With Saturday being the two-year anniversary of ONLY GATORS Get Out Alive and considering he is releasing a brand new book the very same day, former Florida Gators defensive lineman Jack Youngblood sat down with us recently for an exclusive and extensive hour-long interview about his life and career.
The first University of Florida student-athlete to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Youngblood is also a member of Florida’s Ring of Honor, the College Football Hall of Fame and the UF Athletic Hall of Fame. He has as accomplished of a career as any player who has put on the orange and blue of the Gators after being named first-team All-SEC and All-America in 1970 and also being selected as the No. 20 overall pick in the first round of the 1971 NFL Draft.
Youngblood went on to be named to seven Pro Bowls and be selected as a first-team All-Pro five times while also winning NFC Defensive Player of the Year in back-to-back seasons (1975-76) and the St. Louis Rams’ Most Value Player award three times (1975-76, 1979). He played in five NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl and had his No. 85 retired by St. Louis prior to being inducted into the team’s Ring of Fame in 2001.
Since retiring for the game of football, Youngblood has done some acting work, served as an analyst with numerous media outlets, and co-hosted Wal-Mart’s Great Outdoors program, which used to air on ESPN on Saturday mornings. He also wrote a biography, has held a number of football administration jobs and continues to work to this day.
OGGOA’s three-part interview with Youngblood covers his college days and professional career while also highlighting some interesting stories and moments in his life.
ADAM SILVERSTEIN: Coming out of high school in Monticello, FL, you were a lot closer distance-wise to Florida State than Florida. Why did you end up choosing to play for the Gators and how did that recruiting process unfold for you?
JACK YOUNGBLOOD: “First of all, there was no recruiting process. [Laughing] That’s the crazy part about it. We were 25 miles from Tallahassee and we had a pretty good little football team back in 1966. We won the state championship. You would’ve thought we would’ve had some recruiting going on there. In all honesty, [there was] very little. I had no conscious idea that I was ever going to get an opportunity to play at the next level until Florida came up to me when we were celebrating after the championship game. They asked me if I wanted to come play football for the University of Florida.”
AS: Looking at recruiting as it stands today – with so many evaluation camps, services rating kids and tons of exposure – are you envious of how much attention high school players get or are you happy with how it used to work?
JY: “It’s a totally different world today. Our media contingent is just outrageous. You start tracking kids as they’re in 9th and 10th grade. [Laughing] I guess it’s because it is so expansive that you can do it today whereas in the past, it was a physical job literally.”
AS: Do you think there is a lot more pressure on high school kids these day with such high expectations at a young age? Perhaps they don’t get as much time to develop and become better players without scrutiny from the get-go?
JY: “It does put a tremendous amount of pressure on. A lot of them see an opportunity or think there is an opportunity where they can go and be like one of the ‘idols’ they watch on television and see play on Saturdays and Sundays. I don’t know if it’s going to get larger and larger as we move forward, but it probably will.”
AS: Coming out of high school, you were primarily an offensive lineman and linebacker. When Florida’s coaches wanted to move you to defensive line right away, what did you think about that? How difficult was the transition not only from high school to college but also from linebacker to defensive line?
JY: “First of all, it broke my heart when they told me that I was not going to be the middle linebacker. We had an All-American out of Tampa – Mike Kelly – Kelly was destined to be the middle linebacker. At 6’4” and 200 lbs. by my sophomore year, I had put on about 15 pounds, that’s a little gangly to be trying to play middle linebacker. They decided to put my hand on the ground and see what kind of skills I had there. It was a significant change, there was no question. The toughest part was having to put on muscle and strength so that I could play. I had some of the natural quickness and speed – I could run – but it was the size that was the hindrance. When you line up in front of Jim Yarbrough your first time on the practice field and you line up in front of him during a stand-up defensive end simulation. I got down in a two-point stance in front of Yarbrough and I still had to look up to him. [Laughing] That’s a scary thought.”
Read the rest of part one of our interview with Jack Youngblood…after the break!
AS: The transition may have been tough but you excelled during your junior year in 1969, leading the Gators in tackles and setting the then-school record for sacks in a single season. You also had five against Florida State in one game. How did you get over the transition in order to burst on the scene that year? And did you feel any pressure heading into your senior year?
JY: “No. No. That success was – on one hand let’s just say it was surprising, on the other hand let’s say that’s what I expected. That’s the way I was raised, if you’re going to go ahead and do a job, you’re going to do it to the best of your ability and be the best. Those were the fundamentals that parents and grandparents instilled in you. That’s a two-headed sword there. You know you’re successful but that is what is expected of you.”
