A few minutes into Steve Young's last championship game appearance, in Tempe, Ariz., a truck driver in Los Angeles was heading toward the airport with orders to tear the uniforms off a team's back if it decided to return home later that night.

Luckily, the Los Angeles Express lost the 1984 Western Conference title game to George Allen's desert rats, the Arizona Outlaws, and avoided the embarrassment of advancing to one league's version of a Super Bowl with its equipment confiscated, locked in storage because of payments past due.Not even Steve Young believes he could have played the United States Football League's title game that year without a helmet.

"I'd love to know who's wearing our pants now," Young said this week. "Somebody's probably dyed them."

Whenever Young gets a slight case of the blues, and he has one now because the San Francisco 49ers plan to start Sunday's NFC championship game without him, he wonders what became of his old uniform pants.

Every quarterback in controversy needs a release.

Mike Tomczak admitted seeking counsel when his situation in Chicago became unbearable. Well, for two seasons, Steve Young leaned back on a couch known as the Express, a sporting aberration that blipped off football's radar screen in 1985.

Young, remember, was supposed to save the USFL. Instead, he realized all too soon that he and his hyper-inflated, over-publicized contract did far more harm to the league than good. Young admitted once in a moment of guilt that he may have indeed "ruined football" before his 23rd birthday.

"Maybe in the long run, it'll be the thing that will make me handle any situation that comes along," Young said this week of his USFL experience. "Because I don't think there's anything I haven't seen. Well, maybe the Super Bowl's the only thing I haven't seen yet. And maybe I'll see that next week.

"I'm a little better person for it, if you're looking at it in those terms. How can you not learn about yourself, about people, about politics, business, sports? I've seen it all. Well, not all, but I feel like I've seen a lot."

Yet, nothing previously seen or felt compares to the angst Young is experiencing now - playing backup to the great Joe Montana. Not Express owner Bill Oldenburg poking Young in the chest with his stubby index finger, or the water company shutting off the Express' spigots, or Young's playing running back in his last USFL game.

"Of all the things I've been through, watching is the worst," he said. "Because at least then you were playing. You could go out and compete."

The subject of Young's life, of course, must always be broached with perspective. He remains one of the sporting world's richest and most eligible bachelors, his latest engagement having collapsed at the last moment.

Young's financial gatherings are legendary. He escaped the USFL with a cool $4 million stashed into his faded blue jeans for less than two seasons' work, then quickly signed another deal with Tampa Bay of the NFL for $5.4 million over six years.

All that said, money and Steve Young have never been comfortable partners. Money prefers silk in its shirts. Young fancies the ones with alligators. Money drives a Mercedes. Young squeezed 270,000 miles out of his family's 1965 Oldsmobile before it finally died last year of natural causes. Young has since purchased a Jeep - a demonstrator floor model. It was cheaper.

Young has always seemed more introspective than material, and more pressing than a lifetime of riches at the moment is a daily and delicate battle for the starting quarterback job with the 32-year-old Montana, who has recognized Young's threat to his throne and seized the moment.

"I think he's made Joe that much more competitive," 49ers Coach Bill Walsh said of Young. "Joe knows he's got a great talent right alongside of him."

Thus far, Montana has held off the charge. In 1987, subbing for an oft-injured Montana, who was returning from back surgery, Young finished with a stunning quarterback rating of 120.8, 10 touchdowns and no interceptions. Good enough to beat out Jay Schroeder, maybe, but not Montana.

In last year's divisional playoff game against Minnesota, Young was summoned from the bench to replace the struggling Montana with the 49ers trailing, 27-10. Young nearly made it a game, completing 12 of 17 passes for 158 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 72 yards.

Some thought the quarterback torch had been passed, considering Montana's age and injuries. Young figured his time had come.

"I feel I'm coming into the main years of my career and that it's important that I play," Young said. "I think Bill knows that. So we need to take a look at some of that. That's the bottom line. To stand there and watch is ... "

Killing you?


As it turns out, the anticipated quarterback controversy of 1988 developed only in the media, Walsh contends. A fit Montana was always going to be his starter. The problem this year, of course, has been determining how fit Montana is.

Walsh has handled Montana with care, replacing him with Young when he thought the situation required it. Montana fought battles this season with bruised ribs, a sore back and a form of dysentery that cut 10 pounds from his already slender frame.

The situation wasn't an easy one for Young, who was thrown into games against the New York Giants, Rams and Minnesota Vikings. Young completed 54 of 101 passes for 680 yards this season with three touchdowns and three interceptions. He also rushed for 184 yards on 27 carries.

The 49ers, in fact, would not be appearing in Sunday's title game had it not been for Young's 49-yard touchdown scramble on Oct. 30, a dazzling, spinning, lurching last-minute run for glory that beat the Vikings, 24-21.

But Young isn't in this business for cameo roles.

"I sure try to play perfect when I'm in there, because I know I need to overcome his greatness," Young said of Montana. "Hopefully, I've pushed him in some ways to make him a greater player."