Even at UF, Young savors 49ers' playoff run

Even at UF, Young savors 49ers' playoff run

Published Jan. 20, 2012 8:04 a.m. ET

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Gators defensive line coach Bryant Young wasn’t there physically, but his imagination took him back to San Francisco’s Candlestick Park for a short time last weekend.

Young was glancing at the 49ers' playoff game with the New Orleans Saints on a big-screen TV while eating dinner with some recruits. It was San Francisco’s first playoff game in nine years, a fact hard to imagine for anyone who grew up watching the Niners win four Super Bowls in the 1980s and another one during Young’s rookie season in 1994.

And just as it appeared San Francisco might make a quick exit last weekend, quarterback Alex Smith hit tight end Vernon Davis for a game-winning touchdown pass in the final seconds, lifting the 49ers to a 36-32 win and a berth in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday.

Bryant could feel the excitement, despite being 3,000 miles away.

“It’s bananas," Young said a few days later as he wore his Super Bowl ring — “My good luck charm” as he calls it — on his right hand. “Any time the Niners are doing well, things obviously are great in the Bay Area. The city, the Bay Area, is completely behind them. They are riding high."

Young spent his entire 14-year NFL career with the Niners, winning Rookie of the Year honors in 1994 and helping them win their fifth Super Bowl in a 14-year span. San Francisco capped Young’s rookie season by defeating San Diego 49-26 in Super Bowl XXIX at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami.

After making the playoffs in seven of Young’s first nine NFL seasons, San Francisco did not make the postseason in his final five seasons. In fact, before the 49ers' win Saturday, their most recent playoff appearance was a 31-6 loss at Tampa Bay in 2002.

That would also be Young’s final playoff game before his final farewell at a packed Candlestick Park in December 2007 on Bryant Young Day. Young — known as B.Y. to his teammates and those in the Gators football offices — was carried off the field that day after a 21-19 win over the Buccaneers. He finished his career with 89.5 sacks and was one of four defensive linemen chosen to the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1990s.

Rookie linebacker Patrick Willis finished with a game-high 20 tackles in Young’s final home game. Willis has since emerged as one of the NFL’s top defensive players.

Before these playoffs, Young texted Willis for encouragement.

“I told him good luck, stay healthy in the playoffs and go for it," Young said.

Young also played with several other players on the Niners' current roster, including Smith, Davis, cornerback Shawntae Spencer, offensive lineman Joe Staley, running back Frank Gore and former Gators defensive lineman Ray McDonald.

San Francisco drafted McDonald in 2007 to rebuild at defensive tackle once Young was gone. Like the Niners as an organization, it took a while, but McDonald broke through with his best season in 2011 with a career-high 39 tackles and 5.5 sacks.

Young missed defensive tackle Justin Smith by a year. Smith, who signed as a free agent with the 49ers in 2008, was instrumental in the win over the Saints with two tackles and constant pressure on Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Harbaugh said Smith was an “11” on a scale of 1-to-10.

The performance drew praise from a man who knows what it’s like to take center stage at Candlestick.

“Justin reminds me a little bit of myself," Young said. “He’s not a flashy guy. He’s a workhorse. He’s a lunch-pail guy. I would have loved to have played with him. He has been doing a great job up front and providing great leadership. He is kind of the epitome of the character that this team portrays.”

One of Young’s most memorable postseason games came against the Giants when San Francisco overcame a 24-point deficit to beat New York 39-38 in a 2002 NFL wild-card game. Young also suffered a devastating leg injury in a game against the Giants on "Monday Night Football" that ended his All-Pro 1998 season early. He needed surgery and months of rehab to return the next season.

Young will turn 40 later this month, so a win Sunday and the 49ers’ long-awaited return to the Super Bowl would be a nice early birthday gift.

“From where they have been, and the struggles that they’ve been through, it was good to see them win in the playoffs and put themselves in position to get to the Super Bowl again. They have an opportunity to get their sixth Lombardi Trophy. That’s a great thing," Young said. “It makes you feel really proud to have been a part of the success of that organization and even going through some of those struggles and watching the guys continue to put the work in and overcome some of those times.”