AS: You won, well, a ton of awards in 1970 and made a play that fans still remember – the goal line stop and fumble recovery in the Florida-Georgia game. Looking back on your college career, is that the play that sticks out in your mind? Was that your greatest performance or is there another memory?
JY: “That was a highlight, there’s no question. That was a huge play. Kicking Florida State’s fanny for four years in a row – we kind of owned them back in those days. Those were special times. Robert Harrell and myself, we combined for nine or 10 sacks – something like that – I believe in 1968. We just dominated. Those are special moments, when you look back and you go, ‘Yeah, that was fun. Those were good days.’”
AS: A lot of players who took the field for UF in the 1980s and 1990s, when I ask if they “hated” FSU, all say yes without hesitation. Did you feel the same way back then and does that feeling still linger to this day?
JY: “I actually don’t hate them because we dominated them. [Laughing] It kind of took the edge off. But on the other hand, they’re the arch rival – them and Georgia. So you have this animosity. It’s a competitive animosity. Being in the state, rival programs, the kids know each other, it’s about bragging rights. It’s walking around with your head held high – especially in situations where both schools are recognized. They knew that they had to come up to a different level to play with us.”
AS: I remember reading in a book a few years back that you specifically were a part of the product testing for Gatorade as it was being invented at Florida. I know that it technically started two years earlier, but they were still perfecting it at that time. Do you ever think back to that whenever you see advertising on television and so many people using the product?
JY: “I think back on it all the time. We were literally the guinea pigs for them to perfect it. When it was first introduced to us on the practice field, it was nasty. It was almost undrinkable, but we realized this was scientific stuff so it had to have a bad taste. [Laughing] We look back on that, and I still wonder why in the world didn’t the company Gatorade didn’t give us – when they finally established itself and Stokely came in and capitalized the whole thing and it took off from there – they should’ve at least given us 10 shares of common stock. We would all be wealthy Gator boosters now! Literally, think about that, 40 years ago!”
AS: During your sophomore season – the first year you started on defense – you also ended up being the Gators’ primary kicker. How did that come about and was that a lot of extra work considering you were playing so many snaps on the defensive line?
JY: “That was one of those deals coming out of a small high school, the more things you did, the opportunities to get on the field were better. It was something that just came natural. I used to punt the ball, kick the ball and snap the ball. It was one of those things where coach asked if I could kick the ball, and I said, ‘Yeah.’ I went out and started kicking. They saw I had done it before and had a very strong leg, so it was just another one of those opportunities to get yourself out on the field and contribute to the football team.”
AS: Everyone knows you prided yourself on not missing games due to injury, and we will get more in depth on that later, but you did miss back-to-back games in college including one against Alabama. I heard there was an interesting story about that.
JY: “I had gotten the knee strained in the opening ballgame against Duke, I think, in Jacksonville. They rushed me to the hospital, thinking they were going to have to operate the next morning. The next morning, to this day I firmly believe there was divine intervention. The doctor said the knee wasn’t torn, it was stretched. They put me in a plastic cast to keep it immobilized for 10 days or so until I could rehab it. I missed the Mississippi State game and then the Alabama game came along. That was two weeks, and I was really upset about having to miss the Alabama game because I never played them. They were good out there.
“That weekend all the girls had made plans to go barbeque at Cowpen Lake – our friends had a house there. My friends had a ski boat. I went out with all the girls – I’m part of the girl party now – there were some other boys who didn’t make it to the travel squad. I went out there and was listening to the ballgame and it was just frustrating for me. I’m visualizing every play and thinking to myself, ‘I’ve got to try something here. I’ve got to get back on the field.’ So I decided to go skiing. If I could ski, I could play. So I jumped on the slalom ski and made a couple rounds out there on the lake, came back and went to practice the next day.”
AS: Considering you didn’t even expect to play college football, being announced as a first-round pick in the 1971 NFL Draft had to be shocking to you as well even though you had all of those accolades in 1970. Can you talk about that time in your career – being selected and moving from college to the professional game?
JY: “It was another one of those life-changing moments. The invitation to come play for the Gators was a life-changing moment. Getting on the field and making the starting lineup as a sophomore was a life-changing moment. Being drafted in the National Football League, having absolutely no idea that I was going to be considered especially that high – especially that high – that I might get a free agency opportunity. You make no expectations there. To come across the teletype there in the Gainesville Sun editorial room – the 20th player chosen in 1971…boy, woah! That’s a surprise. That’s a different level. Now where are we going? I had already made plans to go do interviews and was going to take a job in Atlanta in the banking industry. I was going to graduate in finance and work in the banking business. I had already made plans to go in that direction. The good lord had a different plan for me. We stepped on the airplane and next thing I know, it is 25 years later and I’m still in California.”