CANTON — Bryant Young bridged the classic soccer gap between discipline and ferocity with more skill than just about any player of his generation.
For every minute of a 14-year NFL career spent entirely with the San Francisco 49ers, Young was a model teammate and a gentle leader who selflessly made everyone around him better.
And for 60 minutes on most fall Sundays, Young was one of the most intimidating, vicious defensive linemen his teammates and opponents had ever seen.
Young does not see this dichotomy as a contradiction. In fact, he relished the chance to get a little crazy while being a measured, mature man in every other area of his wealthy life.
“Football is a very chaotic, violent, physical sport,” Young said with a smile. “It’s controlled chaos. You don’t get better and you don’t excel at the game by being this passive, nice individual.”
Yet that’s exactly what Young did as one of the most inspiring players and one of the genuinely nice guys of his NFL era.
In addition to his production and resilience in one of the sport’s most ruthless positions, Young’s ability to inspire—both through his game and his response to unimaginable adversity on and off the pitch—eventually earned him admission to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on. summer, almost 15 years after his last game.
Most of the time, Young felt a responsibility when he learned that he was finally getting a gold jacket.
“I want to make sure I do that right and handle it carefully,” Young said. “I want to do a great job representing all members of the brotherhood.”
Young was an epitome of leadership, production and punishing play, but he was not a flashy attention grabber on the field or a flamboyant personality off it.
That’s probably why he’s waited so long for his anchoring—and why it might not have happened at all if a group of six offensive linemen hadn’t been assembled by the 49ers’ former PR director last December to record a video. testimony encouraging voters to choose Young.
One of the best three-tech defensive tackles of his era, Young had 89 1/2 sacks and earned four Pro Bowl selections in an era rich in talent at the position. He earned an All-Pro nod in 1996, his most outstanding stat season with 84 tackles, 11 1/2 sacks and two fuses.
Security Lance Schulters played his first four NFL seasons alongside Young in San Francisco from 1998 to 2001. Schulters admits he was a dirty defense who took several lessons about professionalism and responsibility from the taciturn Young.
“He didn’t speak much, but if he did speak, you better shut up and pay attention,” Schulters said. “I learned from his toughness and mental fortitude, from his study habits – he would be the first man there, the last to leave. Always aware of his game, taking care of his body. And then in the game, how he checked those guards and dipped them in rags, you couldn’t believe it. He’s a great teammate. I love BY.”
The 50-year-old Young seems to have been a legacy throughout his life.
Young grew up in Chicago Heights with two older brothers and a father who worked for the Ford Motor Company. Although he didn’t play football until his freshman year at Bloom High School – initially assuming he would become a fullback – his talent eventually took him to Notre Dame.
He was a three-year starter for Lou Holtz’s Fighting Irish, went on to become a team captain, a determined leader — and eventually the second defensive lineman chosen in the 1994 draft.
Young was seventh overall for the 49ers, who traded in to add young talent to an already outstanding team coming after two consecutive NFC Championship games. Young was the bridge to the future for a defense full of veteran talent including Dana Stubblefield, Rickey Jackson, Ken Norton Jr., Tim McDonald, Merton Hanks and Deion Sanders.
San Francisco won it all in his rookie season, with Young kicking off the Super Bowl win over San Diego. Although the Niners never made it back to the Super Bowl during Young’s career, they remained a consistently winning team until his final seasons.
Young calls it “a huge blessing” to play for just one team: “I know most people don’t get the chance to finish their careers where they started, so I don’t take that lightly.”
The biggest challenge of Young’s career came late in the 1998 season when his left tibia was grotesquely broken by Norton’s helmet. Young spent more than two weeks in the hospital and required extensive surgery to save his leg from complications.
Schulters was a rookie that season. Like the rest of Young’s teammates, he was amazed at Young’s comeback for the 1999 season opener. Young was the obvious choice as the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year after a dominating 11-sack campaign.
“I was impressed,” said Schulters. “We were all like, ‘Sit down somewhere!’ But no. BY was in it. I didn’t know how you could do it mentally. That that happens to your body, just deal with it, and then come back the next season? That was incredible.”
After his retirement in 2007, Young moved to North Carolina with his wife Kristin and their six children. He has also coached defensive lines for San Jose State, Notre Dame, Florida and the Atlanta Falcons.
The Youngs also endured the unimaginable pain of losing their son, 15-year-old Colby, to pediatric brain cancer in 2016. Bryant Young handled the tragedy with the same maturity and quiet strength that has been the foundation of his entire life, and he came forward with a determination to continue a life of selflessness and leadership.
“For the young guys, the advice I would give them is never, ever be satisfied,” said Young. “Always look for an opportunity to get better and move forward. There is always work to be done. Don’t get locked into a one-way street. There are always opportunities if you stay open and eager to learn. Keep your eyes on what lies ahead , and always open to improvement.”