SANTA CLARA -- Bryant Young is still being the consummate team player right to the very end of his career.
The San Francisco 49ers' 14-year veteran defensive lineman seems to be delaying his long-expected retirement announcement only because he feels it would create a distraction for his teammates -- even though the Niners probably would love a positive diversion as they wrap up a hugely disappointing season.
"More than likely, this is my last home game, but I'll address the questions after (the season)," Young said Wednesday while accepting his eighth Len Eshmont Award, an honor from his fellow 49ers as the team's most inspirational and courageous player. "I know, for me, I don't want to start reflecting."
But Young can't stop his fans and teammates from expressing their gratitude to the popular stalwart of the 49ers' defensive line since his rookie season on the franchise's last championship team. San Francisco finishes its home schedule Sunday against Tampa Bay.
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Young is the only player left from the Niners' glory days, and perhaps the only person among the motley crew currently occupying the club's training complex who truly appreciates what the downtrodden franchise once represented to the league and the Bay Area.
He's also still a dynamic defensive lineman who has thrived through a late-career position change while always doing whatever his coaches asked of him. He leads the 49ers with 6½ sacks this season, and his leadership has helped everyone from his coaches to rookie linebacker Patrick Willis, the 49ers' next defensive star.
"Regardless of what his stats are, his opponents will tell you he's the best in the game," linebacker Jeff Ulbrich said. "He's constantly doing little things that don't get noticed on the field."
Young is loved by coaches because he does the dirty work in the trenches -- drawing double-teams to free up teammates for sacks, or stopping the run without concern for stats. When coach Mike Nolan moved him to defensive end in recent seasons after a career at tackle, Young responded by boosting his sack totals against offensive linemen a decade younger than him.
"You have to be unselfish," said Young, who turns 36 next month. "There are guys who really thrive on the big numbers and statistics, but for me, as long as I'm out there doing my job and allowing my teammates to make the plays to help us win, that's what's most important. To gain the respect of my peers around this league, that's what's most important."
The four-time Pro Bowler, who's third in team history with 89½ sacks, remained a force on the 49ers' line even after severely breaking his leg in 1998. He still has a titanium rod in his leg from the injury, but has been largely injury-free in recent years -- another factor in his desire to go out on top and healthy.
"I never wanted anyone to be able to tell if I was in my first or last year," Young said. "The question is, when do you leave the game? Do you leave the game when they push you out, when you're barely walking? When is the right time? It's different for every individual. You have to listen to what your body and what your spirit is telling you."
Young nearly retired after last season, but agreed to return because he felt the 49ers were ready to return to playoff contention in Nolan's third year. The club's regression to a 4-10 record has been a huge disappointment to Young, and another good reason to get out now.
Young has made a few concessions to his age in recent years, most notably taking practice off on Wednesdays. But on game days, nobody can see much of a difference in his effort.
His teammates voted to recognize him one more time with the Eshmont Award on the 50th anniversary of the award's origin, and the 49ers' fans will have Sunday's game against the Buccaneers to give their own tribute.
"He is the type of person you want your son to grow up to be like, because he is all about doing what is right," said Tampa Bay quarterback Jeff Garcia, who played with Young in San Francisco.
"He has been everything 49er fans should be proud of, and should look at as the force and voice of the 49ers."
- Earned Pro Bowl honors four times (1996, '99, 2001, '02).