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Now Youngblood is a man among boys; it is harder and harder for him to find any common ground with his teammates. "I'm not in contact with 'em," he says. "That's kind of a sad thing to say, being the senior citizen of this operation."
Youngblood discovered weightlifting in college, and for thousands of hours he has pitted his will against the iron. Basically, he is a man of medium build, with a long, lean torso, but the weights have stacked on about 40 pounds of pure muscle. It looks as if there are balloons under his skin.
Youngblood says that the three toughest men he ever faced were the Cardinals' Dan Dierdorf, the Cowboys' Rayfield Wright and the Vikings' Ron Yary. "Now these young 'uns are coming out like clones," he mutters. "They're just stamping 'em out. You don't even have to look at their stats: six-six, 280 pounds, 34-inch waist, 52-inch chest. Bench-press the world."
He stares across the room at Kent Hill, a 26-year-old Ram guard who appears to be sculpted from granite. Youngblood's voice picks up force. "If I was that young," he booms, "and had that body, I'd walk in the valley and fear no one." Hill looks as if someone had just patted him on the head. Then Youngblood adds, "Your body...and my looks." Hill turns toward a mirror, and smooths his hair. "You don't want to ruin this body with your face," he says.
For all the kidding, Youngblood's body is something of a marvel. He has never failed to answer the bell. Thirteen years, 185 straight games. The club trainer, Gary Tuthill, claims that Youngblood does not have a high threshold of pain—he has no threshold at all. Sometimes the other players worry about him. Earlier this season Youngblood was kicked in the leg and an infection set in. There was talk about putting him in the hospital, but he kept practicing. A few of the players noticed that there was an angry red line running up his leg. "You should take care of that," Jackie Slater, the tackle who lines up opposite Youngblood in practice, told him one day. "That line goes to your heart, it'll kill you."
There is a tendency to assume that the reason Youngblood has never missed a game is that he has never been hurt. Not true. He has never been hurt badly, by his estimation, but he's all but crippled. His left shoulder has troubled him for years, the result of a damaged nerve from a collision "with a young Calvin Hill." His fingers are gnarled and misshapen. And evidence of arthritis is starting to show from the battering taken by his shoulders, elbows, knees and ankles.
Two years ago, prior to the '81 season, he was scared for the first time. He was rushed to the hospital after a doctor's examination revealed a blood clot under his arm. "We believe that we're invincible," Youngblood says. "It was a deal where the bone wasn't stickin' out, and it didn't hurt, and they said it was gonna kill me. I said, 'Now wait a minute.' Then when they ordered up the operating room, I thought, 'Well, maybe they are serious.' " The doctors, after removing a blood clot the size of a hot dog, said there was a chance he would not play again. Those who knew him scoffed at that. "Remember '79," they said.
It was in the '79 playoffs that Youngblood played those two-plus games on the broken leg. Not only the games, but he practiced every day. He was injured against Dallas when he fell over Wright. "It felt like I'd been shot," Youngblood says. "I knew it was broken." At halftime the doctors and coaches were huddling over some X rays. Youngblood hobbled up to them, his chin out, defiant as ever. "I don't care what those X rays say," he cracked. "You tape it up, because I'm gonna finish this game." He got one sack in the second half and played in the NFC championship game the next week and the Super Bowl against the Steelers two weeks after that.
For Youngblood this is what it all comes down to. You either play or you don't. But the important thing is that you make the decision. When it's time for the party to be over, it's you who decides to turn out the lights. Not some doctor. Not some sportswriter. Not some coach. And surely not some young 'un.
Youngblood is a celebrity in a town that adores and venerates them. Women in particular are drawn to him. One got into his truck in the Rams' parking lot and refused to leave. Others have followed him when he drove away from practice. Some have shown up at his home. Often when he's in a restaurant, a woman will come over to his table. Youngblood always asks to see her left hand. If she is married, he is courteous and pleasant but definitely reserved; he doesn't want a jealous husband interrupting his dessert. If she is single, he might banter a bit. He knows if he can make her blush, she'll go away happy.