He planted his right foot, thrust his arms forward in an all-out
bull rush, and suddenly his lower right leg snapped. As he fell,
he saw that the leg was mangled and flared at a grotesque angle.
Bryant Young sank to the 3Com Park grass and felt the bottom
drop out of his world.
That's how Young, the San Francisco 49ers' indefatigable
defensive tackle, remembers the injury he suffered in a
Monday-night game against the New York Giants last Nov. 30. When
teammate Ken Norton inadvertently slammed his helmet into
Young's shin, the bones shattered like bamboo whacked by a
sledgehammer: "Imagine yourself falling off a cliff into an
abyss and gasping for air," Young says of the pain. "You're
trying desperately to grab onto something, but you're plummeting
too fast and can't get a grip."
While Monday Night Football viewers watched the nauseating
replays and recalled gruesome injuries to Joe Theismann and
Napoleon McCallum, Young suffered in real time. Many players
from both teams had to turn away when they saw the leg, with its
broken tibia and fibula; 49ers coach Steve Mariucci, who clasped
hands with Young for several minutes, told him not to look. The
290-pound Young howled in agony, yelling, "Don't touch me!" as
doctors manipulated the leg into an air cast. He was wheeled off
to an ambulance, where his pregnant wife, Kristin, and San
Francisco's embattled owner, Eddie DeBartolo, each grabbed one
of his hands.
At the outset of the 25-mile trip to Stanford Hospital,
paramedics struggled to place an intravenous needle in Young's
arm. Young was shaking, crying and clinging to consciousness,
and DeBartolo, who had used scissors to cut away Young's
sweat-soaked jersey and shoulder pads, finally snapped: "Pull
this f------ ambulance over and get the IV started!" The driver
promptly braked to the shoulder of U.S. 101. A minute or so
later Young felt a rush of morphine and experienced a more
subtle form of discomfort: For the first time in his five-year
career, he began to comprehend how much he meant to the people
After terrorizing the trenches and ducking the spotlight, Young,
27, has been exposed. His impressive recovery over the past nine
months--Young is expected to play in the Niners' Sept. 12 opener
in Jacksonville--highlighted the same qualities that had quietly
made him one of the NFL's most respected players before his
injury: toughness, determination and pride. "When Bryant Young
went down, my heart dropped out of my chest, because he's like
the Rock of Gibraltar," says DeBartolo, who's in the process of
formally handing over control of the 49ers to his sister, Denise
DeBartolo York. "He's like one of those guys I knew back in
Youngstown [Ohio, DeBartolo's hometown]: His wife packs his
lunch, and he goes off to the mill, works his butt off every day
and doesn't think it's a big deal."
Kristin, who in July gave birth to the Youngs' first child,
daughter Kai Marin, says Bryant "doesn't take compliments well,
because he's so low-key. He'd much rather not be portrayed as
someone special." This is convenient because Young has received
less glory than any other dominant NFL player of the '90s--and
less money ($26 million over six years) than recent
underachieving defensive tackles like the Carolina Panthers'
Sean Gilbert ($46.5 million, seven years), the Kansas City
Chiefs' Chester McGlockton ($28.8 million, five years) and the
Washington Redskins' Dana Stubblefield ($36 million, six years),
who started alongside Young from '94 through '97. Most insiders
rate Young, Minnesota Vikings tackle John Randle and Buffalo
Bills end Bruce Smith as the league's best defensive linemen,
yet largely because of injuries Young has been selected to only
one Pro Bowl.
San Francisco's defensive scheme is geared toward freeing up its
linebackers, and that hinges on Young, whose value is best
illustrated by what happened in his absence: After he went down,
the Niners gave up an average of 119.7 rushing yards to their
final six opponents, an increase of almost 24 yards per game
over their first 12 outings. "B.Y. makes my job 10 times
easier," says middle linebacker Winfred Tubbs. "When he's not in
there, offensive linemen will chip off and block me, but when
he's in, I've seen him defeat three guys on one play. He is the
Reggie White of today."
Teammates are equally awed by Young's demeanor--selfless,
focused and relentlessly positive. No one has messed with him
since his rookie year, when eight veterans surrounded Young at
his locker and, as per ritual, prepared to throw him into the
team's swimming pool. Young, a high school wrestler in Chicago
Heights, Ill., refused to budge. The group spent more than five
minutes moving him only 30 feet before giving up. "After that,"
says Young, "they knew I wasn't one to be pushed around."
Young remains slightly uneasy about discussing his comeback,
which originally was projected for midseason, for there have
been some choppy moments. After he underwent surgery to insert a
titanium rod in his tibia on the afternoon following his injury,
his lower leg swelled. Doctors, fearing possible nerve damage,
rushed Young back into the operating room and made an incision
near his ankle to relieve the pressure. In May an old injury to
Young's right knee flared up, and doctors performed arthroscopic
surgery to clean out loose cartilage.
There were also emotional hurdles to clear. In April, Young took
a fishing trip to Cabo San Lucas with San Diego Chargers guard
Aaron Taylor, a former Notre Dame teammate who twice suffered
severe knee injuries while playing for the Green Bay Packers.
"We go away every year, but our other trips had been
spring-break-type excursions," Taylor says. "This time we were
dealing with the emotional impact of the injury. You think
you're invincible and then--boom!--your whole life stops. But
your teammates keep marching on. Part of you wants the team not
to do well, because otherwise you don't feel missed. You feel
guilty for feeling that way, but it's good to get it out in the
open and get past it."
The injury probably cost Young, who had already racked up 9 1/2
sacks, a Pro Bowl berth. But on a gloomy December morning he
received an honor that rocked his world. Mariucci informed Young
that teammates had voted him the winner of the Len Eshmont Award
for inspirational and courageous play, an annual honor treated
with reverence in the Niners' locker room. Young, who also won
it in 1996, was speechless.
His first reaction was to feel sheepish, viewing the vote as a
slight to worthy teammates. When the significance set in, Young
cried. "I'm not an emotional guy," he says, "but I was
overwhelmed that my teammates thought so much of me. That award
means more to me than any honor I've received."
His leg was far from healed, but Young was back on solid ground.