Jeff Benedict: A true one of a kind — Steve Young's example helped me grow into my own skin
Editor's note: This post was previously published on Jeff Benedict's personal blog and has been republished with his permission.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — I am writing this post from the sideline at Fed Ex Field, where the Redskins opened the NFL season against the Eagles on Monday Night football. The game ended more than an hour ago. It’s close to midnight. But I’m still here, watching Stuart Scott, Steve Young and Ray Lewis interview Eagles’ quarterback Michael Vick on ESPN’s postgame show.
But this post is not about football. It’s about my connection with one of the guys at the table — Steve Young. Sitting in an empty stadium has given me time to think back to his influence on me as a boy. Growing up I was never much of a BYU fan. In fact, I always rooted against them, except during 1982 and 1983. Those were the two years when Young quarterbacked BYU’s football team.
He was an amazingly entertaining college football player who could kill you with his arm and dazzle you with his feet. In his senior year he became the most accurate passer in college football history.
But my affinity for Steve went much deeper than football. You see, we both grew up in Connecticut. He attended Greenwich High. I attended Waterford High. He was the only Mormon at his high school. I was the only one at mine. He was four years ahead of me and we didn’t know each other. But that didn’t matter. I felt like he understood what it was like to be in my shoes. So I cheered for him.
As a teenager I was self-conscious about being the only Mormon in my town. Minority status — whether brought on by race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or what have you — is not easy. Fortunately, I had great friends who accepted me. Still, being different leads to self-consciousness.
In my case, there were plenty of times when I felt socially awkward because of my beliefs. Latter-day Saints don’t drink alcohol or use tobacco products. Nor did I dare go past first base with a girl. For Pete’s sake, my mother wouldn’t even let me look at the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue until she had ripped out the pictures. And that was back in the day when the models still wore bathing suits.
Needless to say, by the time I had turned 16 and was old enough to attend parties, I ended up spending most Friday nights home in my room instead. It was easier to avoid temptation than flirt with it. But I was pretty lonely.
Then along came Steve. His success on the football field broke down barriers for a kid like me. The way he carried himself inspired me. Eventually he became the Super Bowl MVP for the San Francisco 49ers. He had a reputation throughout the NFL as a guy who was different.
Different in a good way. He went to law school in the offseason. He was the ultimate competitor, but never a bad sport. When he lost he didn’t blame others. When he won he didn’t gloat. No matter how many times he got knocked down he always got back up. Those attributes transcend the game.
Corporate America gravitated toward him. He became a spokesman for Nike, Visa, Forbes, Macy’s, Advil, and a bunch of other brands looking for a famous athlete with a clean image. When the milk industry discovered that Steve had never had a beer in his life and had guzzled milk at high school parties, he got picked to be the face of national campaign promoting milk.
By that point in his career, I had become completely comfortable in my own skin. I had also fallen in love with a woman, gone to law school and become a writer. I had even developed a reputation for ordering milk when I went out with colleagues and friends. Once when I was having a meal with singer David Crosby, his wife Jan, and three of our close friends, the waiter took everyone’s drink order. I was last to order and I requested a chocolate milkshake.
The waiter hesitated and looked at me like, seriously?
I just smiled.
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