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Ex-49ers center recalls tense transition from Montana to Young

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Tired of talking about the dearth, shortcomings and physical infirmities of 49er quarterbacks? Of course you are.

Want to retreat to a time when the 49ers had two future Hall of Fame passers foaming at the mouth to be the starter? Of course you do.

Let Jesse Sapolu be your guide. Sapolu? If you’re a Jimmy-come-lately to the 49ers, you need to know he was an 11th-round draft pick in 1983 who manned the team’s offensive line — mostly at center — until 1997 (missing all but one game from 1984-86 with a nagging foot ailment).

Cheerful, friendly and forthcoming, Sapolu was a stalwart on the field and in the locker room. His toughness quotient was off the charts. In early 1997 he had heart surgery to repair a leaky valve. Initially it was believed his time with the 49ers — if not the NFL — had come to an end. But he wound up squeezing in one farewell season in San Francisco.

His takeaway from his time with the 49ers is not limited to four Super Bowl rings. He was at the forefront of a unique time in pro football history. We speak, of course, of the awkward, polarizing transition from Joe Montana to Steve Young. Was there tension in the room?

“Any time you have competitors, there’s going to be tension,” said Sapolu, appearing on KNBR Tuesday. “If there’s no tension, then you won’t fight for anything. You’re comfortable where you’re at.”

Young wasn’t comfortable where he was at — having backed up Montana for four seasons, then babysat the starting quarterback position for two seasons while Montana was sidelined with an elbow ailment.

“Steve Young was a competitor,” Sapolu told KNBR host Ryan Covay, “and to me, Joe was the best to ever play at that time.”

When Montana declared himself fit to return, the 49ers faced a roiling, white-hot controversy unprecedented in NFL history. Sorry, Jimmy-come-lately, but there is no way to adequately describe the communal hand-wringing and caterwauling over the Joe/Steve tragi-drama. Ultimately the 49ers traded Montana to the Kansas City Chiefs.

“It was a mixture of feelings for me,” Sapolu said. “I felt Joe still had something left, which he obviously showed because he took Kansas City the farthest that anyone has ever done since Super Bowl III. I truly felt if he didn’t have the concussion against Buffalo (in the AFC championship game after the 1993 season) that they would’ve gone to the Super Bowl. And if you remember correctly, he beat us in the second game (in 1994), and we won the Super Bowl (that season).

“But at the same time, we had a future Hall of Famer sitting on the bench,” Sapolu said. “Steve at the time was like Michael Vick. He ran a 4.5 and he depended on his legs. I felt like if Steve didn’t get hurt toward the end of his career, he could have won at least one more Super Bowl because there are certain throws that Steve did later on in his career that took him a few years to trust.”

It was indeed a learning curve for Young early on. The 49ers back then were fond of what they called the skinny post — essentially a quick slant. Montana would put the throw in the receiver’s back pocket. Young struggled with that play. In a game against the Raiders in Los Angeles, Young threw high for Jerry Rice, who was flipped in mid-air and landed on his head.

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