The five men on this list have 11 Super Bowl rings between them. These are the men who will stand the test of time. These men represent football. Without them, the story of the game can never be complete. These are the legends that captivate us and make us come back for more.
Football is our game; it's the purest pleasure we have and the one thing we all love. It's the glue that unites us. Everyone cherishes football, and everyone needs heroes.
Some of the guys on this list were considered burnouts, others were considered beaten beyond repair. Some were considered too old and too difficult, others were considered too young and too cocky. All of them have one thing in common: They were all doubted and underestimated throughout their careers.
Here, in ranked order, are the five most unlikely heroes in NFL history.
In 1970, Jim Plunkett was the star quarterback at Stanford and won the Heisman Trophy. In 1971, he was the first pick in the draft, and expectations were huge. By 1977, he was a washed-up nobody who had never led a team to the playoffs. He was also a man without a team. He was lost, depressed and completely alone. Football seemed done with him, and he was just about done with football.
By 1984, he was a starting quarterback with two Super Bowl rings.
Rarely in the history of this league has there been a more unlikely hero than Jim Plunkett. He failed with the Patriots, and he failed with the 49ers. His career was truly, truly over. The weight of unfulfilled potential was strapped to his shoulder blades like an anchor in a backpack.
The man came back from the dead in Oakland. In the 1970s and '80s, the Oakland Raiders were the epicenter of dysfunction. If you were a disappointment to others, or if you were just plain psychotic, you went to the Black and Silver.
Plunkett was always destined to be a Raider, he just needed nearly a decade of failure before he qualified for admission.
Coach Tom Flores ran the asylum, but Al Davis owned it. As the originator of the cheating-is-encouraged method to winning, Davis was a hands-on maverick who believed in his depressed quarterback. Davis gave Plunkett a second chance at life. Two Super Bowl rings enabled Plunkett to finally take the anchor off his back.
Plunkett later recalled the words from Davis that turned his whole life around: "It's not important that you play well, it's important that we win." That was the adage that sparked Plunkett to lead the Raiders on a rampage through football history.
Just win, baby. That was the Al Davis way.
Charles Woodson was born with clubbed feet, but he grew up to win the Heisman Trophy. This is the contradictory metaphor that would define his life.
He was drafted by the Raiders in 1998 and initially found success as the Defensive Rookie of the Year. But it didn't take long for his shining star to crash and burn. Injuries had hounded him since college, and they began resurfacing with a vengeance around 2000.
In the 2001 divisional showdown between his Raiders and the Patriots, Woodson made a career-defining game-winning sack and fumble on Tom Brady that was controversially reversed by the refs. Again, the contradictory metaphor speaks volumes about Woodson’s career.
In 2003, his Raiders were blown out by the Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXXVII. By that time, he was at constant odds with his coach and consistently injured. He had suffered through a broken leg and a lost Super Bowl. The Raiders released him in 2005.
By every stretch of the imagination, Charles Woodson had burned out. The perception was that he was slow, pissed off, unreliable, uncoachable and locker room poison.
Then he got a second chance. He signed with the Packers in 2006 and went on to have the best season of his career from a statistical standpoint. Between 2006 and 2009, one could have made the argument that he was the best pure football talent in the league. But a lingering legacy of disappointment weighed his career down to the bottom of the ocean.
In 2010, the Packers advanced to the Super Bowl on the strength of a newly-unified team and the football IQ of Aaron Rodgers. This would be Woodson's ultimate shot at redemption. The only thing standing between him and ultimate glory were the Steelers.
During the game, while diving to thwart a pass to Mike Wallace, Woodson broke his collarbone. He was done for the game before halftime.
Unlikely heroes rise in unlikely ways. On the field, Woodson's skill was undeniable, but it was his halftime speech to the team that ultimately defined his career. The emotion that poured out of him was the kind that only a warrior can produce and vocalize.
The speech uplifted the Packers. Rodgers assured Woodson that they would win the Super Bowl for him. And they did.
Charles Woodson is one of the most skilled cornerbacks in the history of the NFL and one of the finest players to ever play the game. His accomplishments are endless, but it was his inspirational speech during Super Bowl XLV that makes him one of the most unlikely heroes in NFL history.
If I had a dollar for every time Tom Coughlin's job was in jeopardy, I'd have enough dough to buy the Patriots a reliable receiver. Without a doubt, Coughlin will go down in history as having one of the strangest coaching careers in the history of football.
Tom Coughlin was a part of the 1990 New York Giants team, serving as the wide receivers coach and as an assistant to head coach Bill Parcells. Bill Belichick was the defensive coordinator. The Giants won Super Bowl XXV by a single point.
Coughlin finally nabbed a head coaching position on the collegiate level. Where? Boston, of course. At the time, coaching at Boston College wasn't a glamorous job. In real estate terms, this was a fixer-upper.
In 1993, Coughlin led his meager Boston team into battle against the No.1 ranked and undefeated Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Coughlin's team miraculously won by two points. It was considered one of the greatest upsets in football history.
Even stranger is that the Notre Dame dynasty was crushed forever. Even to this day, they remain broken. They've never returned to the top spot since their duel with Coughlin.
Coughlin then went back to the NFL to coach the Jacksonville Jaguars. He was defeated in the AFC Championship by the Patriots. The head coach of the Patriots was Bill Parcells. Coughlin's destiny already seemed linked with Boston and everything related to New England. He also seemed destined to keep running into the same guys from his past.
Coughlin ultimately returned to the Giants, this time as the head coach. The team was inconsistent, to say the least. During the 2007 season, his job was in jeopardy. Later that season, