Jack Youngblood is standing in the rain, and all around him is chaos. Things are not working out right. The scene is the Orange Bowl, late on a Sunday afternoon, and the Miami Dolphins are kicking the butts of the Los Angeles Rams. Youngblood's left leg hurts, and so do his left shoulder and left elbow. He has these little nicks and cuts and cleat marks up and down his arms, and his uniform is covered with grass stains and slop. But what really ticks him off is that the coaches have yanked him: Blood, a 13-year veteran, the heart, soul and guts of the Rams, is now standing on the sidelines.
"When I come to play, I come to play," Youngblood likes to say. "Either it's good enough to play whistle to whistle, or it's not. I condition myself for that and take pride in it."
And so while his replacement, Gary Jeter, who's five years younger and 20 pounds of muscle heavier, is out there anchoring the left side of the defensive line, Youngblood has his hands on his hips, looking as if he would like to bite off somebody's head.
After L.A.'s second defeat in two weeks, Youngblood showers and brushes the chewing tobacco out of his teeth. He walks stiffly to his locker, trying to find a gait that suits an old pro's aches and pains, and throws some stuff into a weathered, beat-up equipment bag. Nobody says anything to him. The bag is almost as old as some NFL players. Youngblood is a tad shy of 34. He has been playing football for close to 20 years, and most of the time it has been a mismatch, with him the underdog against bigger men. But he has won a lot more than he has lost. A lot more.
December 12, 1983
"Jack's kind of the Pete Rose of football," says Mike Barber, a Ram tight end. "He's the first one in the locker room and the last to leave every day. All you've got to do is look at him to see what football means, that it's his life. He's an inspiration to everybody."
Youngblood is a throwback to the old days when football flew by the seat of its pants. He has not missed a game since joining the Rams in 1971, and he has started every one since '73. He has been the club's Most Valuable Player three times, All-National Football Conference six times, and he has played in seven Pro Bowls. Once he played 2½ games on a broken leg.
Youngblood is 6'4" and 240 pounds, and when he gets a hard look on his face, people turn and walk the other way if they're smart. Once during a dispute in Logan, Utah, a man stuck a loaded gun in Jack's eye and pulled the trigger. But the gun did not fire. Youngblood took it away, knocked the man to the ground and walked off.
Now, in the Orange Bowl visitors' locker room, Youngblood looks up from his seat. Thirteen years, and this had been the first time he'd come out for a younger man. His face is impassive, save for his eyes. "You'll see a lot of hard work this next week," he says.
Jack Youngblood is in danger of becoming a discontinued model. He's almost like a Congressman who is confronted by redistricting. Youngblood, a strong candidate for the Hall of Fame, now must contend with the vagaries of the new L.A. defense—the 3-4, the fortification currently in vogue in the NFL. The 3-4 favors massive linemen who can occupy a lot of space. Mobility, Young-blood's trademark, is not that important because in the 3-4 it's the linebackers who make the kill.
Youngblood also seems out of place off the field. He has always stuck out a bit in Los Angeles, the land of fake-believe. Twiggy, the Broadway actress, recently analyzed life in the gaudy lane this way: "They lie to you all the time in L.A. It's nothing but youth, beauty, money, power—all the rotten things." But Youngblood hasn't changed since he came out of Monticello, Fla., a tiny town some 30 miles outside Tallahassee in an area where a red neck is manual labor's purple heart. His speech is still Southern, riddled with "goldurns" and "dangs," and his sandy hair hangs down over his eyes, making him look like some big, raw-boned kid who likes nothing better than being out in a frost-covered field with a shotgun on his shoulder and dogs at his feet. He drives a Ford truck with a souvenir license plate that says PROUD AMERICAN. He wears boots, a big cowboy belt buckle and Western shirts. Recently, he had to ask a friend what nouvelle cuisine meant.
Long before the Rams moved there, Youngblood settled in Orange County, which has a reputation for conservatism. His home is in Orange Park Acres, an area that sits on the side of a hill. It's horse country, and Jack's house looks something like a big red barn. A speedboat sits in the driveway, and inside the kitchen door there's a plaque that says: THE OLDER THE BERRY, THE SWEETER THE JUICE.
The house is decorated as if it were a rural country home, with mounted fish and stuffed ducks and other wildlife throughout. Except for the living room. That is California contemporary and looks virtually unlived-in. "That's her room," Youngblood will say, referring to his wife, Diane.
She also has three cats. Jack doesn't like cats. "They don't do anything," he says. When he first meets someone, that is what he wants to know. Do they do anything? Or are they worthless, like a cat.
Big, strong and handsome, that's Youngblood, and that once defined the ideal of the American male. Now football players hold hands in the huddle, and they do aerobic dancing. If he watched soap operas, Youngblood would not see his type playing the good guy these days. It's as if someone has called an audible on the emotional line of scrimmage, and Youngblood has been caught in the wrong stance.
Jack and Diane were college sweethearts at the University of Florida. She is from Lake City, Fla., a town that closes up early. But unlike Jack, she has changed. She has her own business: a stationery store in Costa Mesa. She also does interior decorating. She takes French lessons, jogs, plays racquetball, does aerobics, works out on Nautilus machines and dabbles at painting.
She and Jack were split up, on and off, for most of '83 but have been together for the last month. He was in the house by himself, eating off paper plates.
The problems with his marriage pained Youngblood greatly. "It was losing, and I don't like that," he says. "I'm not used to it. Everything I ever touched always turned to gold. But the pressures of the game can affect a relationship. The whole attitude about winning and losing changes your perspective. Success breeds success. Confidence begets confidence. And the results can change the way you look at yourself. The last two years, when the team was losing, literally made me question my ability, question my intellect."
Good or bad, there aren't many male bastions left. One of them is the weight room of a pro football team. The Rams' weight room has mirrors on all four walls, and most players working out there keep their shirts off, the better to gauge the "pump"—that surge of blood through the veins during a routine. This is where Youngblood can find solace. During the season he almost never misses a day of weightlifting. Often he is the only Ram there. He likes nothing better than to put some Willie Nelson on the stereo, pop some chewing tobacco in his mouth and pump some iron.
Youngblood looks older than his years. His face is craggy. The average career of a pro player is only 4½ years. So Jack is three generations removed from the rookies, the "young 'uns" he calls them. Lately he has taken to reminiscing. When he was younger, he ran with a group of teammates. They got into a lot of "attitude readjustment," which is Youngblood's term for serious drinking. Says Jack, "The crazy thing is that we could be off the wall and still have the physical ability to go out and perform above and beyond anybody else." On one of his outings while preparing for a Pro Bowl in Hawaii, Youngblood ended up on stage, cavorting with a dancer who was part of Don Ho's act. She thought it would be funny to pull his pants down. What she, and everyone else in the bar, discovered was that Youngblood wasn't wearing underwear.
He remembers breaking into pro football, thrilled with a $21,000 salary. Deacon Jones, his idol, had hurt his foot, and Youngblood, a rookie and a rube, filled the void. One thing sticks out in his mind: Baltimore's Johnny Unitas handing off to Tom Matte down near the goal line, and Unitas yelling, no, commanding, "Hit that hole!" The old guys had a basic tenet: Don't let anyone down.
Now Youngblood is a man among boys; it is harder and harder for him to find any common ground with his teammates. "I'm not in contact with 'em," he says. "That's kind of a sad thing to say, being the senior citizen of this operation."
Youngblood discovered weightlifting in college, and for thousands of hours he has pitted his will against the iron. Basically, he is a man of medium build, with a long, lean torso, but the weights have stacked on about 40 pounds of pure muscle. It looks as if there are balloons under his skin.
Youngblood says that the three toughest men he ever faced were the Cardinals' Dan Dierdorf, the Cowboys' Rayfield Wright and the Vikings' Ron Yary. "Now these young 'uns are coming out like clones," he mutters. "They're just stamping 'em out. You don't even have to look at their stats: six-six, 280 pounds, 34-inch waist, 52-inch chest. Bench-press the world."
He stares across the room at Kent Hill, a 26-year-old Ram guard who appears to be sculpted from granite. Youngblood's voice picks up force. "If I was that young," he booms, "and had that body, I'd walk in the valley and fear no one." Hill looks as if someone had just patted him on the head. Then Youngblood adds, "Your body...and my looks." Hill turns toward a mirror, and smooths his hair. "You don't want to ruin this body with your face," he says.
For all the kidding, Youngblood's body is something of a marvel. He has never failed to answer the bell. Thirteen years, 185 straight games. The club trainer, Gary Tuthill, claims that Youngblood does not have a high threshold of pain—he has no threshold at all. Sometimes the other players worry about him. Earlier this season Youngblood was kicked in the leg and an infection set in. There was talk about putting him in the hospital, but he kept practicing. A few of the players noticed that there was an angry red line running up his leg. "You should take care of that," Jackie Slater, the tackle who lines up opposite Youngblood in practice, told him one day. "That line goes to your heart, it'll kill you."
There is a tendency to assume that the reason Youngblood has never missed a game is that he has never been hurt. Not true. He has never been hurt badly, by his estimation, but he's all but crippled. His left shoulder has troubled him for years, the result of a damaged nerve from a collision "with a young Calvin Hill." His fingers are gnarled and misshapen. And evidence of arthritis is starting to show from the battering taken by his shoulders, elbows, knees and ankles.
Two years ago, prior to the '81 season, he was scared for the first time. He was rushed to the hospital after a doctor's examination revealed a blood clot under his arm. "We believe that we're invincible," Youngblood says. "It was a deal where the bone wasn't stickin' out, and it didn't hurt, and they said it was gonna kill me. I said, 'Now wait a minute.' Then when they ordered up the operating room, I thought, 'Well, maybe they are serious.' " The doctors, after removing a blood clot the size of a hot dog, said there was a chance he would not play again. Those who knew him scoffed at that. "Remember '79," they said.
It was in the '79 playoffs that Youngblood played those two-plus games on the broken leg. Not only the games, but he practiced every day. He was injured against Dallas when he fell over Wright. "It felt like I'd been shot," Youngblood says. "I knew it was broken." At halftime the doctors and coaches were huddling over some X rays. Youngblood hobbled up to them, his chin out, defiant as ever. "I don't care what those X rays say," he cracked. "You tape it up, because I'm gonna finish this game." He got one sack in the second half and played in the NFC championship game the next week and the Super Bowl against the Steelers two weeks after that.
For Youngblood this is what it all comes down to. You either play or you don't. But the important thing is that you make the decision. When it's time for the party to be over, it's you who decides to turn out the lights. Not some doctor. Not some sportswriter. Not some coach. And surely not some young 'un.
Youngblood is a celebrity in a town that adores and venerates them. Women in particular are drawn to him. One got into his truck in the Rams' parking lot and refused to leave. Others have followed him when he drove away from practice. Some have shown up at his home. Often when he's in a restaurant, a woman will come over to his table. Youngblood always asks to see her left hand. If she is married, he is courteous and pleasant but definitely reserved; he doesn't want a jealous husband interrupting his dessert. If she is single, he might banter a bit. He knows if he can make her blush, she'll go away happy.
It always comes as a surprise to those who see Youngblood as the old-fashioned image of masculinity to discover what a dominant force women have been in his life. His mother, Kay, was widowed when he was 10, so he and his two younger sisters were raised without a father. The owner of his football team is a woman: Georgia Frontiere. And he and his wife were seeing a female marriage counselor about their marital problems. "Women," Youngblood occasionally blurts out in the weight room, "I'm givin' 'em up."
Fifteen years ago, when his conservative values conflicted with the hippie tenets of his generation, Youngblood, then a sophomore at Florida, reacted by climbing into a police car in Gainesville, Fla. and going out to battle some demonstrators who were marching in the town. Now he is out of step with his surroundings once more. To him the West Coast crowd, with its emphasis on the material, does not have old or new values so much as no values at all.
"These people are sick," Youngblood says. "They really are. Everybody lives in the fast lane out here. They have to work so hard just to make ends meet. It's a vicious circle. They make more money so they buy a bigger house and a bigger car. Then they got to make more money to pay the bills. It never ends."
