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Veteran Young remains optimistic in Niners' darkest days

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) - With his shaved head, massive frame and weary eyes, Bryant Young reminds nobody of Pollyanna - until the veteran defensive tackle declares his unquenchable optimism about the San Francisco 49ers.

Despite a winless season and little tangible hope for quick improvement, Young still believes in the franchise that won its last Super Bowl in his rookie season. Young was a witness to the Niners' glory days, and he truly believes they can be recaptured.

"We just have to keep working hard," he said. "It'll happen eventually, for sure."

The four-time Pro Bowler shares tales of better times with his young teammates when they wonder if the 49ers will ever win again. The memories also help his spirits when he leaves the field after another loss.

"It's a bit of a challenge," Young said. "I've been on a team with a lot of veterans, a lot of stars. But this is fun. We have a lot of solid guys, and we're working together. The makeup of our team is pretty good."

It seems nothing can quench Young's belief, which originated in an era when San Francisco struck fear and awe in its opponents' hearts with five Super Bowl victories and an unmistakable swagger.

These days, the 49ers scare nobody. After an 0-4 preseason, they're one of six winless teams going into Sunday's game against St. Louis.

Young believes his leadership is just as important as his play this season. During his rookie campaign in 1994, Young looked up to more veteran teammates than he could count: Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Richard Dent, Charles Mann, Rickey Jackson and Deion Sanders, just for starters.

Young was the NFL's top defensive rookie that season, and he became one of the league's most disruptive linemen over the next four seasons. His career was threatened by a broken leg in 1998, but he was the NFL's comeback player of the year in 1999.

Some 32-year-old veterans - particularly those still as productive as Young - would complain about being stuck on a team that seems content to sacrifice the season to its salary cap woes and its development of youngsters. Not Young.

"I like to think I'm still kind of a young guy among these guys," Young said. "Sometimes I can help out, share a story or something. It's a good situation."

Young's optimism has been tested in the trenches this season. The 49ers' defensive line was thin entering camp even before Andre Carter, Brandon Whiting, Andrew Williams and rookie Isaac Sopoaga were bothered by injuries.

San Francisco's tight-pocketed front office has used a series of waiver-wire castoffs to fill the holes - Dennis Johnson, Otis Leverette, Tony Brown, James Atkins, Josh Cooper, Mike Walters and Riddick Parker, among others.

Young and Anthony Adams have been left to do most of the work in the middle, though Young has benefited from coach Dennis Erickson's determination to limit his action to around 50 snaps per game. With a bit of extra rest, Young's effectiveness has improved from previous seasons.

"Right now, he's playing at a tremendous level, a high level," Erickson said. "He's playing as good as any defensive lineman I've seen."

He could play for several more seasons, but after four trips to Hawaii and two spots on the All-Pro team, there aren't many individual honors left for Young. He stays motivated with dreams of more team glory for the only franchise he's ever known.

"Just to keep winning and get to another Super Bowl," Young said. "Another Super Bowl, that's it for me. As long as I continue to love this game, I'll play."

But in San Francisco?

"Oh yeah."

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