Once upon a time--which is to say early September--some pro football pundits were predicting a Super Bowl rematch between the San Francisco 49ers and the, uh, Denver Broncos. Fans at Mile High Stadium, this particular piece of wisdom held, would need pocket calculators to keep track of the points on the board all year long, but their club's expensively beefed-up offense would probably prevail often enough--35-31, or 43-38, or 109-107.

Those were sunnier days, of course. Before Biff's Whiff in the San Diego game. Before getting beat by the lowly Jets. Before Wade Phillips's porous defense was blown away again by the hated Los Angeles Raiders and failed to hold the lead against...who was that, anyway--San Jose State? That was before the lunatics in the south stands started pelting Phillips with garbage and screaming for his head on a stick.

That was also when Wade Phillips still had a job. The clueless, currently coachless Broncos will watch the rest of the NFL playoffs perched on their living-room couches--where they belong.

But the other half of the pundits' prediction is about to come true. The 49ers have already won four Super Bowls under the leadership of a titan--Joe Montana--and on January 29, they're the chalk to win their fifth behind his pissed-off former understudy.

Until this year Steve Young was the Rodney Dangerfield of NFL quarterbacks--at least in the joints of the Mission District and the towers of Russian Hill. The former Brigham Young star landed in San Francisco seven years ago, and for four of them he stood with a clipboard in his hands and waited, reduced to a living, breathing insurance policy. To his credit, the polite, mannerly Mormon kid never whined. Instead, Young gritted his teeth and explained to reporters what a privilege it was to learn from a master.

Meanwhile, he was dying inside. "It was very difficult," he said last week. "A lot of times I thought things were going to pass me right by. It was very troublesome. That was the anxiety I felt as I pined away on the sidelines."

San Francisco refused to trade Young. And like Lazarus, Montana kept rising. He came back from a back injury that would have put most players in a wheelchair for the rest of their days. He endured scrapes and dings that intimated he was merely mortal. He wasn't. He led the Niners to Super Bowl wins in 1989 and 1990.

When the team finally shipped arm-sore Montana off to Kansas City in 1991, Steve Young took the field to the sound of one hand clapping in Candlestick Park. All he did was win three consecutive league passing titles and an MVP award, and twice he led the Niners to the NFC championship game against Dallas--only to watch the suspect San Francisco defense break down before the assaults of Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith.

That wouldn't do. Second-rate, the Niners fans sneered into their sourdough. Prove yourself, Young man. "There was a sense here that you could never do enough," he says. "I mean, if you threw five touchdown passes, get ready to throw six. Why celebrate? You have that much more work to do."

In case you haven't heard, the fatal stain on Steve Young was that he was not Joe Montana. He was not a god. And last September 11, when the two quarterbacks --who'd rarely exchanged Christmas cards, anyway--met in a much-hyped Monday-night game in Kansas City, it seemed to underscore Young's second-class citizenship. Three-point underdogs, the Chiefs won 24-17, and Joe Montana's shadow once more engulfed his former backup.

Even while winning early-season games this year, Young took a pounding because his offensive line was beat up. Teammate Brent Jones remembered last week that Young was hit so hard so often that he was getting physically sick on the sidelines and could hardly walk. But he never missed a snap.

Then came one of those defining moments that only boys' book authors dare dream up.

On October 2 in Candlestick, a flat Niners club was sleepwalking through an unholy beating at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles when San Francisco coach George Siefert pulled Young out of the game. In this most improbable of seasons, his backup was someone named Elvis (Grbac, late of the Michigan Wolverines). But instead of singing "Love Me Tender" to his coach, Steve Young finally blew his cool. While a national TV audience watched from afar, he shouted down his coach and set a fire in his teammates.

The Niners lost to Philly, 40-8, but their circadian rhythms were cranked into high gear. The next Sunday they overcame a 14-point deficit in Detroit to win 27-21, kicking off a 10-game win streak that ended only with a meaningless injury-prevention loss at Minnesota to close the regular season. Clearly, they had become the NFL's best team.

Even the tart Siefert acknowledges Young's sideline outburst as the 49ers' turning point. "It was one of the best things that happened this year," he allowed. "Steve expressed his emotions. It demonstrated leadership. And for whatever reasons, whenever somebody stands up to the head coach, everybody else rallies around him."

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