Every year, within days of the season's last game, Youngblood is back in Monticello, fishing and hunting. He has a 260-acre ranch there and raises cattle and soybeans, but what he likes most is the camaraderie. The only complaint from the local folks is that he borrows their Red Man and never repays them. He's still the same ingenuous kid who painted his name on the town water tower and then wondered the next day how the sheriff figured out he was the culprit.
These days it's tough to find a spot where Youngblood can feel as comfortable as he does back home. Dad gum, even pro football has sold out, changing its rules so the offense can run up the score. Says Diane Youngblood, "What he still loves are the basic things he grew up with."
Diane has put Florida behind her. But then, she didn't have a pro football locker room to go to every day. Football is her husband's life. "If Jack puts his mind to something, if he makes a commitment, he puts his whole heart into it," says Diane. "Sometimes, the other things around him suffer—like me."
Merlin Olsen, who played 208 games with the Rams before he retired in 1976, says of Youngblood, "Jack's still a little boy in a lot of ways. But professional football is the kind of place where there's all kinds of encouragement not to grow up. For an athlete to make the kind of commitment Jack has made, it alters his life. It's difficult for a wife to understand how he can pour out all that emotion on the field, and then be insensitive to her needs. But if you're really going to be good, or, like Jack, great, you have to do it that way. You can't cheat on the emotional side."
After the debacle in Miami, the Rams prepared to play Chicago the following week. Publicly, the Ram coaches were saying Youngblood's job was secure. Privately, they were making plans to use Jeter more against the Bears. Before Coach John Robinson arrived this year with his three-man line, Youngblood simply took off after the quarterback, but now he must stand off his man, occupy him, allowing the linebackers to make the tackles. It's as if he has become a security guard without a gun. He has the uniform but no real power.
"Jack used to be able to get 16 sacks a year," says his best friend, former L.A. Defensive Tackle Larry Brooks, now a Ram defensive line coach. "This season he'll be lucky if he gets 10. [He had 7½ through last Sunday's 13-9 loss to Philadelphia.] He's learning to play football all over again. The way he played before is not acceptable. But he's survivin'. Pretty good, too."
At odds with his environment, at a crossroads of his career as well as his marriage, Youngblood reacted the way he knew best. At practice he worked until he poured sweat. By Saturday he was still at it. The locker room was long deserted, save for Youngblood. By his locker were a couple of film canisters. He had been studying the Bears.
The next day, Youngblood had a great afternoon against Chicago. The Rams won 21-14, and Youngblood was a prominent figure, recording a sack but, more important, standing his ground, defending rather than attacking. In the dressing room the writers; as always, crowded around him. Robinson walked up. "Nice job, Jack," he said. Youngblood looked about 10 years younger. He told the writers, "It's always nice to hear your boss man say you did a nice job."
Over to the side. Guard Dennis Harrah was talking about the team's old man. "To me, he's the epitome of what a professional football player is all about," Harrah said. "He's the hardest-working guy on the team, probably in the NFL. He's an outstanding person and a natural leader. He truly is Number One. He could be called Mr. Football."
After dressing, Youngblood walked out of the locker room, the last to leave, as always. Upstairs the Rams were having a postgame party, and Diane was waiting for him. It would be the first time he had seen her in over a week. Walking through the empty tunnels of Anaheim Stadium, Youngblood admitted that he had felt a lot of pressure going into the Bears game. If he had played poorly, his position might have been up for grabs. It was another challenge, met and won.
Upstairs, he walked into the party and spotted Diane. The first thing she said was that she had stopped by the house earlier that day and noticed that the yard was a mess and that one of his dogs. Jet, looked like he needed a bath.
In the ensuing days the Rams coaching staff made a decision. Jeter would be used to spell Nose Tackle Charles DeJurnett. Youngblood had proved he could handle the 3-4. The Rams split their next four games and are now tied with the San Francisco 49ers for first place in the NFC's Western Division.
For her part, Diane Youngblood was reassessing her marriage. A friend whose husband had also played pro football told her, "You never have them for yourself when they're playing. Football gives them all of what they need. You have to wait until they quit to find out that they need you." Last month Diane decided to move back into the house. "We've tried being apart," she said. "It's better to be together."