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-technique 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 earned a first-team All-Pro nod, three second-team All-Pro honors, four Pro Bowl selections, was part of the Super Bowl XXIX champions and landed a spot on the NFL’s 1990s All-Decade team.
But for as loud as his game was, his quiet demeanor seemed to work against him in pursuit of the sport’s crowning achievement: the Pro Football Hall of Fame. For nine straight years Young was passed over, even as positional contemporaries such as John Randle and Warren Sapp were enshrined in 2010 and 2013, respectively.
It’s fitting that Young’s enshrinement breakthrough finally came this year, when a half-dozen well-respected offensive linemen — former opponents — decided it was time to push for Young in ways Young wouldn’t push for himself. They campaigned on his behalf to Hall of Fame voters.
“It was pretty clear that his candidacy was stuck in neutral and the only reason for that was his unassuming nature,” said longtime NFL PR pro Kirk Reynolds, who helped promote Young. “Talk to anyone who 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 made the entire defense better. B.Y. was never going to be the guy to tout his greatness to the voters, so I felt we needed to develop a new strategy and have everyone else do the talking for him.”
UPON RETIREMENT, YOUNG hoped his production and the respect he’d earned around the league would get him into the Hall of Fame. As one year turned into the next without the Hall call, Young’s name began to fly under the radar.
The longer Young had to wait, the more likely his candidacy was to go 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 Bears 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 got involved. Adam Timmerman, a former Rams and Packers guard, did too after he got past the initial shock of learning that Young wasn’t already in. The six linemen had 80 seasons of NFL experience among them. Reynolds organized an early December Zoom meeting that involved the six former offensive linemen and eight Hall of Fame voters. A recording of the video and a transcript of highlights was later distributed to the rest of the electorate.
It didn’t stop there. Kreutz, Frank Garcia, Steve Hutchinson, Will Shields and others offered their support. Tobeck spent 30 minutes pleading Young’s case to one voter. Young knew nothing of the campaign on his behalf until he was told an hour before the initial Zoom meeting.
“He’s just not someone who runs his mouth all the time,” Timmerman said. “A couple of the other guys that are kind of in his category when I played would be like Warren Sapp and John Randle and those guys talked all the time. But Bryant was every bit as good, if not better in some areas but never said anything about it. He wasn’t gonna tell you how good he was or anything like that. Just a humble guy that worked hard every day and would keep bringing it play after play. I was like, man, I hope he doesn’t get in just because he is not somebody that runs his mouth all the time. That would be a shame.”
The efforts were successful and a number of voters shared afterward that the testimonials of so many opponents helped push Young over the edge and into the Hall. And though it took longer than Young would have liked, he wouldn’t have had it any other way. He will go into the Hall in the same, true-to-himself way he played his whole career.
“I learned a long time ago just watching my dad to 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 gonna 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 guy playing 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 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 move to defensive tackle.
As Young added weight and got bigger, he maintained his speed and quickly became a difference-maker for the Irish. He was a three-year starter, earning All-American honors as a senior. The Niners used the No. 7 pick on Young in 1994, plugging him into one of the NFL’s most successful franchises and surrounding him with other future Hall of Famers.
Young made an instant impact as a starter in 1994 and the Niners went on to win the Super Bowl in his first season. The following year he was honorable mention All-Pro and in 1996 he had his best statistical season with 84 tackles and 11.5 sacks. Even as San Francisco’s dynasty wound down, Young took pride in trying to keep the tradition alive.
But his career nearly came to an abrupt end during a Nov. 30, 1998, game against the New York Giants. While pursuing Giants quarterback Kent Graham, Young circled back to drop into coverage when Graham went to slide. Young pulled up to avoid contact with Graham but linebacker Ken Norton Jr. went to tag Graham and his helmet ran into Young’s leg.
The result was a closed fracture of the tibia and fibula in his right leg that he now calls 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 for the game,” Young said. “I wanted to be the best. I wanted to win championships and be considered a top guy. And so here I am faced with this huge obstacle, and it tested my love for the game. Like, did I want it that bad? They say that adversity really reveals a lot of who you are, what’s inside of you in terms of the foundation that you’re really built on. It kind of solidified some things for me.”
Young’s recovery wasn’t easy. Various surgeries left a rod and two screws installed on the top and bottom of his leg. Complications included nerve damage.
It took Young a week just to sit up in bed, a couple more to stand again on crutches and three months before he could walk on his own. When he returned to the field for the 1999 season, Young couldn’t practice on consecutive days because his right leg, which was now about an inch longer than his left, would swell too much.
Young said the hardest part was clearing the mental hurdles following the injury, but if 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 award, the individual accolade Young remains most proud of to this day.
“I don’t think he missed a beat when he came back,” Timmerman said. “Maybe he felt like he wasn’t but I think everybody that played him knew. … He was a 100 percent in my mind anyway.”
Back at full strength, Young would go on to play eight more seasons, staying with the Niners even as San Francisco struggled to get back to its previous glory. It was a rare feat in an NFL world increasingly fascinated by free agency.
“I believe in seeing things through,” 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 was, perhaps, a longer than expected wait to reach the Hall of Fame, but one that has left him grateful.
“It was humbling to hear the things that they said,” Young said of those who advocated for him. … “I’m thankful to those guys for doing that.”