanting to learn from a a champion who didn’t always know how great he could be, but let the greats around him be his teachers.
You can also watch the full interview here.
On the creation of his NYT best seller book, QB: My Life Behind the Spiral:
In 2010, my kids came home telling these ridiculous stories about me they heard from school. I realized my kids didn’t know my story, and they were hearing it from the goofballs at school. I took the next couple of years to put together a narrative of my football story for my kids. It sat on the shelf for a few years and finally last year I felt like it would be useful in some ways to publish it.
I have received a lot of positive responses from a lot of people including family and their kids. I thought “That’s great!” because the only reason why I put it together was for my kids. But none of my kids have read it!
It can never wait. Recognizing and facing his anxiety:
I grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. When I grew up, I recognized when I had the opportunity to go to someone’s house for a sleepover or to Scout camp or anything away from home, I just naturally never did it. I didn’t think too much about it. I just didn’t do it and would make up a story or something tough to say like ‘Can’t. I have to go to practice.’ I didn’t internalize it until I had to pack up and go to college (BYU). Although I had roots and family there in Utah, the idea of going across the country just overwhelmed me so I barely made it to college. When I was writing my story, I realized how much my life had been influenced by this genetic thing that is all over my mom’s family. Who knew anxiety was a real thing? I didn’t know until I was in my mid 30s.
I think a lot of people who suffer from all kinds of genetic anxiety will resonate with this story. Anxiety was always there. Every decision I ever made, it (anxiety) was there. But I made sure it never won. It was always something else that won.
There were a lot of tough situations where people would not feel what I was feeling and I was jealous of the people who could handle really tough situations.
My mantra through the book and for my kids was we all have stuff and a lot of mitigating circumstances in our life — genetic, self imposed, all kinds. It can never wait. Let people know you have stuff going on. Let people know that it’s not something you’re just making it up. Adults, kids, sports writers, friends — thank you for listening to me.
Integrate with team members so you have the desire to fight for each other.
In 1981, Eddie DeBartalo and Bill Walsh started something in San Francisco that revolutionized football — on the field, off the field, in theory and in practice. It changed the game. The teams that are winning today are rooted in what those guys started in 1981.
Bill Walsh would call teams together for the first practice in summer. He would say “The first thing we are going to do — before we run a play, before we have practice — is integrate you as a team.” Any culture issues that separates groups — socioeconomic background, geography, alma maters, race, religion, language, position — all the things that naturally segment you from the lunchroom, planes, buses, locker room, and on the field — everybody is going to know each other.
His goal was to have everyone on the team cross fertilize to the point where we know something an inch or two deep about each other so when we are in tough circumstances, “You get into the huddle and look at each other and your integration at that moment will connect you instead of acting like a bunch of independent contractors. You will actually know each other and will fight for each other.”
And he forced it. Naturally, all the quarterbacks would try to sit together — since we all thought we were the smartest guys on the team — and he would walk over to our table and move us to another one. We hated it, but he was absolutely right to do it.
I always say football is very unnatural sport. Nobody loves to just ram into people. But at that moment of ramming, there is a desire to have with the people you play with be with you. That is why football is unique. At the base level, as you play it, there is something that happens that draws the sense of cohesion of so many people. If teams were 3v3, the dynamics would be completely different. 11v11 really creates the greatest human behavioral laboratory because the truth happens right in front of you.
Don’t mitigate. Take accountability.
How many times have I thrown an interception? There is a moment when the team looks back at me because I just lost the game. When I first started, I would tell them all the mitigating circumstances — you cut left late, my blockers weren’t doing their job — but it inspired no one. At the key moment, the moment of accountability, I actually infused mitigation by focusing on all the mitigating factors. Don’t ever do that (even in your marriage by the way). There are key moments in your relationships where the person needs to take accountability. If you go with the mitigation route, it is disastrous. If you go with the accountability route, you can at least survive.
In that moment of truth, when the crowd is booing you, when the lights are on and your teammates are asking you why, you actually say “I screwed it up. My fault. That ball was in my hands. It’s now in their hands. But I’ll tell you what let’s get water and let’s turn around and win the game.” And the amazing thing was, the moment I took accountability, then it let other guys do the same “I cut late” or “I missed the block.”
The best thing about playing was it helped me get this idea that there are key moments in any relationship where accountability needs to be there. One of the best things I learned in my football career was to watch for those moments (not in locker room or tomorrow in film), but the moment right there in front of everybody to take accountability.
