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 pluqmmeting 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 W 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 around him.
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."