Jack Youngblood could not ignore his broken leg any longer. The tape, the splints -- all the supports were gone. Tears came to his eyes and he began to whimper and pant and finally hyperventilate.

His breath came so rapidly and uncontrollably that he had to jab a finger into his stomach to stop the waves of cramps.

"Jesus Christ, this is tough," he muttered under his breath.

Jack Youngblood, you see, was putting on his socks.

This road to the Super Bowl doesn't go through Pittsburgh. It goes through hell.

Youngblood, the Rams All-Pro end, played every defensive minute of Los Angeles' 9-0 victory over Tampa Bay today on a broken left leg. Not a sprain or a twist; a real fracture. Unwrapped and naked, that leg looked swollen, bent, grotesque after this NFC championship game.

"It felt however a broken leg is supposed to feel," Youngblood said through gritted teeth as he dressed standing on one leg like a 6-foot-4, 243-pound crane. "I didn't know until just before the game that I could bear it and play.

"If I had a breath in my body, I swore I was going to play. I've known what it felt like to be a loser, felt it so many times. Now I know what it feels like to be a winner."

The Rams won an ugly, dull and brutally blunder-filed game for which they eill probably be denigrated.

Don't tell Youngblood and his friends on the Ram defense that their ticket to the Super Bowl is homely. The price they have paid for it makes it inexpressibly beautiful to them.

"The mind is great," said 6-foot-6 defensive end Fred Dryer, an intellectual. "It has a tendency to forget all the crud that you endure in life. And I've shared a lot of it with these guys.

"I don't want any slaps on the back now. Words are cheap now. 'Great job' will be handed out for free.

"The only people who know what we did today are the people in this row," said Dryer, sweeping his hand across that corner or the Ram dressing room where the veterans, the heart of the defense, all had their lockers -- Youngblood, Dryer, Jack (Hacksaw) Reynolds and Jim Youngblood, a quartet with 37 years of Ram experience and never a Super Bowl trip.

"We just kept turning the screws and turning the screws until they had nowhere to go," said Jack Youngblood, sucking on a cigarette and relishing the thought of Tampa's phatetic seven first downs and 181 yards of offense.

"some of us old guys got together back here in the corner before the game," Jim Youngblood related. "We said. 'zero is the number.' When we scored our first field goal, we got together on the sideline and told each other, 'We just won the game. It's over. They don't score today.'"

Many Rams felt relief today, and vindication also after losing four of the last five NFC championship games.

"The boat's full again now," crowed quarterback Vince Ferragamo, who has taken heat much of the year. "All the people who jumped out will climb back in with us now.

"But I have no bad feelings toward people. This win is so overpowering," said this second-year med student, "that it wipes out everything else."

"I feel dizzy," said Georgia Rosenbloom, the team's owner and widow of Carroll Rosenbloom. "I can't believe it's over. Has the clock really run out?"

The old Rams felt no such dizziness. Their appreciation of reality is keen. A broken leg sharpens the senses.

"This man does things I can't understand," said Dryer, looking at Jack Youngblood.

Those who have known Youngblood all his life, however, feel no surprise. For instance, Van Collins from Youngblood's hometown of Monticello, Fla., knew three days ago that Youngblood would play.

"I called Jack up and said, 'How's the leg?" recounted Collins, a hunting guide who take care of Youngblood's bird dogs during the season. "He said, 'It's broke pretty good, Vandy. But I brought 'em this far. I can't quit on 'em now."

Late tonight, the other Rams had dressed. The team bus waited. No one complained. Youngblood was still battling to get dressed, fighting each sock and boot, muttering and groaning to himself. No one dared help him.

The ancient jeans, old shirt, faded corduroy jacket and Western belt were finally in place. The Red Man tobacco and the Ram game plan -- covered with asterisks and stars -- were stuffed away in a leather carrying bag as old as his career.

Left behind in his locker were a can a orange juice and a candy bar for energy that he had not eaten. An ashtray, however, was full pregame cigarette butts.

Youngblood journeyed to the bus a step at a time stopping for every autograph -- perhaps as a rest. On his head was a cowboy hat with a rattle-snake head band -- the rattles hanging down the back.

"Vandy, thanks for comin' down," said Youngblood, pumping Collins' hand and all the others in the band of Montecello friends outside Tampa Stadium. "Everybody sure enjoyed that venison and wild duck that you grilled up for us last night.

"Now, don't worry. . I'll be ready for Pittsburgh," Youngblood reassured them -- having no idea if he was speaking the truth.

Slowly, Jack Youngblood walked toward the waiting bus, toward the teammates he couldn't let down, toward the Super Bowl that had haunted and taunted them all so long.

He limped back toward Pasadena. One step at a time.