Throughout the season, 49ers.com will feature members of our10-Year Club. Check out our first installment with former 49ers defensive lineman Bryant Young, who played for the team from 1994-2007.
When the San Francisco 49ers traded first, second and third round draft picks in the 1994 National Football League Draft in exchange for the seventh overall pick to acquire a talented defensive tackle from the University of Notre Dame by the name of Bryant Young, no one was more surprised by the trade than Young himself.
Although he was expecting to go early after receiving an invite to New York, one in which he turned down to stay home with his family, the 49ers never crossed his mind.
"The 49ers at the time were at 15 and 23 and they wound up trading up and taking the first round pick of the Rams. There wasn't a lot of interest, at least they didn't show it or let on to it. I talked to them briefly at the Combine and I was just shocked when they traded up. They wound up calling me and said they selected me with the seventh pick before they announced it on TV," Young recalled.
The trade became one of the best acquisitions in franchise history. In one move, the 49ers had found an anchor for their defensive line for the next 14 seasons.
The move also allowed Young to avoid the typical rookie experience for a top ten draft pick. Most top picks find themselves headed to a losing team, but in Young's case, he stepped foot in a locker room full of All-Pro caliber players. Young tried his best to keep a low profile and blend in.
"It was like starting all over again, being a small fish in a big pond," Young recalled of his first days with the 49ers. "I was in awe, because of the guys that were there. You had Jerry Rice, Steve Young, Ken Norton Jr., who had just come from the Cowboys off another Super Bowl win and all the other veteran players. For me, it was about finding where I fit in, not doing too much and doing what was asked of me. I just tried to be accountable and not let anyone down. It was a huge responsibility, but at the same time, I felt like I was secure in the sense that we had so many people that had been there and done that, and that I could watch and learn and follow their lead."
But Young didn't just tag along. He gave the 49ers a huge return on their investment in his rookie season, being named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. He started all 16 games, led all defensive linemen on the team with 49 tackles, registered six sacks and helped the 49ers win their fifth Super Bowl Championship.
"It's amazing in terms of how the season went. We had reached a really low point in the year. We had come off a bye against Philly and they just nailed us. It was like 40 to 8. We just did nothing right that day," Young said.
It appeared things were headed for a similar fate the next week against the Detroit Lions, until a veteran safety set the entire defensive unit straight with an inspired tongue-lashing on the sidelines.
"We were down a couple of scores and I remember Tim McDonald pulling the defense to the side and he just ripped us to shreds. He was basically saying, 'This is it! There will be no more of this!' And from that point on, we decided we were going to be a great team. We went on to win ten straight. For us, it wasn't a matter of, 'Are we going to win the game?'It was like, 'How much are we going to win by?'"
It wasn't an over-confident or cocky approach, they just undoubtedly believed in themselves and each other. That supreme confidence came in handy, when the 49ers faced off with the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship game for the third consecutive season.
"We knew we had beaten Dallas once in the regular season and it came down to us against them in the championship game, but we knew that it was our year. All the pieces had been put together."
The 49ers defeated the Cowboys 38-28 and looked like an unstoppable force heading into Super Bowl XXIX. In fact, the 49ers were playing so well, even their practices before the big game were practically flawless.
"That week going in, I remember not one pass was dropped in practice," Young said. "We were very confident in our gameplan. We went to the game and everybody had the sense that we were going to win the game. From the start it was just, 'Boom.' There was no turning back."
The 49ers were victorious 49-26, thanks to a solid defensive effort by Young and company. But that was just the starting point to his productive career in San Francisco.
Young was a dominant force on the field and was a nightmare matchup for any interior offensive lineman he faced. In the 1995 season, Young sacked Dolphins Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino on the first two plays of a game on November 20th that they went on to win 44-20. The sequence of downs is still one of Young's fondest career memories, because the 49ers defense sacked Marino on three consecutive plays and forced the Dolphins to go three and out.
In 1996, Young recorded 11.5 sacks, was named All-Pro and a starter in the Pro Bowl. The honor was a testament to all the hard work he had contributed to the 49ers in his first three seasons.
"It was an awesome experience," Young said of his first Pro Bowl game. "Every guy who plays in this league wants to play in that game and be selected to the Pro Bowl. I don't know about playing in the game, but being selected was exciting. It was a year that I felt that I put up really good numbers and it felt like all the hard work had paid off."
He almost never made it back to Hawaii because of a gruesome injury in the '98 season in which he broke his right leg. On a play in which he collided with teammate Ken Norton Jr., Young fractured his tibia and fibula, ending his season after the 12th week of action. It was a tough break for Young, who led all defensive tackles in the NFL in sacks prior to the injury.
The injury only reinforced Young's determination to play football at a high level.
