SANTA CLARA, Calif. – To those who played against him, Bryant Young was a man of few words. Despite his reputation as one of the NFL’s best three-handling defensive tackles, Young never felt the need to tell the world about himself.
His performance said it all.
After 14 NFL seasons — all with the San Francisco 49ers — Young had one first-team All-Pro nomination, three second-team All-Pro honors, four Pro-Bowl selections, was part of the Super Bowl XXIX champion and landed a spot on the NFL’s 1990s All-Decade Team.
But loud as his game was, his calm demeanor seemed to counteract his pursuit of the sport’s crowning glory, the Pro Football Hall of Fame. For nine years, Young was bypassed, although fellow-placers like John Randle and Warren Sapp were enshrined in 2010 and 2013, respectively.
It’s fitting that Young’s breakthrough in anchoring finally came this year, when a half-dozen respected offensive linemen — former opponents — decided it was time to press on Young in a way that Young isn’t pressing for himself would. They campaigned on his behalf to Hall of Fame voters.
“It was pretty clear that his candidacy was stuck in the neutral state, and the sole reason for that was his humble nature,” said longtime NFL public relations pro Kirk Reynolds, who helped promote Young. “Speak to anyone who has played with or against him and they would all say he was an absolute force on the field, the best in the game at his position, who improved overall defence. BY was never going to be the guy touting his greatness to voters, so I figured we had to re-strategy and let everyone else do the talking for him.”
RETIRED, YOUNG hoped his performance and the respect he had garnered in the league would land him in the Hall of Fame. As one year rolled into the next without Hall’s appeal, Young’s name flew under the radar.
The longer Young had to wait, the more likely it was that his candidacy would fall by the wayside. That reality left a handful of Young’s former opponents convinced it was time to do something. Kevin Gogan, who played 14 seasons in the league, and Robbie Tobeck, who played 13, were among them. When Reynolds witnessed a social media interaction between Tobeck and former bear center Olin Kreutz praising Young, he knew it was time to take action.
Reynolds decided to find a group of Young’s former rivals willing to speak on his behalf. Mark Schlereth, Willie Roaf and Jerry Fontenot intervened. Adam Timmerman, a former Rams and Packers guard, did as well, having gotten over the initial shock of learning Young had yet to join. The six linemen had 80 seasons of NFL experience between them. Reynolds hosted a Zoom meeting in early December that included the six former offensive linemen and eight Hall of Fame voters. A recording of the video and a transcript of the highlights were later distributed to the remaining voters.
It didn’t stop there. Kreutz, Frank Garcia, Steve Hutchinson, Will Shields and others offered their support. Tobeck spent 30 minutes presenting Young’s case to a voter. Young was unaware of the campaign on his behalf until he was told about it an hour before the first Zoom meeting.
“He’s just not someone who smacks his mouth all the time,” Timmerman said. “A couple of the other guys that were in his category when I was playing were Warren Sapp and John Randle and those guys were talking all the time. But Bryant was just as good, if not better, in some areas, but never said anything about it. He didn’t want to tell you how good he was or anything. Just a humble guy who worked hard every day and made it game after game. I was like, man, I hope he doesn’t jump in just because he’s not the kind of guy who grimaces all the time. That would be a shame.”
The effort was successful, and a number of voters later shared that the testimonies of so many opponents helped push Young over the edge and into the hall. And while it took longer than Young would have liked, he wouldn’t have had it any other way. He’ll come out in the same, true-to-his-self way he’s played his entire career.
“I learned a long time ago to just watch my dad, walk quietly but carry a big stick,” Young said. “You don’t have to talk about it. You don’t have to say what you’re going to do and play mind games with people. You are who you are and you do what you do. That was just my approach. I wanted to make sure I earned the respect of the player on the other side of the ball. That was important to me.”
AT BLOOM HIGH SCHOOL south of Chicago, Young was a highly sought-after outside linebacker who had his pick of top-notch college programs. He chose to enroll at Notre Dame in the fall of 1990 because he fell in love with the school but was soon asked to switch to defensive tackle.
As Young gained weight and got taller, he maintained his pace and quickly became a deciding factor for the Irish. He was a three-year starter and received All-American honors as a senior. The Niners leveraged the No. 7 for Young in 1994, locking him into one of the NFL’s most successful franchises and surrounding him with other future Hall of Famers.
Young immediately made a name for himself as a starter in 1994, and the Niners won the Super Bowl in his freshman season. He earned All-Pro honorable mention the following year and had his best statistical season in 1996 with 84 tackles and 11.5 sacks. Even as San Francisco’s dynasty came to an end, Young took pride in keeping the tradition alive.
But his career almost ended abruptly on November 30, 1998 in a game against the New York Giants. While chasing Giants quarterback Kent Graham, Young circled back for cover as Graham headed for the chute. Young stopped to avoid contact with Graham, but linebacker Ken Norton Jr. went to tag Graham and his helmet drove into Young’s leg.
The result was a closed fracture of the tibia and fibula in his right leg, which he now describes as an “out of body experience.” Young’s season was over. He wondered if his career was too.
“It really challenged me in terms of my desire to play,” Young said. “I wanted to be the best. I wanted to win championships and be considered a top guy. And here I am facing this huge obstacle and it tested my love for the game. Did I want it that bad? They say that adversity really does mean a lot who you are, what you’re made of, in terms of the foundation you’re really built on.It cemented some things for me.
Young’s recovery has not been easy. Various surgeries left a rod and two screws attached to the top and bottom of his leg. Complications included nerve damage.
It took Young a week to sit up in bed, a few more to get back on crutches, and three months before he could walk on his own. When he returned to the field for the 1999 season, Young was unable to practice on consecutive days because his right leg, now about an inch longer than his left, would swell too much.
Young said the hardest part was overcoming the mental hurdles after the injury, but when he was struggling his opponents didn’t notice.
Not only did Young come back to start the 1999 season, he played in all 16 games with 41 tackles, 11 sacks and 19 tackles for loss on his way to the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year, the individual honor that Young was after as before is most proud to date.
“I don’t think he missed a shot when he came back,” Timmerman said. “Maybe he felt like he wasn’t, but I think everyone who played him knew it. … He was 100 percent on my mind anyway.”
Back in full strength, Young played eight more seasons and stayed with the Niners even as San Francisco struggled to return to its former glory. It was a rare feat in an NFL world increasingly fascinated by freelancers.
“I believe in doing things,” Young said.
Young retired in 2007 with 89.5 sacks, 627 tackles, 12 forced fumbles and 93 tackles for loss in 208 regular-season games. It may have been a longer wait than expected to reach the Hall of Fame, but one that has left him grateful.
“It was humbling to hear the things they said,” Young said of those who stood up for him. … “I’m grateful to these guys for doing this.”
https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/34269230/2022-pro-football-hall-fame-why-six-former-rivals-campaigned-san-francisco-49ers-bryant-young 2022 Pro Football Hall of Fame