“75 for 75” is an article series from the 49ers Museum highlighting legendary moments in 49ers history as part of the team’s 75th Anniversary celebrations in 2021.
Earning the 49ers Len Eshmont Award once is an honor. Winning it eight times is an unprecedented show of respect.
Bryant Young garnered that level of reverence from his teammates during his 14 seasons as the anchor of the 49ers defensive line. It began on opening day of Young’s rookie season when he chased down and sacked Raiders quarterback Jeff Hostetler for a 21-yard loss in his NFL debut.
Prior to Young’s arrival in San Francisco, no 49ers player received the Len Eshmont Award for “inspirational and courageous play” more than twice.
“He went to work from day 1,” said Young’s teammate defensive end Dennis Brown. “When he came in, right off the bat, he made an impact. The first week of just working out with B.Y., I knew he was going to be a starter and I knew he was going to be a superstar in the league.”
Young’s work ethic and quiet leadership earned the respect of the veterans on a 49ers defensive line that included Charles Haley, Ted Washington, Dana Stubblefield and Brown. Young finished his first professional season being named the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year.
That was just the beginning.
San Francisco selected Young out of Notre Dame in the first round (seventh-overall) of the 1994 NFL Draft. He started all 16 games that season recording 49 tackles and six sacks, and sparked the defense as the 49ers surged to their fifth Super Bowl title. In San Francisco’s decisive victory over the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX, the 22-year-old posted three tackles.
Young quickly grew into his role as the 49ers defensive leader and from 1994 to 2007, he started 208 games, the most by any defensive lineman in team history. In his third season (1996), Young finally received league-wide recognition when he was named First-Team All-Pro after posting 11.5 sacks. He also showed that tough defense can put points on the scoreboard by recording two safeties.
Although Young was one of the sturdiest 49ers of all time, his durability was tested in 1998 when he suffered horrendous breaks to his tibia and fibula in a game against the New York Giants. He had a metal rod inserted in his leg and returned to action in 1999. Young recorded 11 sacks that season, earned a spot in the Pro Bowl, and was named the NFL Comeback Player of the Year.
“It was humbling to win Comeback Player of the Year because my career could have been over,” Young said. “It was one of the really outstanding moments of my career, but it was all the hard, hard work that went into the rehab and recovery.
“The cool thing about going through all of it was the awesome support from the fans. They were so incredibly supportive…It was great to have the fans support me in that way and give me words of encouragement.”
Young retired in 2007 as the 49ers official all-time sack leader with 89.5, to go along with 774 tackles and six fumble recoveries. He also started 11 postseason contests where he notched another 37 tackles and three sacks.
After his final game at Candlestick Park, the four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle was carried off the field by his 49ers teammates.
“I hope someday I can just have half the career he’s had,” rookie linebacker Patrick Willis said.
Young became the 29th inductee into the Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. 49ers Hall of Fame in 2020 and was named into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Feb of 2022.