"It was kind of devastating. I couldn't believe it was happening," Young admitted. "Not that I ever asked why that it happened to me, but it was like, 'What am I going to do?' It was a test for me really in terms of how much did I really love the game? The character that I thought I had, was it really true? That injury really tested my passion for the game."
Young came back in 1999 as passionate as ever, and there were no signs of him losing a step after his injury. He registered multi-sack games on four different occasions that season, and led the 49ers with 11 sacks on his way to his second Pro Bowl. In addition, Young was named the NFL Comeback Player of the Year.
"It was a tough road back, but by the grace of god, he allowed me to continue to fight through the pain, get the rehab and get back on the field," Young said.
Over the next couple of seasons, Young continued to live up to his reputation as one of the most respected defensive linemen in the game, being named to the Pro Bowl three more times in 1999, 2001 and 2002.
After the 2003 season in which he had played ten seasons with the 49ers, Young was honored as the 45th member of the 49ers 10 Year Club. Since the advent of free agency, it's a tough wall to crack and Young remains the most recent member to join the 49ers 10 Year Club to date.
When Young first arrived to 49ers headquarters, he was moved by the quality of players who were honored on the wall, but didn't envision himself as a member.
"I looked at it and thought, 'Wow, these are the great ones,'" Young said. "They are the ones that have consistently played up to a professional level each year and were worthy of sustaining a long tenured career with the same team. I was in awe of that. You never know when you start out what's going to happen, but you just try to stay positive and work as hard as you possibly can."
Young's hard work helped secure his well-deserved spot on the list of the of the 49ers greatest tenured players.
"Look what happened – I'm up there myself. It's a big honor," he said. "To be with the organization as long as I have, there's been coaching changes, even ownership changes and different philosophies. I have stuck through that and they saw enough in me that they wanted me to be around. That's a big honor just to be on that wall."
During the 14-seasons he played in the League, Young's teammates were frequently enticed elsewhere by the larger contracts available through free agency. But Young never considered changing squads; he was content being with the 49ers.
"I'm a pretty loyal guy, I'm kind of a creature of habit," he said. "For me, it had to be both ways. For them to want me there and for me to be there, there had to be a great mix. If they didn't want me, I would've moved on. It was mutual, so it worked out where I was able to play for the same team for 14 years."
Young has no regrets about his decision to have only played for one team.
"You don't see that a lot. Guys go after the big contracts and they want to see different cities or move around. But for me, I liked stability. I may have had an opportunity to maybe go off and test the free agent market, but I didn't. I passed that up. For me, it was piece of mind. I may have given up a lot of dollars, but I had a piece of mind."
The decision also allowed Young to have a piece of wall space in the tribute to the 10-Year Wall Club.
But it's not the only wall space he's entitled to at the 49ers facility.
Young was also awarded the Len Eshmont Award, an unprecedented seven different times. The award is given to a player on the 49ers, who best exemplifies the "inspirational and courageous play" of Len Eshmont.
Young won the award in each of the last four seasons of his career, demonstrating his importance to the team even in his final years.
The talented defender never lost a step up until his 2007 retirement. He finished his 14-year career totaling 89.5 sacks, the third most in franchise history.
In his final season in the NFL, Young was an inspirational leader for the 49ers and was easily the most respected player in the locker room. At the end of his final home game at Candlestick Park, in which the 49ers defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 21-19, Young was carried off the field on the shoulders of his teammates.
"It was a special day and it was a very emotional day," Young said. "I knew in my heart that was more than likely going to be my last home game and I just tried to embrace the moment. It was special, being able to be here and play in front of the fans for 14 years; I was going to miss it. It was bittersweet when my teammates hoisted me on their shoulders and carried me."
Despite being given a proper sendoff, Young could not resist the chance of visiting his former teammates during training camp. At the time, he had told the 49ers and the local media that he was finished playing, but being back amongst the guys almost triggered Young to suit up for practice and rejoin the team.
"In all honesty, when I came out [to watch practice], I wasn't sure what I'd be feeling," Young said. "But after watching, I pretty much felt like I'm done and I'm not coming back. When I went out there and I was on the side watching with no intensions of playing, it was really confirmation for me that I had made the right decision not to play. It was kind of a way for me to take the first step to make that transition and really move on."
Young's transition into post-NFL life has been smooth. He continued to attend training camp practices to help mentor the young defensive linemen and also get a feel for the coaching role, something he might pursue someday.
"I was around for a little while to get a glimpse of what that involves. I know coaches put in hard work and a lot of hours to get the best out of the guys that they're coaching," Young said. "I just wanted to get a feel for it. Being around some of the young guys, I think there is some value of having played in the league for 14 years. I've probably been through everything they're about to go through. There are some benefits to that."
And who knows what the future might bring. If he does pursue a career in coaching, Young could just end up adding on to his 14 years of service to the 49ers.