After nine years of climbing, Jack Youngblood had finally reached the summit of professional football. With a broken leg, no less.
Youngblood, who put together a Hall of Fame career as a member of the Los Angeles Rams from 1971-84, played through three playoff games with a broken leg that included his lone Super Bowl appearance. Youngblood didn't stop there; he played in the following week's Pro Bowl, to the shock of his NFC teammates.
"Everybody asked me when we got to Hawaii, 'What the heck are you doing here? You've got a broken tibia,'" Youngblood recalled during a recent interview with CBS Sports. "I said, 'Shut up, I'm not going to miss this party.'"
Youngblood led the NFL with 18 sacks in 1979, the year the Rams finally broke through after years of bitter playoff disappointment. Not many people figured the '79 Rams would be much of a force, not after a 5-6 start and losing starting quarterback Pat Haden for the year with an injury. But the Rams, spearheaded by their defense as well as a deep and talented rushing attack, went on a four-game winning streak to win their seventh consecutive division title.
The NFC playoffs
In the divisional round of the playoffs, the Rams were in Dallas to face the Cowboys, the same team that had blanked them, 28-0, in the previous year's NFC Championship Game. Despite allowing the game's first points on a safety, the Rams took a 14-5 halftime lead over the defending two-time conference champions. But in the midst of the Rams' comeback, Youngblood sustained an injury that in many ways would define his career. Youngblood realized the seriousness of his injury upon meeting with team doctor Clarence Shields.
"He said, 'Jack, you've got a broken leg,'" Youngblood recalled. "I said, 'Tape it up, Clarence. ... I can still run, tape this dadgum thing up. He said, 'Jack, I don't know how to tape.' My orthopedic doctor doesn't know how to tape (laughs). I mess with him all the time; love him to death. I call him all the time and we still laugh about it."
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Youngblood, with his broken left leg taped up, returned to the field for the second half. He admitted that he wasn't sure how effective he would be in leading a defense he captained. To his pleasant surprise, Youngblood discovered that he could still make an impact, even in his compromised state. With Youngblood on the field, the Rams held the Cowboys to just two second half scores and just 19 points for the game. Youngblood helped seal the Rams' 21-19 win with a sack of Staubach (who retired after the game) in the final moments.
"It's amazing what your body will do to the pain that's infecting you," Youngblood said. "When I was walking around in the huddle, going back to the line of scrimmage and then lining up, it was painful. When the ball was snapped, the pain went away. I wasn't 100%. I was probably 90, at best, but I knew that I wanted to get after Roger Staubach. I don't like quarterbacks, never have (laughs). I love Roger. He's a good man. But he was my competitor, right? And me being the captain, I'm the leader of this defense, this football team. And that was my job. And I wasn't about to go sit on the sidelines because I had something that I didn't think would would hinder me that much. I wasn't about to go out there if it was a broken bone that had penetrated. I wouldn't do that. But I still had the ability to go and try and help my team win the ballgame."
Remember, this was the late '70s/early '80s, decades before social media existed. While whispers of his injury were out there, Youngblood's status was largely kept under wraps until after the Super Bowl. Among the first to know of Youngblood's condition were his teammates on the defensive line, players that included fellow Pro Bowlers Larry Brooks and Jim Youngblood (no relation) along with Mike Fanning and Fred Dryer.
"I told them, 'You guys have got to pick it up. If I mess up here, you guys have got to help out,'" Youngblood recalled. "If somebody had some sort of a lesser ability, we knew that we needed to crank up our engine a little harder, and cover his responsibility."
With an extra plastic pad protecting the broken part of his leg, Youngblood faced the Cinderella Buccaneers in the NFC Championship Game. Youngblood and his defensive teammates shut out Tampa, while the Rams' running game did enough to help Los Angeles punch its ticket to Super Bowl XIV.
Facing the Steelers in the Super Bowl
The Rams felt a "big release" upon winning the NFC, Youngblood said, but they weren't merely intent to share pro football's biggest stage with the Steelers, the defending champions who had won three of three of the previous five Super Bowls.
"We had all the confidence that we can we can play with with Pittsburgh, even though they had been the champions three times before," Youngblood said. "We firmly believed we could stop the run, get after [Terry] Bradshaw and we could cover [Lynn] Swann and [John] Stallworth. And to be honest with you, we hurt ourselves. They didn't hurt us. We knocked each other down on two touchdowns. We had double coverage, and they scored 14 points on those two plays."
