The downstairs at Steve Young's home in Los Altos Hills, Calif., is one cavernous room with bare floors and exposed ceilings. There is an upright piano and stacks of bound scripts left over from its days as a private theater. The place was built in 1989 by the family that lives around the bend on this country road. When Young saw it two summers ago, it had no bathrooms, no kitchen, no bedroom, no heat, no nothing.

He, of course, thought it would make a perfect home. It had the one quality he seems to seek out in everything in his life: grand potential for failure.He has lived the past two seasons like a college senior in the renovated upstairs loft with a bed, a couch, a desk, a bookcase (crammed with hardbacks from Herman Wouk to Richard Preston), a table, a bathroom, a TV and stereo, a microwave and a mini-refrigerator. A cloudy plastic sheet covers a large opening in a wall overlooking the theater.

Young walks through the downstairs, pointing out where the kitchen and living room will go. He says he wants huge windows in every wall so he can see the sloping lawns and canopied trees that cover the property. But for now the place looks like a drafty barn.

This can mean only one thing: Someday it will be a palace.

That is the pattern of Young's life, on and off the field. The 33-year-old 49ers quarterback seems guided by the theory that he cannot enjoy success unless he has first paid sufficient penance, as if struggles yield rewards according to some divine mathematical equation. Perhaps the theory seeped down through four generations from Provo, Utah, and his great-great-great-great-grandfather, Brigham Young. But more likely it stretches back only as far as Greenwich, Conn., to a two-story house on Split Timber Road, where whatever triumph might await Young at the end of this month can find its beginning.

IN THE HEART of Greenwich, elaborate estates with low stone walls and grand lawns stretch along narrow roads with names like Chelton Lane. Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford live here. So do Diana Ross, Bobby Bonilla and Pat Riley. It's a tony bedroom community for New York City, 30 miles away.

As you head south across town, the houses shrink. The stone walls become picket fences, and the long driveways shorten to stubs and end in two-car garages with basketball hoops bolted to their eaves. Celebrity Greenwich fades into a neighborhood called Riverside, where down the street from North Mianus Elementary School sits the modest home of LeGrande and Sherry Young.

A delivery of firewood has been dumped in front of the garage, waiting for LeGrande and his youngest son, 16-year-old Jimmy, to haul it to the backyard. Inside, two carpet samples lay on the worn flooring of the family room. A Muppet Movie score sits on the piano in the living room, where family pictures cover every flat surface. Along the wall of the stairwell leading to the bedrooms hang more family pictures.

One picture shows LeGrande as a fullback for Brigham Young University in the 1950s, his grim face staring unblinking at the camera. More than 30 years later, the face hasn't changed. He still looks, at first glance, like he stepped out of a Grant Wood painting. And from all accounts he looked that way even as a child, earning him the nickname Grit when he was just 6 years old. He has answered to the name - and lived up to it - ever since.

"When Mr. Young told you to do something, you didn't question it," said Frank Arnone, who grew up in the neighborhood. "He was like Mr. Cleaver on steroids."

Steve, the oldest child, took the lion's share of his father's discipline and felt most acutely his father's expectations. Grit Young says he knew early on his son had special talent. The boy could do push-ups when he was 2 years old. He could dribble a basketball at 3. He had such tenacity that when the boy across the street learned to ride a unicycle, Steve got one, too. He wobbled and crashed, wobbled and crashed, for hours and days on end until the seat was torn up from scraping the pavement so often. But he mastered it. The unicycle still hangs from a hook in the garage.

"Even so, I didn't think he could do what he has done. It's still amazing to me," Grit says. His face softens and brightens when he talks of his five children. The second-oldest, Mike, is the father of three children and a doctor doing a three-year residency in Grand Rapids, Mich. Melissa is married, too, and working in public relations in Provo. Tom, also married, played backup quarterback at BYU this fall and also plans to be a doctor. Jimmy is a sophomore linebacker at Greenwich High, the first Young boy not to play quarterback. ("It's kind of fun to watch him grab people after all these years of being on the other end," Sherry says.)

