San Francisco’s defensive tackle Junior Bryant was a bulwark of the 49er defense, his fall from being the steadfast force along side Bryant Young has forced the team to move in another former veteran.
Along with that other rookies and second-year players have had to step up, his vacancy however will never be truly replaced as he was not only a leader and spokesperson for the team, but an admired human being as well.

His emotional will continues to function, and his inner drive to one-day get back out on the playing field continues to eat at every fiber in his body. He has not given up although the thoughts are still lingering in his mind, that he may never be able to play again in professional football.

Back at training camp in July a picture that told the story in true highlighted fashion was when Junior Bryant stood along the 49er sideline holding his teammates helmets, he was in a talking session with sports writers and critics.
His answers to their questions were guarded and full of despair as he replied when asked if he would play again: “They might be the only helmets I carry a while,” he said. Bryant eventually walked away his head not so high as it used to be.

Defensive tackles Dana Stubblefield and Bryant Young the new duo from 1997 after Stubblefield left for a four-year stint with the Washington Redskins are back together again. They are now the focal point for this new and younger defense to learn from.

It has been over 11 months since Bryant, 30 years old, suffered a severe neck injury during a game at St. Louis. He has not played since that day, the dangers of him playing again are real and life threatening, but he continues to weigh the possibility of a comeback.

“My range of motion has been fine for months,” Bryant said. “The MRI on (July 18th) did show some improvement, not a great deal. But it was a reason to be somewhat optimistic.”

“I feel after playing eight years here (including two on the practice squad) and doing everything they asked of me, I should have the chance to make the decision,” Bryant said. “I want to play but I want to make the best possible decision and that’s about being well informed.”

The injury was devastating when I observed it last year, I thought it was very similar to the injury Bryant Young suffered when his leg was twisted and mangled in a game against the New York Giants. Witnessing the horror of Junior brought back those same memories I had developed observing Bryant Young go down.

Junior Bryant suffered an acute bulging disk in his neck when he landed on his head after making a tackle in St. Louis on Sept. 17. He missed the final 13 games of the season, was held out of the team’s spring mini-camps and went on the reserve-physically unable to perform list one Sunday before the 49er’s training camp opened.

He has fought to sway the team in believing that there is some hope left for him to return, however team physicians have refused to clear him, and saying they reviewed the MRI exam and saw little or no improvement in his neck. However, Bryant said several other doctors had interpretations ranging from slight to significant improvement.

Bryant continues to seek out other opinions, he also said he was approached by one staff member and asked if he would sign a liability waiver if the 49er’s let him rejoin practice.

“That didn’t sit well with me. I don’t think it’s right,” Bryant said. But he did not rule it out, either. Bryant was told that former 49er’s receiver Mike Wilson signed a similar waiver before he returned from a neck injury.

“I’m getting some information that’s considered positive. They give you a glimmer of hope, but then they say there’s a high risk to come back,” said Bryant, who’s been suffering from a bulging disk. “I look at it as though there’s always the potential for injury every time you come out.”

On July 24th Bryant failed to clear the necessary medical clearance allowing him to practice with the team, and possibly the rest of his career. Dr. Robert Millard viewed the images of Bryant’s neck and reported his findings to the 49er’s and Bryant that Tuesday.

The MRI revealed that the condition had not improved appreciably since Bryant was last evaluated in January, the source said. But because there is plenty of room for interpretation the test results, Bryant will again seek additional opinions before deciding his next move, the source said.

Junior has gone on record as saying he has experienced no discomfort or pain with his neck over the last few months, he has even indicated he is willing to accept the hard facts that he may never play again in professional football.

News on the doctor’s findings made the front office stand up and take into account the feelings of Junior Bryant, all the coaches and front office personnel have been anxious to see Junior comeback after this horrific injury.

“Once the information is received we will all have ample time to study it,” general manager Terry Donahue said in a statement released by the team. “Junior will then have a chance to weigh all his options and make a decision on whether or not he wants to continue to pursue playing football again.”

Even with all the ominous signs that pointed to Junior not being cleared he announced his intentions of mounting a comeback. “I am coming back,” Bryant said. “It was a very hard decision. I took my time with it. I wanted to make sure I was making the right decision for the right reasons. There were a lot of pros and cons. I had to make sure I was comfortable with my decision.”

Junior crashed to the turf helmet-first while making a tackle and was motionless on the field for several moments in St. Louis. Bryant then was taped to a board and wheeled off on a stretcher. He was later diagnosed with a bulging disk in his neck and placed on injured reserve.

One has to understand that playing football is all Junior has ever known, let alone enjoying it, he relishes the fact that he may be able to help the 49er’s for another season. However reality and fantasy are two totally different facets in life. Junior falls in between the two right now, making his comeback less than certain.

I admire all that Junior has done for the 49er’s, I feel his presence was a welcomed factor in a defense that saw it’s best back in 1997 and fell on it’s face soon after, and is now in a transition that is slowly but surely building back it’s identity.

“Everybody in this organization wants him to be successful and is really hoping he can get there,” 49er’s general manager Terry Donahue said. “He’s been able to evaluate the whole situation and the advice he has received, and he’s made a conscious decision that he wants to aggressively pursue playing again. I think we just keep our fingers crossed and wait and see how it goes.”

The facts are this and they are not pleasant but the team took steps to secure defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield from the Washington Redskins believing that Junior’s career was pretty much over after such a devastating injury. Also Junior besides having the bulging disk in his neck has always had some back pain and trouble while playing for the 49er’s. Having both now really seemed to justify to the front office that a replacement was necessary.
Junior was in all likelihood not going to return to the 49er playing field ever again. Little did they realize how much fight Junior has, as he feels he should give it his best shot knowing he tried everything before accepting defeat.

“I feel confident I’ll be able to get back on the field,” Bryant said. “It was a very hard decision. I took time with it.” The biggest concern going out onto a playing field for Bryant is the possibility of re-injury, and a possibility of increased susceptibility to stingers.

Donahue although sympathetic to Junior’s cause is cautiously optimistic that he can make such a turn a round especially knowing that Junior played with back pain before. He made known that the team as a whole would stand by him, but it had to move onward regardless.

“I don’t think anybody in the organization is comfortable with him in a game (now) because he hasn’t passed a physical and his back is hurt,” Donahue said. “But we are cautiously optimistic, based on his work ethic and skill level, that he can get back in a position to play.”

Bryant has consulted with five different doctors, including the team physician and none explicitly ruled out a return to football as too risky. Those doctors based their decisions on a MRI exam Bryant took one month. He said he will be at a heightened risk for stingers or pinched nerves in his neck but that was a risk he could accept.

Junior has not only told it to himself but to all that know him that his decision to make a comeback was made after careful consideration of all the factors at his disposal. He is man with a big heart and he has always been a positive locker room presence on any given day. He is a dynamic individual that is not afraid of hard work and achieving results on a regular basis.

“I feel like if I retired now I might look back on it with regret and I don’t want to have any regrets when I leave the game,” he said. “I have no problem leaving, even if it was today. And if I got out there, and I start working and I feel like I can’t play at the same level or if there’s any hesitation or, any effects, I’ll stop and I’d have no regrets. But for me not even give it shot? I just felt it was better to go ahead and give it a try.”

However the end came swiftly for Junior Bryant when on August 27th, 2001 San Francisco released him after failing a team physical evaluating his condition. The team prepared him for this day saying it would release him should he not pass the physical. Junior expressed the same reaction as when he was first released in his very first year with the 49er’s back in 1993. Just two weeks after announcing his intent on mounting a comeback, the 49er’s made the cut to comply with the league’s 65-player limit.

“This is one of the things that I prepared for eight or nine years ago,” said a contemplative Bryant, adding he was not bitter at the team’s decision. “I’ve been cut twice before this.”

The consensus came to a head at the 49er front office recognizing the facts that sat in front of them about Junior’s condition. General Manager Terry Donahue said no one in the organization felt comfortable allowing Bryant to play football again. Head Coach Steve Mariucci termed the decision “difficult and unanimous.” “The doctors put it in writing that there was a significant chance of future injury and it being a significant injury,” Donahue said.

“It’s not easy. It’s not fun to do this,” Mariucci said of Bryant, who spent eight years with San Francisco, including two seasons on the practice squad. “We made an organizational decision. We took the medical advice of the doctors, and it was in everybody’s view that he should not be playing football anymore.”

“Ultimately, Terry had to make a call and it came down to me passing a physical,” Bryant said. “He wasn’t comfortable with it. I appreciate the opportunity the team gave me to get to that point.” Bryant cleared out his locker and moved on, but did so refusing to accept retirement.

The 49er’s approached Bryant and asked him about retirement, but refused saying he wanted to take some time before making any dramatic conclusions on his future right now, he simply wants to leave the door open just incase there still is a remote possibility.

“I am not going to close the door on my future yet,” Bryant said. “They asked me to retire and I have no interest in retiring. If it comes down to five months from now or two months from now and I no longer have any interest in playing again, I’ll make a decision then. Right now, I just want to keep my options open.”

One has to wonder how Bryant can believe that he is still capable of playing; one has to wonder what about his family? Why is he not thinking of them? What compels him to want to make a comeback? Why not move on and do something safer? These are questions that we all would like an answer to, all I know is that Junior has incredible spirit and mental toughness to want to hold on and believe that someday he could very well play again despite all the questions.

“I feel I can still play but I know I’m not in football shape right now,” Bryant said. “I have no real regrets although I know I didn’t get a chance to play my best football.” “Mentally, the game gets easier and it does physically, to a certain extent,” he said.

Just last year Bryant signed a seven-year, $16 million dollar contract that could be voided to four years. Included in the deal was a $4.5 million signing bonus. Donahue said Bryant’s contract carries “significant cap implications” next year, because the team will be required to accelerate the remainder of his $4.5 million signing bonus in 2002, estimated at about $3.6 million.

Bryant was guaranteed to make $977,000 this year, but he will count about $1.2 million against this year’s $67.4 million salary cap. It represents a major blow to a team, that has spent the last two years trying to dig it’s way out of the salary cap hole it is now in, once again, it is devoting a hefty amount of cap space to a player that is absent from it’s roster.

Bryant was signed as a rookie free agent in 1993; Bryant played in 83 games, making 43 starts, during six seasons. He closed out his career in San Francisco with 206 tackles and 13.5 sacks.

The ramifications of his absence from the team hit like lead flying into one’s stomach, the locker room was a buzz after the announcement and his release. Bryant has been a part of the defensive line since 1993.

“Normally, him and me sit together in the defensive meeting room and compare notes,” defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield said. “I got in (the meeting room) and looked to my side and said, “Lord, have mercy.’ It’s just starting to set in.”

Junior Bryant made the team the hard way back in 1993; he won the admiration of veterans by making the team as a free agent, and then by spending two years on the practice squad. “I remember him playing offensive guard and offensive tackle on the scout squad,” Stubblefield said, “and then turning around and playing on the defensive line.”

“To lose a guy like that, as far as leadership and the way he worked his way up the ladder, is a tremendous loss to this defensive line,” Stubblefield said. “One of the big reasons I came back was because of him, Bryant Young and defensive line coach Dwaine Board.”

Junior accepted his release and went back home, it was the most difficult thing he has ever had to swallow, when one’s body fails you and you are forced to look at life in a different perspective it is not at all easy. He did have this to say though as he weighed everything on his mind.

“I appreciate the opportunity to play professionally in San Francisco and I appreciate the support I have received in the community and from the fans,” Bryant said. “They have been great to me early in my career, when I was a starter and when I got hurt.”

Bryant was complacent when talking about his career with the 49er’s as he was proud to be part of such an ideal organization, that prides itself on winning championships, and accepting only positive thinking to forward that objective.

“I played with a lot of great players and have a lot of great friends, past and present. I wish those guys the best of luck and hope they all stay healthy. We had some great times and won a lot of games. The only regret I have is that I didn’t get to play my best football. I have not made up my mind about my future as of yet so I am going to leave my options open.”

“Juniors been a great player for us, for a long time and he is a great team person,” said Steve Mariucci. “He added to the chemistry of this locker room, the leadership and all of that. But it was in everyone’s view that he shouldn’t play any more football because of his status of his back and neck. You take all of that into consideration. It was a difficult decision, but a unanimous one.”

Just recently though the 49er’s reworked Junior Bryant’s contract, instead of waiving Bryant after he failed a physical, the team placed him on it’s physically unable to perform list. The change in Bryant’s status buys the 49er’s about $210,000 in salary-cap relief. Without such a change, the 49er’s were about $45,000 over the cap. There are no plans however for the 49er’s to consider bringing back Bryant as a player.

One has to understand that the 49er’s did exactly what they needed to do and that was to obtain a fully functional roster and to obtain itself some salary cap relief. Knowing that Junior Bryant’s health and well being were at risk no matter the scenario it was practical sense that he was one of the one’s waived.

This in no way takes away from the player that Junior was, and I agree that he had not as of yet played his best football. I believe with all honesty that he had his best years yet to come before the injury, it is most unfortunate for both parties that he may never have that opportunity.

I can not say enough at what kind of a player he represented, he was an athlete with great diversity, and was versatile, tough, quick, and a role model for other players to look up to, he was always about what was best for the team. It is a huge loss that will take us many years to find a replacement; he started out from the very bottom and worked his way up through the cracks to define himself as a player.

Everyone on the team today will tell you that he was the ideal teammate that he was easy to talk to and confide in. He was a leader in the locker room when the going got tough; he was there as a beacon of hope when all seemed lost.

We have all been blessed with his tenure as a 49er, I am happy that I was a part of his playing years, I enjoyed every game that I observed him in. No one can predict at what he will do down the road, maybe there will be a miracle a glimmer of hope he will recover 100% and make a surprise return.
We have seen the miracle of Garrison Hearst as evidence of adversity, the same could be told of Junior Bryant, wherever you are Junior Thanks for all the memories and get well soon.