The plays Youngblood referred to were the difference between a Rams upset and the Steelers' fourth Super Bowl win. Ahead 13-10 at halftime, the Rams fell behind after Bradshaw started the second half with a 47-yard touchdown strike to Swann, who caught the ball between two Rams defenders. The Rams quickly regained the lead and appeared to be on their way to victory after Swann left the game with a concussion. Los Angeles intercepted Bradshaw twice in the third quarter and had all but shut down Pittsburgh's vaunted running game.
At the start of the fourth quarter, facing a third-and-8 on his own 27, Bradshaw called a play he struggled to execute in practice. With Youngblood and Dryer bearing down on him, Bradshaw fired a deep pass to Stallworth, who pulled in Bradshaw's pass in stride before completing the go-ahead score. The Rams would threaten to re-gain the lead, but an interception by Jack Lambert gave the ball back to Pittsburgh, who put the game away following another long completion from Bradshaw to Stallworth.
Those plays still haunt Youngblood, but one particular play, with the Rams leading 19-17 with nine minutes remaining in the third quarter, is especially painful. Facing a first-and-10 from his own 44, Bradshaw threw across the field to Swann near midfield. Nolan Cromwell, the Rams' safety, read the play and stepped in front of Swann. For an ever-so-brief moment, it looked as if Cromwell had picked off Bradshaw and was sprinting to the end zone for a back-breaking score. But Cromwell was unable to secure the ball, causing a nearby teammate to take off his helmet in exasperation.
"I see it in my sleep sometimes," Youngblood says of the play.
Youngblood played valiantly despite his broken leg, which he remembers failing him on two separate occasions during the game. The Rams' gritty performance that day led many to declare Super Bowl XIV the best Super Bowl to that point. After the game, several Steelers, exhausted after being pushed to the limit for 60 minutes, went out of their way to congratulate the Rams on a game well played.
"We knew in our hearts when we got back to the locker room that we had given all we had," Youngblood said. "We played with the best football team in the league at that point. We weren't ashamed of that. Wish we had made a couple of different plays, but we were not ashamed of our effort. That was for sure."
Toughest guy in #NFLHistory?— NFL Throwback (@nflthrowback) January 26, 2018
Former @RamsNFL HOF DE Jack Youngblood played through the 1980 playoffs, Super Bowl and #ProBowl WITH A BROKEN LEG.
Happy birthday, Jack! pic.twitter.com/CrP1k7ghNL
Following Super Bowl XIV, one would think that the last thing Youngblood would want to do is play in the Pro Bowl, an event that is currently in jeopardy of being discontinued. But for Youngblood, a chance to hang out with his peers in Hawaii was exactly where he wanted to be.
"Like I said, it's a party," Youngblood said of the Pro Bowl. "I mean, we went through the season, and now it's time to let your hair down a little bit. We do have to go out and compete a little bit. But it wasn't nearly as intense. It was a show. Let me put that away."
Career after the injury
Youngblood's leg eventually healed, and he would go on to play five more seasons with the Rams. Youngblood continued to play at a high level, but the Rams never made it back to the big game during his final years with the team. Despite not capturing that elusive title, Youngblood relishes his years with the Rams. As a rookie, Youngblood learned the ropes from Merlin Olsen and Deacon Jones, two of the best defensive linemen in league annals. He spent most of his career playing with the same core of teammates, a rarity in today's NFL.
"We were like a bunch of brothers," Youngblood said of his Rams teams. "When I was there, we had 38 guys in this one little room. Our locker room was was nothing but laughter most of the time. We respected each other and appreciated each other's abilities. Like Jackie Slater and myself, we would stay out after practice and we would work together. I would ask him to simulate the tackle I'm going to face, and he told me what his defensive end is going to do, and we worked for another 30, 40 minutes, every week. Whatever their best thing was, we wanted to take it away from them."
Youngblood possessed an inner fire during his playing days that mimicked what millions of viewers saw during ESPN's 10-part documentary on Michael Jordan. Like Jordan, Youngblood played with a mentality that willed him to do things that mere mortals only dream of. In the 1979 NFL playoffs, that mentality helped him compete for a world championship, broken leg be dammed.
"When you don't want to be on that field for every snap, there's something about that that just does not sit well with me," Youngblood said. "If you're the starter, if you're the best defense end, or the best quarterback or you're the best running back, you want to be on the field for every snap, not taking several plays off on the sidelines. You can't do much on sidelines.
"Sometimes, that's because of the coaches and probably some of the trainers; they're trying to help. The injury issue is a big deal. Let me just put it that way. It's a big deal. And I was fortunate enough to not miss one ballgame in 14 years. I was very, very fortunate that the good Lord blessed me with the ability to use my ability that he created in me in a different way that most people don't understand."