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Jack Youngblood is standing in the rain, and all around him is chaos. Things are not working out right. The scene is the Orange Bowl, late on a Sunday afternoon, and the Miami Dolphins are kicking the butts of the Los Angeles Rams. Youngblood's left leg hurts, and so do his left shoulder and left elbow. He has these little nicks and cuts and cleat marks up and down his arms, and his uniform is covered with grass stains and slop. But what really ticks him off is that the coaches have yanked him: Blood, a 13-year veteran, the heart, soul and guts of the Rams, is now standing on the sidelines.
"When I come to play, I come to play," Youngblood likes to say. "Either it's good enough to play whistle to whistle, or it's not. I condition myself for that and take pride in it."
And so while his replacement, Gary Jeter, who's five years younger and 20 pounds of muscle heavier, is out there anchoring the left side of the defensive line, Youngblood has his hands on his hips, looking as if he would like to bite off somebody's head.
After L.A.'s second defeat in two weeks, Youngblood showers and brushes the chewing tobacco out of his teeth. He walks stiffly to his locker, trying to find a gait that suits an old pro's aches and pains, and throws some stuff into a weathered, beat-up equipment bag. Nobody says anything to him. The bag is almost as old as some NFL players. Youngblood is a tad shy of 34. He has been playing football for close to 20 years, and most of the time it has been a mismatch, with him the underdog against bigger men. But he has won a lot more than he has lost. A lot more.
"Jack's kind of the Pete Rose of football," says Mike Barber, a Ram tight end. "He's the first one in the locker room and the last to leave every day. All you've got to do is look at him to see what football means, that it's his life. He's an inspiration to everybody."
Youngblood is a throwback to the old days when football flew by the seat of its pants. He has not missed a game since joining the Rams in 1971, and he has started every one since '73. He has been the club's Most Valuable Player three times, All-National Football Conference six times, and he has played in seven Pro Bowls. Once he played 2½ games on a broken leg.
Youngblood is 6'4" and 240 pounds, and when he gets a hard look on his face, people turn and walk the other way if they're smart. Once during a dispute in Logan, Utah, a man stuck a loaded gun in Jack's eye and pulled the trigger. But the gun did not fire. Youngblood took it away, knocked the man to the ground and walked off.
Now, in the Orange Bowl visitors' locker room, Youngblood looks up from his seat. Thirteen years, and this had been the first time he'd come out for a younger man. His face is impassive, save for his eyes. "You'll see a lot of hard work this next week," he says.
Jack Youngblood is in danger of becoming a discontinued model. He's almost like a Congressman who is confronted by redistricting. Youngblood, a strong candidate for the Hall of Fame, now must contend with the vagaries of the new L.A. defense—the 3-4, the fortification currently in vogue in the NFL. The 3-4 favors massive linemen who can occupy a lot of space. Mobility, Young-blood's trademark, is not that important because in the 3-4 it's the linebackers who make the kill.
Youngblood also seems out of place off the field. He has always stuck out a bit in Los Angeles, the land of fake-believe. Twiggy, the Broadway actress, recently analyzed life in the gaudy lane this way: "They lie to you all the time in L.A. It's nothing but youth, beauty, money, power—all the rotten things." But Youngblood hasn't changed since he came out of Monticello, Fla., a tiny town some 30 miles outside Tallahassee in an area where a red neck is manual labor's purple heart. His speech is still Southern, riddled with "goldurns" and "dangs," and his sandy hair hangs down over his eyes, making him look like some big, raw-boned kid who likes nothing better than being out in a frost-covered field with a shotgun on his shoulder and dogs at his feet. He drives a Ford truck with a souvenir license plate that says PROUD AMERICAN. He wears boots, a big cowboy belt buckle and Western shirts. Recently, he had to ask a friend what nouvelle cuisine meant.