When the bronze bust of Bryant Young is unveiled Saturday night in Canton, Ohio, at least one of his 49ers teammates will see the silhouette of another right beside it.
It will have the likeness of Ken Norton Jr.
“When you have a guy that close to you make the Hall of Fame, you really feel like you’re going in with him,” Norton said Thursday in a phone interview. “That’s really special.”
Young and Norton are linked by having played seven seasons and 10 postseason games together and were key contributors to the 49ers’ last Super Bowl championship following the 1994 season. Young will be one of seven people enshrined, while Norton watches with interest from a distance in his new job as inside linebackers coach at UCLA.
Norton, an inside linebacker with the 49ers who retired after the 2000 season, had a front-row seat to see Young, a defensive tackle, lay waste to opposing defenses. Their bond was strengthened following a gruesome friendly fire injury before a Monday Night audience on Nov. 30, 1998 against the New York Giants at Candlestick Park.
On a sack of quarterback Kent Graham, Norton’s helmet slammed into Young’s right leg. The crack of Young’s tibia and fibula, followed by Young’s screams of pain, were heard by players on both teams.
“It was a real loud pop,” defensive tackle Junior Bryant said following the game. “Very distinct.”
The 49ers won 31-7 and improved to 9-3 but trudged off the field as if they’d lost. Norton felt as if he were “in a fog,” devoid of his usual energy.
“Kenny was really unfair to himself,” former 49ers coach Steve Mariucci recalled entering the following season. “He put so much guilt on himself.”
Norton drove to Stanford Hospital and was instantly comforted by Young and his wife Kristin. At the time, Norton said of the Youngs, “They saved me.” While Norton isn’t eager to relive the moment of impact and its immediate aftermath, he remains grateful.
“You play a violent game like we play, you don’t like to see anybody get hurt because a career can be so short,” Norton said. “But when you get in a situation where you’re involved in the injury of a really good friend and teammate, it cuts very deep. That’s something I’ll never forget. The way he handled it, the way I handled it, we became closer and it’s just a testament to who he is.”
It was easier for Norton to forgive himself in part because Young made a remarkable recovery, playing nine more seasons at a level that earned him a yellow jacket with the all-time greats of his sport. He played all 16 games in 1999, made the Pro Bowl and was named the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year.
“When anybody gets hurt to that magnitude, you think, ‘Oh, my God, is he going to be himself?” Norton said. “And not only was he himself, he took it to another level. He was the same old dominating Bryant Young he’s always been. I don’t think in all the time I played with him there was never any letup in his play at all.”
Both players arrived in San Francisco in 1994, Norton was 28 and a six-year veteran signed away from the two-time defending champion Dallas Cowboys, and Young the seventh overall pick of the NFL Draft out of Notre Dame. It was clear to Norton that Young, who was 22, was not a typical NFL rookie.
“He didn’t say anything. He let his work speak for him,” Norton said. “A lot of us were impressed. He was humble, a technician and was just overpowering from Day 1. It’s as if he was built for the role of being a dominating defensive tackle.”
The 49ers beat the San Diego Chargers 49-26 in Super Bowl XXIX following that season. It gave Norton the distinction of being the only player to be on three straight Super Bowl winners. Young would never play in another but remained a premier defender through 2007.
“We worked really well together,” Norton said of the seven seasons he played with Young. “We handled the front inside gaps. Bryant was so overpowering, and he liked to be on the move, so we had line stunts where I could shoot him in the A gap or the B gap and allow him to get loose in a pass rush situation.
“We worked side by side, then go to the sideline and put our minds together so we could solve our problems. The way he would figure out ways to reinvent himself every year was just amazing.”
Norton saw Young last November when Young was inducted into the 49ers’ team Hall of Fame, as well as at a private party when his selection to Canton became official.
“I’m eager to see it. I know how excited he is, how excited his wife and kids are,” Norton said. “I know how much it means to him and how great a feeling it’s going to be.”
Contributed by local news sources