Why reaching Canton is so "meaningful" to 49ers' finalist Bryant Young
There are seven first-time finalists in the Hall-of-Fame’s Class of 2020, but none is more intriguing than former San Francisco defensive tackle Bryant Young.
It’s not because it took him eight years to get this far. Others like Sam Mills and LeRoy Butler have waited longer. Nope, it’s that it took him eight years just to hear his name mentioned by someone ... anyone ... associated with the Hall’s board of selectors.
You see, this isn’t just Bryant Young’s first year as a finalist; it’s his first year as a semifinalist, too, and no other candidate for the Class of 2020 – outside of Troy Polamalu and Reggie Wayne, both in their first years of eligibility – can say that.
“When I got the call,” Young told me earlier this week, “I was just taken aback. I was speechless and very excited. First and foremost, I was just humbled to be among some great individuals. I had no words. Now, we’ll see how it goes.”
While rare, Young’s great leap forward is not unprecedented. Former Dallas defensive back Everson Walls was never a finalist or semifinalist until 2018, his last year of eligibility as a modern-era candidate … and we saw how that went.
He didn’t make the first cut to 10.
But Young’s situation is different. He’s not in his last year of eligibility; he’s in in eighth … and he’s one of two defensive linemen up for Canton (Richard Seymour is the other). He was a four-time All-Pro and four-time Pro Bowl choice. He was a Super Bowl champion. He was named to the 1990’s all-decade team. He was an eight-time winner of the Len Eshmont award, the 49ers’ most prestigious accolade. And he was the NFL’s 1999 Comeback Player of the Year.
What he’s not is in Canton. And what he wasn’t was on the Hall’s radar.
“This is very meaningful,” Young said.
It’s very deserving, too. Because Bryant Young was one of the best defensive tackles of his era, and you don’t need me to remind you. Just look at the 1990s’ all-decade roster. There are four defensive tackles listed. Cortez Kennedy and John Randle are the starters, with Warren Sapp and Bryant Young second-team choices.
All but Young are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“I don’t pound my chest at all,” said Young, “but I really feel I deserve to be among the greats that came before me.”
He’s not alone. NFL historian John Turney of Pro Football Journal thinks he deserves to be among them, too. Turney studies film, videotape and reams of statistics, and the conclusion he draws is that Bryant Young was in the same stratosphere as Randle and Sapp, also named a first-team choice for the 2000s’ all-decade team.
“Bryant Young played left defensive tackle,” Turney said, “so he had to play both the three-and-the-one techniques, depending on where the tight end and the call were; whereas guys like John Randle and Warren Sapp were always a three-technique, so they didn’t have the responsibility that Bryant Young did.”
Nor the results. Turney points out that during Young’s career, the 49ers ranked fourth in rushing yards allowed and fourth in yards per carry. Furthermore, he mentions how effective Young was as a pass rusher, with almost as many sacks (89.5) as Sapp (96.5) and more run stuffs (76) than Sapp (65-1/2) or Randle (44).
“Bryant Young really was a Mean Joe Greene/Merlin Olsen type,” said Turney. “A two-way tackle making big plays versus the run and the pass.”
Greene and Olsen were first-ballot choices. So was Sapp. We’re just getting to know Bryant Young. Yet when I mentioned Turney’s comparisons – particularly vs. Sapp – he didn’t flinch. In fact, he seconded the motion.
“I would agree with that,” Young said. “That’s not to take anything away from him (Sapp). He did some really, really good things on the field and got recognized for it. I’m just excited that I’m in this phase of it now, and people can understand my side of the story … and realize that I am deserving of this position.”
People in and around the 49ers understood his side of the story for years, with the Eshmont award as proof. It’s the most coveted of the team’s honors, given annually to the player who best exemplifies “the inspirational and courageous” play of Eshmont, a member of the original 1946 49ers who died in 1957.
Several players have won it twice – Hall-of-Famers Jimmy Johnson, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Steve Young, for instance. But only one won it more since the award was created in 1957.
That would be Bryant Young. Eight times.
“I’m floored by that,” he said. “All I did was my due diligence and I played the way it describes the recipient as he should be. I think you have to really look at what that award really stands for. It’s not a popular award. It goes beyond that. It’s the grittiness of preparedness … the work behind the scenes … the work on the field … and the practice.
“And then it’s how you play the game, how you represent it and how you inspire. Sometimes the sexy plays are not going to be the thing that jump out at people. It’s the grittiness of the job that you do that inspires others.”
There was nothing sexy about Bryant Young’s play. It was professional. It was efficient. And it was complete. He defended the run. He rushed the passer. And he bottled up the inside, freeing teammates to make plays.
He wasn’t flamboyant like Sapp or Randle, and that probably cost him some attention. He wasn’t a sound bite waiting to happen, either, and that may have hurt him, too. All I know is that Bryant Young was one of the classiest, hardest working and most responsible, talented and courageous individuals I covered in over 30 years following the NFL.
Maybe you remember a lower leg injury he suffered in a Monday Night defeat of the New York Giants in 1998. I do. It was horrific, with Young fracturing both bones in his lower right leg when teammate Ken Norton inadvertently slammed his helmet into Young’s shin. It was a career-threatening injury, with a metal rod inserted into Young’s tibia, and there was no guarantee that Young would … or could … play again.
But he did, returning in 1999 to produce 77 tackles (including 19 for losses), 11 sacks and one safety to be named the league’s Comeback Player of the Year. Now, over two decades later, he’s on the cusp of his greatest achievement yet.
“I think I belong in the Hall of Fame because I was a complete player,” he said when asked to make his case for Canton. “I didn’t at times have the sexy sack, but I affected the game. I affected the quarterback. I affected the running game. And when you ask other people that I’ve played against, I think they would do me justice and say, I played the run really, really well.
“Sometimes that doesn’t get enough credit. Because you do have to stop the run to be able to rush the quarterback. So I do think I was the complete player. But the sexy stat is the sack, and what comes along with that is some of the accolades and the notoriety. But when you have the complete player that can affect the run game and the pass game, you have to recognize that.”
Hall-of-Fame voters have. They just made Bryant Young a first-time finalist.
“What are you feeling now?” I asked. “Anxious? Overjoyed? Nervous? What?”
“I’m a bit all of that,” he said. “I’m excited, but I’m extremely humbled to finally have an opportunity to be part of this group of finalists … and to know I’m this close. Your emotions get tied into it. People say they don’t, but I’m telling you: They’re not telling the truth. You hope it happens.”
I hope it does, too.
Follow on Twitter @ClarkJudgeTOF