San Francisco 49ers: The 6 Most Devastating Injuries in 49ers History
The most depressing sound in sports is the deafening silence that fills a football stadium as a star player writhes on the ground with an injury.
Back-breaking interceptions, blown coverages and busted plays sting in the immediate present because they can change the direction of a game and even a season.
But broken bones and busted knees cut much deeper, altering the foreseeable future for a franchise and a fanbase. (I’m sure it sucks for the injured player as well).
As a longtime 49ers fan I’ve witnessed a host of injuries that caused me palpable pain because of the lasting impact they had on my favorite franchise.
The following is my top six list of the most devastating injuries in recent 49ers history.
Quick disclaimer: I didn’t attempt to go back farther than my memory as a fan (which stretches back to about 1988) because I don’t think you can truly appreciate the pain of a crushing injury unless you are fully immersed in the team at that time.
Though I attempted to use objective analysis based on wins and losses, pain is inherently a subjective emotion, and what stung most for me may have been only a minor annoyance on your pain meter.
What I’m trying to say is I welcome additions via the comment section. After all, group therapy is where the healing begins.
6. Jerry Rice Blows Out His Knee (1997)
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Also known as the day Superman crashed into a building.
Watching the leg of the greatest receiver of all time crumple beneath the weight of Warren Sapp fundamentally altered my view on sports.
Rice’s excellence was as regular as fog on the Bay or Saved by the Bell on Saturday morning. Finding out he was human was a depressing reality.
No. 80’s injury ranks lower on the list only because the team and Rice shook it off with relative ease.
San Francisco finished 13-3 that year and won the NFC West. Rice bounced back next season to record 1,157 yards and nine TDs.
But anytime you’re deprived an entire season of watching maybe the greatest football player of all time, it has to be categorized as devastating.
5. Bryant Young Destroys His Leg (1998)
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“Destroys” may seem like too harsh a verb, but if you’ve ever seen clips of what happened to Bryant Young, you know it’s accurate.
(I tried to find video clips of the injury, but honestly, I’m kind of glad I couldn’t.)
Instead, here’s an excerpt from Michael Silver’s 1999 Sports Illustrated article:
When teammate Ken Norton inadvertently slammed his helmet into Young's shin, the bones shattered like bamboo whacked by a sledgehammer: "Imagine yourself falling off a cliff into an abyss and gasping for air," Young says of the pain. "You're trying desperately to grab onto something, but you're plummeting too fast and can't get a grip.”
You wouldn’t wish that type of injury on your most hated rival, but to see it happen to a player like B.Y. was especially nauseating.
A star the minute he showed up in the league, Young was the embodiment of class and professionalism that used to define the 49ers organization.
Though he came back to play nine more solid seasons in the Red and Gold, you have to wonder where he would have ended up on the pantheon of all-time NFL defenders had he not suffered such a horrendous injury.
You’re also left pondering if the 49ers defense would have declined so rapidly the following seasons with a full-strength Young anchoring the line.
4. Joe Montana Hurts His Elbow (1991)
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Joe Montana’s injury came in maybe the most devastating loss in 49ers history.
Up 13-9 in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game vs. the Giants, Montana hurt his elbow on a brutal hit that also caused him to cough up the ball.
It was Roger Craig’s historically boneheaded fumble later in the game that finally sunk San Francisco, but you have to think that with Montana still playing, the 49ers would have pulled away and gone on to their third straight Super Bowl.
As it stands, Montana missed the better part of the next two seasons, and San Francisco wouldn’t return to the Super Bowl until 1995.
Steve Young’s emergence helped quell some of the pain of losing Montana, but I still wince anytime someone mentions that Giants game or when an obnoxious Steelers fan crows about having won six Super Bowls.
3. Alex Smith Separates His Shoulder (2007)
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Things were looking up for the 49ers and Alex Smith going into Week 4 of the 2007 season.
San Francisco had finished 2006 on a three-game winning streak, highlighted by a comeback 24-14 win in Seattle that saw Smith account for three fourth-quarter touchdowns, including a beautifully executed naked bootleg that became the lasting image of renewed hope in 49er land.
2007 started off with a last-second victory over Arizona, a hard-fought win in St. Louis and an understandable loss at Pittsburgh in which Smith played fairly well.
It all combined to give 49ers fans the feeling that maybe the rebuilding period was over, that this young team led by Smith and coach Mike Nolan was building towards a sustained run at success.
Then in the first quarter vs. Seattle, Rocky Bernard crushed both those hopes and Smith’s shoulder.
Fast-forward two weeks, and Smith was on the sideline watching Trent Dilfer lead San Francisco to a 9-7 loss against Baltimore that may have set offensive football back a decade.
It’s been four years, and both Smith and the franchise are still trying to recover the hope that was broken by Bernard’s hit.
2. Garrison Hearst Wrecks His Ankle (1999)
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Garrison Hearst’s gruesome injury to start the NFC Championship Game in Atlanta was one of those plays that crushes the soul.
You could feel the wind leave the 49ers’ sails the minute Hearst went down, and as the Falcons did the Dirty Bird, I remember thinking to myself that this stung more than a normal playoff loss.
Part of the pain was that Hearst was coming off a career year in which he broke the franchise single-season rushing record and made one of the greatest runs in NFL history (his 96-yard game-winner vs. the Jets).
The fractured ankle would keep Hearst out for the next two seasons, and though he would mount a valiant comeback a few years later, he was never really the same player.
But more than just the ankle, Hearst’s injury was the beginning of the end for the 49ers dynasty that had ruled for two decades, and all my life up to that point.
Which leads us to...
1. Steve Young Gets His Last Concussion (1999)
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If Garrison Hearst’s ankle was the start of the 49ers’ fall from grace, Young’s concussion was the nail in the coffin.
The head shot Young sustained in Arizona marked the end of his career and the end of San Francisco’s record-16 straight years of at least 10 wins. (The 49ers won 10 games combined the next two seasons.)
Personally, it signaled the end of my sports innocence.
Growing up a 49ers fan in the '80s and '90s, I assumed football success was a birthright. Lose one Hall of Fame QB, replace him with another; lose in the first round, make it to the NFC title game next year.
There was an inherent confidence, or call it arrogance, that despite any brief dips in our success arc, we were still destined to be on top.
With Young’s injury it all came crashing down. Even when San Francisco managed a brief foray back to respectability in ‘01 and ‘02, the franchise never regained that air of infallibility that the truly great 49ers teams exhibited.
Given that Young was 38 when he was forced into retirement, you could argue that his injury only sped along the inevitable and as such shouldn’t be considered the “most devastating injury” in franchise history.
I have no intellectual counter to that argument.
I can only offer once again that pain is personal, and seeing my favorite player and my favorite sports team end their run of dominance on the same play was truly devastating and deserves the top spot on my list.