Sherry has kept a scrapbook of achievements for each child, not just Steve. Each knew that at every sporting event one parent or the other would be watching from the stands. When the 49ers played Dallas earlier this season, for instance, Sherry flew to San Francisco and Grit stayed home for Jimmy's game. "We were here for the other kids, and we can't cheat Jimmy on that," Sherry says.

But Grit doesn't miss any of Steve's games on TV. On this winter day, he is sitting in the family room trying unsuccessfully to make himself comfortable. The 49ers-Denver game is about to start. "If you took my heartbeat right now, it would be up," he says. "It's the same nervousness I had when I played, when once you hit something it's gone. I can't hit anything here."

Soon after the game begins, Sherry walks in after dropping Jimmy off at a friend's house. "I'm in no condition to drive when the 49er game is on the radio," she says, sounding truly shaken. She often has to leave the house and take a walk during games to relieve the pressure. When Steve was taken out the Philadelphia game, in which the 49ers were getting blown out and Steve was getting battered, she said a prayer of thanks to coach George Seifert, though her son threw a rare obscenity-laced fit on the sideline.

When asked if they had ever seen such an outburst from their son, Grit cocks an eyebrow and answers carefully. "I had never seen him that . . . verbal."

And Sherry, ever the forgiving mother, "Well, I've said a few words of my own."

On this day, however, the 49ers are winning easily. "If it keeps going like this," Sherry says, "he'll call from the sideline."

Once last season, as Sherry and Grit were watching their son, the camera showed him dialing a telephone on the sidelines. The 49ers were winning so big that he had been taken out of the game. TV commentator John Madden began speculating on who Young was calling. "That's a real phone! What's he doing, calling his mother?"

Just then, the phone rang on Split Timber Road.

"Pop! You watching the game? What do you think?"

"Who is this, Tommy?" Grit teased. "Tommy, what are you doing?"

With so many high-scoring games, Young has called from the sidelines many times since.

IF STEVE'S PARENTS are still still amazed by their son's remarkable success, others aren't. He seemed born to it. "It's not a big deal," Melissa suggests, "because that's Steve."

"He was the most driven of all the children," says his third-grade teacher, Lee Spong, echoing the sentiments of all his teachers. "He was the kind of kid who was so special that he stays in your heart."

By junior high, Grit and Sherry were receiving letters from teachers and principals commending their son. In his senior year at Greenwich High, he was captain of the football, basketball and baseball teams and took the posts to heart. Once, when the center on the basketball team was playing poorly in the first half, the coach, Garland Allen, walked slowly to the locker room, constructing in his mind what he would say to snap the boy from his malaise.

Allen pushed open the door and there stood Young nose to nose with the center, barking the same stern speech Allen had planned to deliver. With nothing left to say, he clapped his hands. "OK. Ready?"

Young seemed too good to be true. New Yorker Ron Saggese arrived as an assistant football coach Young's senior year. He phoned his cynical city friends: "If I were to tell you the story of this kid, it would make you puke." Young didn't drink, didn't smoke, didn't swear. He pitched a no-hitter the day after the prom because he was the only player who wasn't hung over. He dated the prettiest girl in school, Christy Fichtner, who would later become Miss U.S.A. "I never had to give her a curfew," Christy's mother says, "because Steve's father took care of that."

Like his brothers and sister, Steve rose at 5 every weekday morning all through high school to attend Mormon religious classes, driving with his parents 19 miles each way to Scarsdale, N.Y. He was chosen his senior year by church elders to be president of the youth group. He won the Harvard Book Award for English and earned A's in advanced-placement calculus. One teacher's letter encouraged him to consider applying for a Rhodes scholarship in college "in the tradition of Byron White, Pat Haden and Bill Bradley."

Because Young was an option quarterback in Greenwich High - throwing the ball only six or seven times a game - only colleges that played the option recruited him. "I didn't want to be an option quarterback. I wanted to drop back, and then run around," Young says, smiling. Grit advised his son to choose a school based on the school and not the football team. "You're one hit away from being out of football," Grit told him.

