Former San Francisco defensive tackle Bryant Young is one of 26 semifinalists for the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame’s Class of 2022, and no surprise there. It’s his third consecutive year as a semifinalist.
Ah, but that’s where the mystery begins.
You see, this is Young’s 10th year of Hall-of-Fame eligibility, and while he’s a three-time semifinalist he’s been a finalist only once. That was 2020. But then voters forgot about him, with Young the only returning 2020 finalist who didn’t make the cut one year later.
That made no sense to me then, and it makes no sense to some of his opponents now. So six of them – all offensive linemen – volunteered to join a Zoom call with Hall-of-Fame voters Wednesday afternoon to offer insight into Young’s 14-year career and voice support for his Canton candidacy.
The lineup included Kevin Gogan (who played with and against Young), Adam Timmerman, Mark Schlereth, Jerry Fontenot, Robbie Tobeck and Hall-of-Famer Willie Roaf. All were contacted by former 49ers’ public-relations director Kirk Reynolds, and all, according to Reynolds, jumped at the chance to participate.
What made the call extraordinary is that, with the exception of Gogan, these weren’t former teammates. They were opponents. Support for Hall-of-Fame candidates frequently comes from teammates, coaches or GMs via e-mails, but Wednesday’s call marked a departure from conventional procedures. It was the first time opponents assembled for a video to support a Hall-of-Fame candidate some of them barely knew.
“We know what’s right,” Gogan said, explaining why he was willing to participate. “We know what’s in that Hall of Fame, and we know what should be in that Hall of Fame just from getting our asses whipped out there. There are some guys that are just that much better.”
According to at least six of his adversaries, Bryant Young was one of them.
“I don’t know exactly what a Hall-of-Famer is,” said Schlereth, “but I know what one is when I see him. And Bryant Young is a Hall of Famer.”
Now before we go farther, let’s get something straight: Young had nothing to do with the call. In fact, he didn’t hear about it until Reynolds notified him that, as Young told me later, “he was going to contact guys to get their opinions of what they thought of me.” If he’d listened in, however, he would’ve heard a series of testimonials that elevated Young’s stature beyond some noteworthy Hall of Famers.
“When people ask me who are the best guys I ever played against,” said Timmerman, “I would say the best defensive players were inside. I go: John Randle, Bryant Young, Warren Sapp; those three, and in that order, too. Bryant was John Randle without all the talking. He did his talking with his pads.”
Sapp was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Randle was elected in his second try as a finalist. Young has been a finalist once and failed to make the first cut from 15 to 10.
Nevertheless, support from outside the Hall’s board of selectors has been strong, with historian John Turney of Pro Football Journal ranking Young ahead of Hall-of-Famers Cortez Kennedy and Sapp as a 4-3 defensive tackle. The difference, he said, was that Young was a dominant two-way player, as strong vs. the run as the pass, with 49 more tackles than Sapp and only seven fewer sacks.
“I can’t say enough about the guy,” Gogan said of Young. “I look at him like he can control the game from the defensive-tackle position. That’s really hard to say about a player. I think the guy from the Rams today (Aaron Donald) can control the game from the defensive tackle. I remember (Hall-of-Famer) Randy White controlled the game from the defensive tackle. They’re few and far between.
“I don’t think John Randle could, even though I have massive respect for John Randle. And I do think he’s a Hall-of-Fame player. I just think ‘BY,’ in my 14 years, was the best defensive tackle I’ve come across … bar none.”
Gogan’s comments were echoed by others, each reaching for superlatives when discussing Young’s talent, demeanor, effort and durability … and each at a loss to explain his absence from Canton.
“He was the total package,“ said Tobeck, who faced Young 16 times. “I was fortunate enough to play with quite a few Hall of Famers, and I played against quite a few. He’s on the top of my list.”
The mystery, of course, is why he’s not at or near the top of the Hall’s list. He was a four-time All-Pro, four-time Pro Bowler, all-decade choice and Super Bowl champion. He also made a remarkable comeback from a career-threatening injury in 1998 and was named the league’s Comeback Player of the Year the following season.
Teammates eight times voted him the winner of the 49ers’ Len Eshmont Award, a coveted honor given annually to the “most inspirational and courageous” player. No other individual won it more than twice. Not Joe Montana. Not Jerry Rice. Not Ronnie Lott. Not Steve Young.
All that’s missing from Bryant Young’s resume is a bust in Canton, and that puzzles people who can evaluate him best: Those who played against him.
“I was quite shocked when he didn’t make it on the first ballot,” said Timmerman, who faced Young 20 times during his career.
First ballot? He wasn’t on the last ballot. Yet the offensive linemen who joined Wednesday’s call expressed such respect and admiration for Young that when asked to compare him to former Patriots’ and Raiders’ defensive tackle Richard Seymour – a top-10 finalist the past two years and a favorite to be elected in 2022 – they leaned toward Young, with Roaf saying “they both should get in.”
“I don’t think there’s any comparison,” said Timmerman. “I think ‘BY’ should go in before Seymour, for sure. No doubt about it. He was a game changer. As far as against the run, ‘BY’ might be the top out of those three I mentioned -- Randle, Sapp and ‘BY.’
“Against the run, he had the power to withstand and take on a double team. Looking at him, you’d be like: He’s not a big, menacing guy. But he could hold his own against a double-team. He played the run harder than those guys.”
Bryant Young has 10 more years of modern-era eligibility to reach Canton, and that’s encouraging. But his lack of momentum among the Hall’s board of selectors is not. That’s why six offensive linemen on Wednesday spoke up, hoping to influence voters before they cast ballots for the Class of 2022 modern-era finalists.
That group will be revealed in early January, with the five inductees announced prior to Super Bowl LVI.
If nothing else, Young is representative of too many Hall-of-Fame worthy individuals who can get lost in the process. It took Jerry Kramer, the only guard on the NFL’s 50th anniversary team, 45 years to reach Canton, and then it was as a senior nominee. Young is not there yet. In fact, he’s not even close.
Plus, the story of Denver safety Steve Atwater should encourage him and his supporters. An All-Pro safety and first-team all-decade choice, Atwater wasn’t a finalist until 2016 – or his 12th year of eligibility. Then, something extraordinary happened. He didn’t return as a finalist until 2019 when he somehow moved into the Top 10. One year later he was enshrined.
Here’s hoping Bryant Young’s story has a similar ending. I know at least six opponents who do, too.
“There comes a point where you’ve got to do the right thing,” said Fontenot, “and this is the right thing to do. This guy deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. Period.”