B.Y. one step closer to the end

If this indeed is the final go around for Bryant Young, he's going to depart one step at a time at his pace. And on Wednesday, one of the greatest warriors in 49ers history took one more step closer to retirement without actually confirming he's going there. Then again, he didn't have to. Young made it all but certain Sunday's game against Tampa Bay will be his last before San Francisco home fans.

In the locker room during the late hours after Saturday night's 20-13 victory over Cincinnati, Young came very close to saying this week's game against the Buccaneers would be his last in San Francisco as a 49er, then held off any announcements saying he would further address the issue later this week.

When that time came Wednesday, Young said, "You know, I'll just leave it like this: More than likely, this is my last home game."

Young left it at that, saying he wants to wait until after San Francisco's season finale Dec. 30 at Cleveland before he begins making any definitive statements about retirement.

"We still have two games remaining, and I don't want to take any focus away from that," Young said. "My main focus is to concentrate on these last two. I know for me, I don't want to start reflecting and answer the questions that come along with that. So, when it's appropriate, I'll answer those questions."

There's no question Young is coming to the end of a brilliant career, one that has defined him as one of the franchise's most stoic leaders and greatest defensive linemen during 14 distinguished NFL seasons that will make him a strong candidate to reach the Hall of Fame.

Young was hoping to go out in a blaze of glory this season with the 49ers climbing back into the NFL consciousness as a legitimate playoff contender after several lean seasons. Instead, as the team's longest tenured veteran, Young has regularly faced questions about how did it all go wrong during San Francisco's disappointing 4-10 season.

Actually, Young has been contemplating the tough decision when to walk away for the past few years, with the decision to return this season spurred by the team's high hopes and the fact that he still was playing at a high level.

"It kind of started before this season," Young said. "I felt that I could muster up another year and come back and really help this organization. I really felt like this year was the year that we'd turn it around and make something happen, with how things were in '05 and then last year with 7-9 and leaving some on the table during that season. I just felt like this was the year we finally turn the corner. For whatever reason, it just didn't happen the way we would have all hoped. But it is what it is."

Just as it is what it is what Young has meant to the 49ers organization since he was the team's top draft pick in 1994.

That has been illustrated on the field again this year, and also off the field again Wednesday when Young was named the recipient of the Len Eshmont Award, the team's most prestigious individual honor as voted on by each player.

It was the fourth consecutive year Young has claimed the honor. No other player has been named more than twice in the 51-year history of the award.

That goes a little to show the esteem and respect Young holds on and off the field, and also in and out of the San Francisco locker room.

"His influence on me has been far more than just football," said 49ers linebacker Jeff Ulbrich, who on Wednesday was named the recipient of the Matt Hazeltine Iron Man Award, given by coaches to San Francisco's most courageous and tenacious defensive player.

"The way I see him with his wife and kids, the way he carries himself everywhere, just in relating to fans, people, friends and family, he's been a huge influence. He's one of my role models, definitely, in my life. In football, I think it's obvious what he taught me there."

Said 49ers coach Mike Nolan: "I believe that Bryant Young is a great example to not only the NFL, not only the 49ers, but also to the city and to the fans everywhere of what a consummate pro looks like and what he does. He's been a great example to our players. On and off the field, Bryant has been a real professional. He's been great in the community and he's also been outstanding for our football team."
Reading between Young's thinly-veiled words on Wednesday suggests he as two more football games to play with the 49ers, with the last one coming at home on Sunday.

Young, who turns 36 in January, says he still feels that physically he can continue to play the game and perform at a high level and, like this season, "I've been able to do some of the things that they've asked me to do. I've been productive."

But that hardly is the only thing that goes into the decision at this stage of his life and career.

"The question is, when do you leave the game?" Young said. "Do you leave the game when they push you out, or when you're barely walking? When's the right time? And that's to be determined by the individual. You have to listen to your body and what your spirit is telling you."

And Young's spirit is telling him to walk away during the next two weeks, step by step until it's time to say goodbye.


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