A Mormon friend encouraged LaVell Edwards at BYU to look at Young, and even though Edwards had too many quarterbacks already, he offered him a scholarship and Young accepted.

But in a pattern that would repeat itself several times over the next decade, Young adjusted poorly to his new surroundings. He was a nester who, as a child, never wanted to sleep over at friends' houses. He was so miserable his freshman year in Provo he didn't unpack his bags for an entire semester and called home almost every day, homesick beyond reason. Plus, he was fighting for playing time with four other quarterbacks on the junior varsity team.

"I told my dad I wanted to come home," Young says, "and he said, `You can quit but you can't come home.' "

To make matters worse, the varsity quarterback coach decided he would switch Young to defensive back the following season to utilize his speed. But in the spring, that coach left and Ted Tollner came in, a move that would turn around Young's career. Tollner held an open competition for the backup job to starter Jim McMahon. Young won it, and by the end of his senior year was a runner-up for the Heisman and the projected No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. The struggle was about to reap a great reward, but to Young the reward was simply playing in the pros, not earning the sultan's salary that came with being the top pick.

Though he grew up surrounded by his town's wealth, Young didn't care about money because his family never seemed to have much of it. His father was a corporate lawyer but was always worried about making ends meet for his wife and children. He never moved up from the house he bought 25 years ago for $70,000. He drove used cars bought from his employer. He passed the same paper route down from one child to the next and made each find a summer job so they would understand the value of hard work. He fixed his own cars and made his children watch so they could do it, too. He told his children he made $6 a day, and for years they believed him.

"We thought we were the poorest people in the world," says Melissa.

But, when the time came, even Grit advised his son to sign with the upstart USFL over the NFL. The Cincinnati Bengals, who owned the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, couldn't come even close to the financial deal the Los Angeles Express was offering. "In my mind, the decision came down to the fact L.A. was closer to Provo than Cincinnati was," Young says. So he signed, giving up his chance to play in the NFL like his hero, Roger Staubach.

"He woke up the next day," says Sherry, "and he had given away his dream."

Soon after he signed the contract that would make him the richest athlete in American sports, Young began to understand what he had lost. The money was taking on a momentum of its own, and what he valued - for instance, his reputation and playing football - was being pulled down in the undertow. He had been raised to believe that money was the root of evil, and suddenly he was labeled "The $40 Million Man" and ridiculed as a symbol of what was wrong with America. He wanted to be what was right with America.

"The big money really depressed Steve," Grit says. "He couldn't cope with it. He had always seen himself as a little old guy. Down to earth. The money was a nemesis to him, and I don't think he's ever gotten over it."

With his first check, Young gave his father money for a Corvette he had long admired. But Grit couldn't bring himself to buy it. He used the money for his other children's college tuition instead. Six months ago, nearly 10 years after his son's gift, Grit finally bought a red convertible Corvette. "We were shocked," Steve says. His father tells everyone it's a rental and won't drive it to church.

Steve inherited Grit's frugality and modesty. He recently asked his father for the money he had saved from his summer jobs, which with interest had grown to $11,000. He wanted to put it in an account so he could someday show his children the value of saving. He has set up a charity called Forever Young that raised $200,000 last year. He tithes to the church (and last spring taught a Sunday school class of 4-year-olds). He donates money, sometimes anonymously, to a wide range of charities in the Bay Area and Utah and seems to pop up everywhere at fund-raisers and schools and churches to lend support.

But for himself, he bought his first new car just five years ago, a Jeep. While in law school during the last several off-seasons, he lived in a 700-square-foot pioneer house built in the late 1800s. It had no stove and no lawn. He preferred that to the large house in Park City, Utah, he bought about nine years ago when he was engaged to be married. But the wedding was called off at the last moment, after all their friends had flown into Utah for the event.

"It was a devastating experience for him," Melissa says. "Just in the last couple of years has he allowed himself to get close to anyone again." He now has a Mormon girlfriend who is 24 and a student at BYU. The way Young is talking, a wedding seems to be in the offing.