Lessons learned fighting to replace “The King” aka Joe Montana:
A lot of my experience and making a career for myself was not just making a career to play, but replacing the king.
There was a lot of learning from taking that endeavor on, but the best moment of all those years, happened when I was trying to get a moment of peace after a game. I had flown back to Utah and was sitting on the plane next to Stephen Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I’d never met him before. He asked me how I was doing and I just started to spill— “I’m not starting, Joe Montana is on the team, any mistake I make is my fault.”
He explained to me how seven people is the maximum number of people that can work together efficiently before it starts to devolve. Then he said “But you are missing the magic of football. The magic is doing something successful with 20 people. I look for platforms that maximize performance around the world.
Your owner, Eddie, he’s one of the best, right? And your coach, Bill, he’s one of the best too? And Joe — are you learning a lot watching him?” Then he said, “I honestly don’t know a better platform than the one you are in right now but it only works if you’re willing to find out how good you are. You might find out that you’re not as good as you thought. Are you ready to take on the quest?” Suddenly I recognized how lucky I was instead of how miserable I was. It changed everything.
The next season, in 1992, I was NFL MVP. Something that was miserable was actually an opportunity that spun into something well beyond anything I could have ever imagined through that chance encounter.
Thanksgiving dinner with Joe Montana:
I was single throughout my football career so Joe and Jennifer Montana once asked me to come over for Thanksgiving dinner. We were having dinner when one of his kids, who was very young (two or three years old), turns to Joe and says, “Hey Dad, is this the guy we hate?” And Joe doesn’t miss a beat and says, “No, that is somebody else.”
How do you think things would have turned out if there was no Joe Montana?
I remember being so miserable at times and so many people around me told me to get out. In many ways, I learned from the rigor around that dynamic and saying I’ll compete, and I won’t run. In 1991, I finally had the option to leave and everybody was telling me to run. I was complaining so much they knew I felt even stronger about it, but every chance I had there was a blank feeling and I would stay. I started to appreciate what I was becoming and learning about myself. It’s been a quest now and even more now with my kids. I am always looking, How can I be better?
Without Joe, I would have been either good or bad. I’m either starting or not. All pro or not. All those definitions that you look for that define who you are. But being with Joe started me on a way to deal with life that I would never had another chance to understand without anything rigorous like that. I’m better for it.
Life is more athletic than just wearing one pair of shoes.
My favorite player I ever played was Reggie White. He played so ferociously. What I loved about playing against him was the millisecond you went down, he became your friend and would ask, “How’s your family?” In a way that could feel weird and awkward.
But we all have many shoes to wear. For me, I’m going to finish here, race home, and then I’m dad to help with homework, or I’m cook because we need dinner. I’m going to transition into different shoes.
I always think of Reggie as somebody who in a millisecond could go from a ferocious, adrenaline filled moment and spin and be your friend the next. He could wear different shoes even in the middle of a game. You learn that some people are really good at wearing different shoes and transitioning. I find myself going through the rigor of wearing different shoes 3–4 times a day and recognizing it and telling myself “I’m wearing different shoes” and need to be focused on what’s right in front of me but be able to shift quickly to another pair of shoes in a moment. Life is more athletic than just wearing one pair of shoes.
We start as basecamp and attack Everest.
You remember the losses and the screw ups more than the wins. Bill Walsh taught me how to pick ourselves up — you attack Everest from basecamp. You live at basecamp. You don’t start at the bottom. We start three quarters of the way up, and we don’t go down. We resupply from basecamp and then we reattack Everest from basecamp.
The plan and the dream.
My dad always told me you have to have a plan and a dream. The dream? Be the best football player. The plan? Finish college and go to law school. Then I started to play professional football getting paid a lot of money and I told my dad, “The dream and the plan are the same!” My dad didn’t miss a beat and said “No, because the average NFL career is three years. What are you going to do after?” That is why I went to law school while I was playing. I did a semester a year of law school while playing football. I remember one day going directly from a Super Bowl parade to being in class getting drilled by my professor the next day because I’d missed the first few weeks.
The plan stayed intact so when I was finishing my career and our team moved down to Santa Clara, a few of us asked what can we do to get into the venture deals? We started to trade what we had — access to the locker room — and started a business while I was still playing.
I would never have transitioned this well without my dad drilling me on having a plan and a dream. He always said, “The dream is never the plan — unless you play golf or tennis.”
Thank you Steve for sharing your stories and being an inspiration both on and off the field.
You can watch the full interview here: