Another future Hall of Famer, Merlin Olsen, was also influential in Youngblood’s transition from college football to the pros. “It’s unbelievable how many things I’ve learned from Merlin Olsen,” he once reflected. “Merlin really taught me how to concentrate, that you play each play as if it were the only play. And if you put all the plays together like that, then you’ll come out on top.”
Although having teammates like Jones and Olsen to learn from surely contributed to his rapid development, Youngblood quickly developed his own distinct style of play. A strong believer in weight training – “one of the physically strongest men on the team” according to Rams’ defensive coordinator Ray Malavasi – Jack combined speed and technique with his superior upper-body strength to overpower or get past offensive linemen.
Youngblood’s physical assault on the opposition was also complimented by a verbal assault for which he became notorious. According to Cleveland Browns defensive tackle Jerry Sherk, Youngblood was “the master of sweet talkers.” Sherk particularly remembered a game in which Youngblood was playing opposite the Browns’ Barry Darrow. “Youngblood would say, ‘You almost got me that time Barry,’” Sherk recalled. “Or ‘You’re doing a heckuva job,’ Barry really thought he was – until he realized Youngblood had sacked our quarterback four times!”
Although he admits to doing a fair share of talking, Youngblood insists that he rarely jawed at offensive linemen. “I don’t talk much to offensive linemen in general,” he offered. “We’re all the same breed, you know. Yeah, I try to intimidate the quarterbacks by yelling at them…If the quarterback’s got sensitive ears and hears me, I like that.”
Since sacks weren’t an official NFL statistic until 1982, exactly how many times Youngblood got to the quarterback is unclear. Unofficially, according to one independent researcher, Youngblood amassed 151.5 sacks during his career, which at the time of his retirement would have been second all-time, behind only Deacon Jones. But Youngblood was more than just a master of the sack. He was a complete player. In fact, early in his career he played in a system that emphasized stopping the run first and disrupting the passer second.
One of the best examples of his all-around ability was his performance in the 1975 playoff game against the St. Louis Cardinals. In that game he recorded a sack, forced a fumble, blocked an extra-point attempt, and returned an interception 47 yards for a touchdown.
“Good luck is a residue of preparation,” he humbly offered, trying to explain his touchdown run. “You have to be prepared for things like that and I think the coaches here have worked very hard getting us ready for everything under the sun.”
“He’s the best in football,” said Cardinals offensive tackle and future Hall of Famer Dan Dierdorf, who was matched up against Youngblood that day. For Youngblood, the tribute must have been especially gratifying since Jack often cited Dierdorf, the Dallas Coyboys’ Rayfield Wright, and Ron Yary of the Minnesota Vikings as the three toughest offensive tackles he had to face during his career.
The matchup between Yary and Youngblood often drew media attention as both players were recognized as among the best in the game, and often when they met, the game had playoff implications. One writer suggested in a 1976 article that, “When they play against each other, the concussion waves bounce off the walls.”
During Youngblood’s tenure with the Rams, the team played in five championship games and advanced to Super Bowl XIV following the 1979 season.
It was that season that Jack probably received the most attention from the media, and earned a place in NFL folklore, not because he recorded 16 unofficial sacks, but because of a broken bone in his leg.
In the second quarter of the divisional playoff game against Dallas, Youngblood suffered a fractured left fibula after he fell over his old nemesis Rayfield Wright. “It was extremely painful,” he recalled. “But, being in the post-season playoffs, which are so hard to get to, it was a fear that I would never have that opportunity again . . . and I wanted to go out and help my teammates, no matter what the cost.”
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Despite the injury, Youngblood not only finished the Dallas game, he continued, with the aid of a fitted brace, to play through the playoffs and into the Super Bowl.
Although it was the most publicized of the durable defensive lineman’s career, it was not the most serious. In 1978, Jack suffered a pinched nerve in his left shoulder that caused him to lose more than 50 percent use of his arm. It was an injury that lasted until the spring of 1981, and one that gave Jack the scare of his life.
As it turned out, the shoulder injury had also damaged a vein and an artery and eventually resulted a life-threatening blood clot. The doctors, after surgically removing a hotdog-sized clot, suggested that Jack might not play again. Obviously they didn’t know Jack Youngblood. “Jack doesn’t have a high threshold of pain; he has no threshold at all,” then-Rams trainer Gary Tuthill remarked.
The Rams’ defensive captain, Youngblood always answered the bell. He played in a Rams’ record 201 consecutive games, missing just one game and that came in 1984, his final season.
“A future Hall of Famer, the John Wayne of pro football,” is what then-St. Louis Cardinals head coach Jim Hanifan called the 14-year veteran after a game in which he sacked the Cards quarterback three times and blocked the potential tying field goal on the game’s last play.
Even in his fourteenth and final year in the league, Youngblood was a dominant player. “I think Jack Youngblood is the best football player I’ve ever been around,” an admiring coach John Robinson said of his star player. “He is truly special.”
Throughout his career, Youngblood drove himself almost relentlessly to live up to the high standards he had set for himself. But a back injury finally forced him to hang up his cleats and retire.
“Football has been my life for as long as I can remember,” he told the attendees at his retirement press conference. “But it’s too important to me to go on if I can’t continue to play as I once did.”
There’s no doubt that Jack Youngblood was, as his former general manager pointed out, a “throwback” to another time. But, as he proved time and time again during his Hall of Fame career, he was definitely a “keeper.”
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