No. 84: Jack Youngblood

OK, in my view, Jack Youngblood has the most kickass tough-guy story in the history of football. You know all those Chuck Norris facts …

Time waits for no man … except Chuck Norris.

Superman wears Chuck Norris pajamas.

When Chuck Norris peels onions, the onions cry.

The dark is afraid of Chuck Norris.

Waldo is hiding from Chuck Norris.

Chuck Norris always gets to pass Go and always gets $200.

Chuck Norris has cake and eats it too.

Life doesn’t dare give Chuck Norris lemonade.

… well, all of those facts are even better suited for Jack Youngblood. What a force. Here is a Jack Youngblood fact you probably know: He played Super Bowl XIV with a broken leg. It’s the first thing most people think about when Youngblood’s name comes up.*

*One other thing people think is that Jack Youngblood is a brother — even a twin brother — of his Rams teammate Jim Youngblood. Truth is, as Forrest Gump said, they are not relations. They were, however, born 25 days apart in 1950 in the deep South, and they both played in the 1979 Pro Bowl, and they started 77 games together for the Rams from 1977 to ’81.

Then again, Youngblood is not the only one to play the Super Bowl through mind-boggling pain. Thomas Davis had a broken arm when he played for Carolina in the Super Bowl. Terrell Owens not only played on a broken leg with Philadelphia in the 2005 Super Bowl, he caught nine passes for 122 yards. The history of the NFL is filled with stories of tough guys who endured unthinkable pain so they could lead their teams in the biggest moments.

Here’s the thing with Youngblood, though: He fractured his fibula in the Rams’ FIRST playoff game of 1979. That was Youngblood’s seminal season. He grew up in Florida and was always a football star. He was a dominant offensive lineman and linebacker in high school — later being named an All-Century Florida high schooler — and he might have been the best defensive end ever at the University of Florida. He was the second defensive end taken in the 1971 draft (after Grambling’s Richard Harris), and he was a Pro Bowler in his first year as a full-time starter.

And in the NFL, he played in 201 consecutive games despite every injury you could imagine including the famous broken leg, sprained everything, emergency surgery for a large blood clot under his arm, and the time he had someone jump him outside a bar, jam a .357 Magnum into his right eye and pull the trigger.

The gun did not go off. The gunman soon had his head slammed on the hood of a car. And Jack Youngblood didn’t miss a game.

Superman isn’t wearing Chuck Norris pajamas. He’s wearing Jack Youngblood pajamas.

It would be wrong to say football came easy. Youngblood’s greatness came because of his quickness at the snap, his sense of the game and, perhaps, most of all, his relentlessness. He never gave up on a play. He also never came out of a game. He was a superior pass rusher before sacks became an official statistic; we now know that his 151.5 sacks placed him second all-time at his retirement, behind only Deacon Jones. But nobody counted that stuff then.

And he was tough against the run, again, because he simply refused to stop chasing.

In 1979, he unofficially had 18 sacks, again leading the league, and he was the emotional leader for a Los Angeles Rams team that snuck into the playoffs with a 9-7 record. They played the heavily favored Cowboys in the first round, and Dallas simply could not block Youngblood. Maybe it was because the previous year, Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach made a point of finding Youngblood during a regular-season game and saying to him: “We’ll see you chokers in the playoffs.”

Then, to clinch the point, the Cowboys beat the Rams 28-0 in the playoffs that year.

But not this time. Staubach was hounded all day long, particularly by Youngblood. He completed just 12 of 28 passes for 124 yards, and the Rams pulled off the upset.

“I’m going to do everything that I did to keep it going,” a giddy Youngblood said after the game. “I’m even going to eat the same thing.”

And he didn’t mention that in the second quarter of that game, he had heard his left leg snap — that was the fractured fibula — when he was caught awkwardly between two players. Sure, he kept playing. Because of course he did.

He was listed as doubtful during the week ahead of the NFC Championship Game at Tampa Bay, but there was never a single thought of not playing. He refused the pain killers the trainer offered. The Rams shut out the Bucs 9-0, and Tampa Bay coach Jim McKay was so impressed that he said, “He should keep his broken leg. He played fantastic.”

And that led to the Super Bowl, where he played the entire game against the Steelers. He wasn’t as effective as he wanted to be while playing with that leg wrapped and in a plastic cast. But there were no excuses. “The leg didn’t bother me that much,” he insisted after the Steelers won the game. Teammates told a different story, one of Youngblood being in such agony that he vomited from the pain. But he kept going back in there. Because he’s Jack Youngblood.

OK, so all of this is well and good — but the promise at the top is that there is something else about Youngblood that defies imagination. And there is.

The next week, Youngblood played on that broken leg — IN THE PRO BOWL.

That’s right. In the Pro Bowl.

It’s impossible. Youngblood had played two and a half games on a broken leg — and, oh, by the way, his hand might have been broken too (he didn’t want to get it X-rayed) — and he suffered the most heartbreaking loss of his career, and he went to play in the Pro Bowl.

“I wasn’t going to miss the party,” he would say.

And when asked the obvious follow-up question — why didn’t he just go to Pro Bowl but not play — his response was pure Youngblood.

“Are you kidding?” he asked.