In 1998, Bryant Young was a force for the San Francisco 49ers, a one-time first-team All-Pro and one of the best defensive linemen in NFL.
Then, at age 26, his career almost ended.
Young suffered a gruesome leg injury tackling New York Giants quarterback Kent Graham. Teammate Ken Norton Jr. crashed into Young's leg, causing a compound fracture of Young's tibia and fibula. Players from both teams frantically called for the trainers after seeing the damage. It was one of the worst injuries you'll see on a football field.
The trauma didn't end after he was taken off the field on a stretcher and to the hospital. An 18-inch rod was inserted into his leg. He had complications, including compartment syndrome, and spent 17 days in the hospital.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame wasn't foremost on Young's mind then. Young was unsure if would play again.
"It was so painful," Young told the 49ers' site. "There was that moment where I kind of knew that this was really serious. There were some complications that came after the surgery, so there was a thought in my mind of the reality that I could not play again."
Young's Hall of Fame story is highlighted by his greatness on the field, of course. It's also special because of his resiliency.
Bryant Young came back from injury
Young somehow made it back on the field for the 1999 season opener. He played all 16 games and had 11 sacks. A little more than a year after suffering an injury that could have easily ended his career, he was named to the NFC's Pro Bowl team. He was an obvious pick for NFL Comeback Player of the Year.
"I was so fortunate and blessed that I was able to come back from that and play again," Young said, via the 49ers' site. "That year means a lot to me."
Not only did Young come back and play, he played nine more seasons. He missed only four games after that leg injury.
He spent his entire 14-year career with the 49ers and played at a high level into his mid-30s. By the end of his career, nine years after that unforgettable injury, Young could start thinking about the Hall of Fame. Not that he would say much about it.
Young got respect from teammates
Young is known for his humble personality, and that can lead to a great defensive tackle being forgotten. A group of six offensive linemen that played against Young took up his cause as he waited to get into the Hall of Fame, speaking with some Hall of Fame voters on a Zoom meeting last year to state Young's case.
It says plenty about Young's career and his personality that offensive linemen who battled him on other teams would go out of their way to try to get him into the Hall of Fame.
"I learned a long time ago, just watching my dad, to walk quietly but carry a big stick," Young said, according to ESPN. "You don't have to talk about it. You don't have to say what you're gonna do and play mind games with people. You are who you are and you do what you do. That was just my approach. I wanted to make sure I earned the respect of the guy playing on the other side of the ball. That was important to me."
Young finished his career with 89.5 sacks and was one of the dominant defensive tackles of his era. His story could have been one of a great player whose career was cut short due to a freak injury. Instead, his career was highlighted by a remarkable comeback, and a spot in the Hall of Fame.