During his 14 years in San Francisco, Bryant Young won over the hearts of 49er fans with his persistence in the midst of trial. He experienced the highs of a Super Bowl win and the lows of a 2-14 season. Along the way, he also suffered career threatening injuries but in the end he rose above the adversity and ended his career as an icon of hope in the City by the Bay. This is his story.
Bryant Colby Young was born on January 27, 1972 in Chicago Heights, Illinois. After a stellar career at Bloom High School, Young accepted a scholarship to Notre Dame
University. He earned Honorable Mention All-American honors as a junior when he recorded 7.5 sacks. Young was even better as a senior and was named an All-American after registering 6.5 sacks and 67 tackles. The 49ers drafted him seventh overall in the 1994 NFL Draft.
Early Success in San Francisco
Lining up alongside Dana Stubblefield, Dennis Brown and Rickey Jackson, Bryant Young was primed for early success in the NFL. The 49ers had been desperate to win their fifth Super Bowl and hoped that by drafting Young, they would finally accomplish their mission. Bryant Young was sensational as a rookie, recording six sacks and 49 tackles and helping the 49ers win their fifth Super Bowl.
He recorded six sacks and 28 tackles in an injury shorted 1995 campaign. The 1996 season was a special one for Bryant Young. He was named an All-Pro and was invited to his first Pro Bowl while recording 11.5 sacks and 76 tackles. Young wasn’t as dominant in 1997, recording just four sacks and 45 tackles while teammate Dana Stubblefield won the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year. Things were looking up for Bryant Young but it would all come crashing down in Week 13 of 1998.
Things were going well for Bryant Young in 1998. By Week 13, he led the NFL with 9.5 sacks and was looking for more against the New York Giants on Monday Night Football. Late in the game, teammate Ken Norton Jr. made a tackle and accidentally drove his helmet into Bryant’s right shin, immediately snapping both bones. The pain was indescribable and is often recognized as one of the most brutal injuries in the history of the NFL.
Following the game, Norton immediately went to the hospital to see his friend. When Norton entered Young’s room, Young’s wife went over to comfort Norton who was feeling immense guilt over the injury. Bryant Young also told him that he held no ill will towards him, that he knew it was an accident. Bryant Young spent 17 days in the hospital and underwent three surgeries. A titanium rod is still in his leg as a permanent reminder of those days of uncertainty.
But Bryant Young refused to let the circumstances define his career and he worked tirelessly in the offseason to make a comeback in 1999. Miraculously, Young started Week 1 of the following season and even though the 49ers were blown out by the Jacksonville Jaguars, he was getting more comfortable after 10 months away from the game. Despite the 49ers going 4-12 after losing quarterback Steve Young with a career ending concussion in Week Two, Bryant Young was sensational in his first year back, recording 11 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. He also added a safety and five deflected passes while being invited to his second Pro Bowl and was named Second-Team All-Pro for the second year in a row.. As a result of his performance, he was named the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year and earned his third Len Eshmont Award, given to the 49ers most inspirational player.
Despite recording 9.5 sacks in 2000, Young was not invited to the Pro Bowl. However, he did make the Pro Bowl the next two years as the 49ers made the playoffs in each of those years after a two year hiatus. Young even earned Second-Team All-Pro honors for the third and final time of his career in 2001. While his sack totals diminished considerably those two years, he remained consistent as a run stuffer and recorded 61 tackles between 2001 and 2002.
Staying During the Tough Times
After the 2002 season, the 49ers would not make the postseason again until 2011. It was a tough time for Bryant Young who had been there during some of the greatest moments in franchise history. The decline was swift and painful as many of their players were discarded for salary cap reasons. The team bottomed out in 2004, going a league worst 2-14. Despite their poor record, Bryant Young still showed up and played every day, recording three sacks and 48 tackles, 11 of them for loss.
Despite his advanced age and the franchise beginning a very slow rebuild, Bryant Young never gave up his responsibilities as a leader. In his last three years in the NFL, Young recorded eight sacks in 2005, 5.5 sacks in 2006 and 6.5 sacks in 2007. In his last year, the team drafted a player who would mean as much as Young had meant to the team, Patrick Willis. The team finished 5-11 in Young’s final year but beat the playoff bound Tampa Bay Buccaneers in his final home game 21-19. When the game was finished, the team carried Bryant Young off the field on their shoulders. After all of those years of carrying the defense, Bryant Young could finally rest on the shoulders of his brothers.
He retired with 89.5 sacks, 618 tackles, three safeties (tied for second in NFL history), four Pro Bowls and a team record seven Len Eshmont Awards. The following season, the 49ers found his replacement in a trade with Cincinnati: Justin Smith.
Two years after his retirement, Bryant Young began a career in coaching. He started out in 2009 as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, Notre Dame. After his lone season in South Bend, Young became the defensive line coach with San Jose State University. He had a very attractive offer from Florida in 2011 that he couldn’t pass up and he stayed there for two years, developing defensive lineman in a defensive oriented conference. His old position coach, Dan Quinn, hired him as the defensive line coach for the Atlanta Falcons in 2017. Young stayed there for two years when he stepped down to spend more time with his family.