WHEN IT WAS time for Young to leave BYU to join the L.A. Express, he was so reluctant that his father flew to Provo to accompany him. Because the USFL was a spring league, he was leaving the safety of BYU in the middle of his final semester for a city and a salary that overwhelmed him. Those first few months with the Express were the lowest of Young's career.

"I felt my life was never going to be the same, and I liked my life," he says now. "I felt in some way like my life was going down the tubes. You're in crisis and the whole world gets to watch."

Over the next six years, he found himself in one seemingly hopeless situation after another. No matter what he did, he could never live up to his extravagant salary at the Express - and then the team went bankrupt. He went to the inept Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where no quarterback has ever shined. Then he moved on to the tense battleground of the San Francisco 49ers, where he set himself for his toughest battle and his greatest potential for failure: replacing the legendary Joe Montana.

Montana's is the only name that elicits a grimace from the diplomatic Youngs. "I always like to see people who are in tough situations act with class," Grit says, referring to Montana's cold shoulder toward Young. "That's what disappointed me about that situation." He mentions how quarterback Steve DeBerg in Tampa Bay took his son into his home and helped him learn the system. He mentioned how Phil Simms in New York seemed supportive of Jeff Hostetler when Hostetler replaced him. "I've always appreciated people who act with class," Grit says.

So he joined Young's agent, Leigh Steinberg, in encouraging Steve to leave the 49ers when his contract was up several years ago. "But I also knew he liked San Francisco and he didn't move very well," Grit says. "I didn't want to make the decision for him. I'd done that and suffered for it."

For Young's part, there was never any question he would stay with the 49ers. He knew if he left he would end up on a hopeless team, and he had been there already. "I'd rather go be a lawyer," he says. So he signed up for another tour of duty in Montana's shadow, biding his time, keeping his mouth closed when fans and even the 49ers talked of trading him after he had just won the league's MVP award for the 1992 season while Montana was injured. Not until Montana left for Kansas City in 1993 was Young officially anointed the starting quarterback.

"It's tough. It's hard. But you get used to it," Young says. "It's like if you drive a car 110 miles per hour for long enough, you go 55 and it's seems like you're crawling. 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.

"I've been able to put everything in perspective the last couple years. Now when something comes in and hits me, it doesn't go all the way to the center."

It helps that he has won four NFL passing titles in his four years as a starter. And that he eclipsed Montana's record for touchdowns in a season. And that he won his second MVP award in three years. And that he set league records for passing efficiency and completion percentage.

Even so, he still had to hear the comparisons when the 49ers faced Montana's Chiefs this season and lost. Grit was watching at home while Sherry was finishing up some business at church. She told him to tape the first half and she would be home in time to watch the second half. By the second quarter, Grit called Sherry. "Don't come home," he told her. "You don't want to see this."

Sometime after the game, after Young had graciously told reporters, "Maybe the student still has something to learn from the master," he left a message on his parents' answering machine.

"Joe's a hero," he said, only half joking, "and I'm a schmuck."

Later, though, Young called the game a relief. "It seems like a lot of people moved on," he says.

MAYBE NOW YOUNG has paid enough penance. Maybe now he can be allowed the greatest reward in football, the Super Bowl. Just days before the 49ers' first playoff game of the season, Young indeed seems on the verge of the grand success for which he has seemed destined all his life. Yet because he is, as one friend called him, "such a common stick," he still doesn't cause a panic when he goes out in public. He doesn't draw the paparazzi the way his predecessor did.

One day this week after practice, Young walked into a Los Altos sandwich shop, ordered his lunch at the counter and went in search of a table. Seeing none clean, he bused one himself, carrying the dirty plates and cups to a bin atop the garbage can. He wiped the crumbs off the table with a napkin and sat down, waiting for the cashier to call his number.

He had barely finished half his lunch when a 7-year-old boy wearing a 49ers jersey marched up to the table to ask Young to sign a paper napkin. Though Young had been interrupted at least a dozen times already, he shook the boy's hand and scribbled his name yet again.

"I have Joe Montana's picture on my wall already," the child volunteered.

"Are you going to put this up there with it?" Young asked, smiling.

"I might."

"Well," said the quarterback, "give it some thought."