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Golfers Who Give Back: Steve Young's foundation helps kids forget their troubles

December 06, 2019

On Tuesdays during his 13 years with the San Francisco 49ers, Steve Young would often drive down to Pebble Beach, sign on as a single and venture alone into the fog, the stillness of the setting serving as a psychic and physical balm. “Dallas games for some reason were the worst,” he says. “They were so good, and the pressure to beat them was intense.”

The 49ers won three of their five Super Bowl titles during Young’s time with the team, and the quarterback was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005. Today, Young and his wife, Barb, provide healing of their own, the Forever Young Foundation helping seriously ill and disadvantaged children across the United States and in Ghana. The initiatives, which include the Sophie’s Place music-therapy spaces and 8 to 80 Zones that Young runs with help from former teammate Jerry Rice, have served more than 17,000 kids since 1993 and are funded almost entirely through charity golf tournaments.

“The key word in our foundation title is ‘forever,’ ” says Young, 58. “Our goal is for our foundation to flourish long after Barb and I are gone. We’re going so strong, I believe that will happen.”

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As a celebrity athlete, you’ve no doubt teed it up with some great players and interesting people.

I’ve played with Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Raymond Floyd, my friend Johnny Miller and a lot of other legendary players. But looking back, it’s my encounters with non-pros that amaze me the most. At one of my first AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Ams, I played alongside Charles Schulz, the creator of “Peanuts.” I’d devoured that comic strip since I was a little kid and was absolutely starstruck to be near him. On the fourth hole at Poppy Hills, we had a delay, and I sat on a bench next to him, hoping to get some Yoda-like wisdom. His first words were, “You must be so embarrassed.” I asked, “Why’s that?” He said, “Here you are a world-class athlete, and you’re playing so poorly.” It was like Lucy pulling away the football on Charlie Brown. I was crushed. I played a few times with Bob Hope, which was pretty surreal because he’s more iconic than any golfer. Golf has given me some of the greatest experiences in my life.

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We’ve seen your swing. Your game couldn’t have been as bad as Charles Schulz said.

My handicap ranges from 8 to 12. When I’m a 12, I play in tournaments like I’m a 15, and when I’m an 8, I play like a 12. I have my moments, but I’m also not the first guy you choose when you’re making up teams.

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Did you get an early start in golf?

I grew up caddieing at some nice clubs in Connecticut—Stanwich, Innis Arden and Greenwich Country Club, where I used to loop for Tom Seaver. My brother and I played at a muny called Bruce Memorial [now Griffith E. Harris Golf Course]. I’m left-handed but started out with my dad’s set of right-handed clubs. I play righty to this day, which Johnny Miller, another left-hander who played righty, says is a plus. I’m not so sure about that. Johnny and other pros have given me 10,000 tips over the years, and I’m still just an OK golfer.

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Were you able to play much during your football career?

I’ve always kept my hand in. During summers at BYU, I played a lot with Jim McMahon, who was a couple of years ahead of me. Jim was a blast to be around, and needless to say, I learned a ton watching him play quarterback.

• • •

McMahon is reputed to play barefoot on occasion. Can you attest to that?

There came a point where Jim actually played naked. I saw it, and it wasn’t pretty. When you hang out with Jim, you’re eventually going to see it all.

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How about during your career with the 49ers? There are some awfully nice golf courses in and around San Francisco.

Pebble Beach, the Olympic Club and Cypress Point, I got to play regularly. The privilege of that was unbelievable. Three of us—my teammates Harris Barton and Mike Cofer and myself—were the core group. When I needed to be alone, Pebble was my sanctuary. Even today, when I have trouble getting to sleep, I’ll play Pebble in my mind. By the fifth hole, I’m asleep. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I reached the eighth hole and was still awake. In that case, I might never sleep, because that’s a scary hole.

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The Forever Young Foundation has been going since 1993. It’s one thing to start a foundation, another to sustain it for a long time. What’s the secret?

Early in my career with the 49ers, I attended a talk by author Stephen Covey in which he said, “If you want to change the world, you need to change a kid’s life.” That stuck with me. Most of us have a soft spot for children, so choosing that as a focus has made it easier to keep our momentum. Our programs, such as the music-therapy spaces we offer through Sophie’s Place, are so different and exciting, they don’t require a hard sell on our part. Another key is our integrity. The Forever Young Foundation just received another four-star rating from Charity Navigator, which isn’t easy to achieve. More than 94 percent of the funds we raise go directly to our programs. Our efficiency instills confidence in people and keeps us strong. We’re not the largest children’s charity, but I think we’re one of the best.

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Sophie’s Place is named for Sophie Barton. Who was she?

Sophie was a young singer and songwriter in Utah who had a great future ahead of her. She performed in pediatric wards at hospitals and just had a great heart. Sophie passed away suddenly from a heart problem at age 17, just a tragic thing to have happen. We got together with Sophie’s parents, Kent and Annie-Marie Barton, and created a music-therapy space for kids at Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City. Kids getting treatment there can play, record and listen to music and basically forget their troubles for a while. The one at Banner Children’s Medical Center in Phoenix is especially incredible.

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What role does golf play in this?

All of our fundraising comes from charity tournaments we put on in Park City, Utah; Scottsdale; and at CordeValle in San Martin, Calif. We’ve been doing them for over 25 years, and financially they drive everything. Johnny Miller, a BYU boy like myself who I’ve known forever, supports the events. Jerry Rice’s involvement is huge, too, especially in the tournament at CordeValle. He’s behind 8 to 80 Zones, where kids can develop media and technology skills. Jerry’s a natural at drawing people in. We see the same people at our tournaments year after year. We’ve found little tricks to make our tournaments fun.

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What makes your tournaments different?

Ever win a first-place prize that isn’t as cool as the second-place prize? We let the golfers choose their prizes. Say you’re on the winning team, you’re an Oakland Raiders fan and see a jersey signed by one of their legends in the array of prizes we have on display. You might prefer the jersey to, say, a new driver or, heaven forbid, a Steve Young-signed football. You get to choose. Everybody goes away happy.

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Forever Young has an international reach, too. There’s a fun anecdote involving Ziggy Ansah of the Seattle Seahawks.

In the mid-2000s, we began building sport courts in Ghana to give disadvantaged kids places to play. When Ziggy was just a kid, he came out to one of the soccer fields we’d turfed, and he was dominant. Some American missionaries were impressed and kept in touch with Ziggy after they left. They helped him make connections at BYU, where he tried basketball before becoming an outstanding defensive end. He’s been in the NFL about seven years now. It’s crazy how that happened. Ziggy is my favorite piece of foundation trivia.

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What advice can you give someone putting on a tournament?

Consider bringing in some local hotshots. At CordeValle, we bring in players from Stanford and San Jose State, mini-tour players you haven’t heard of, good high school players, even. They’re enthusiastic, and the amateurs love them. In our Utah tournament, a friend of Andy Miller [Johnny Miller’s son] stopped by to play on his way over to play the Dakotas Tour. He made a hole-in-one and won a new car, won a $15,000 watch in our putting contest, and his team won the tournament. He left the parking lot in style, that’s for sure.