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Thursday, Sep 21, 2017
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Against All Odds, Youngblood Played

Jack Youngblood still remembers the greatest afternoon of his professional career - the sights and sounds, the highs and lows. Most of all, he remembers the beginning. It was Super Bowl XIV at the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena, Calif., Youngblood's Los Angeles Rams against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Rams' defense was being introduced. As he stood in the tunnel, Youngblood took a deep breath, then sprinted onto the field. "It's hard to describe the sensation," Youngblood said. "Almost a surreal moment. It's almost like I couldn't hear anything or feel anything." Not even his broken leg.
Youngblood, a native of Monticello and former All-American for the Florida Gators, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001. He was selected for the Pro Bowl seven times. He had 151.5 career sacks in 14 seasons, establishing himself as one of the best pass-rushers in NFL history. But even if Youngblood's career is reduced to one sentence, it's still a guaranteed attention-grabber. He played with a broken leg! •The 1979 NFC Championship Game, a 9-0 victory against the Bucs at Tampa Stadium. •Super Bowl XIV, a 31-19 defeat against the Steelers, the only time Youngblood made the NFL's ultimate stage. •Then, one week later, the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. A broken leg? And he still went to the Pro Bowl? "You don't miss any of those opportunities," Youngblood said. "Not if you have pride. Not if you're a professional. I don't consider it a lot different than somebody having a job to support your family, getting sick, but still going into work. It's the right thing to do." Youngblood was hurt in the NFC divisional playoffs at Dallas on Dec. 30, 1979. He beat the block off Cowboys offensive tackle Rayfield Wright but was knocked sideways by an offensive guard. His left leg was pinned under Wright's body. "It snapped like a pencil," Youngblood said. The diagnosis: hairline fracture of the fibula, the outer bone of the lower leg. Against the wishes of Rams orthopedic surgeon Clarence Shields, Youngblood demanded to play. He wore a plastic cast on his left leg. His speed was neutralized and he remembers playing at about "75 percent." But to the Rams, his mere presence was priceless. "We were all inspired. How could you not be?" former Rams center Rich Saul said. Bucs offensive tackle Charley Hannah, in his first game since returning from injured reserve after tearing knee ligaments, said he felt like a footnote in the NFC title game. "Everyone in America was caught up in the Jack Youngblood situation," Hannah said. "He had a broken leg. That was a huge story. Hey, but I was limping around. I was the only guy feeling sorry for me. Maybe my mother did, too. That's about it. "What can you say about Jack, though? What a fierce competitor, always an above-board player. You knew you were in for an all-day, pack-a-lunch kind of game. Even in his condition, he gave it all he had." It still pains Youngblood to think about the Super Bowl, coming so close to a championship, then falling short. But his effort? His decision to play with a broken leg? No regrets. "I'm still reminded of that injury every time it gets ready to rain," said Youngblood, who credits much of his NFL development to the tutelage of teammates Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen. "Look, I wasn't going to miss the Super Bowl. The only thing that kills me was getting so close to sacking Terry Bradshaw, Steelers quarterback, but the leg injury prevented me from making a play that could've made the difference." Youngblood said he was a half-step from Bradshaw - about a broken leg away - when the quarterback uncoiled a 73-yard touchdown pass to John Stallworth. It put the Steelers ahead for good. "I think the whole deal still resonates, especially today, when the modern players, for whatever reason, often don't choose to go that extra mile," Youngblood said. "Look, it felt like a bunch of knives being stabbed into your leg. But I wasn't going to do more damage to a broken leg. I just tried to minimize the pain and go. That was my approach. I don't know if everyone would've tried it." But nearly three decades later, everyone still remembers.

Reporter Joey Johnston can be reached at (813) 259-7353.

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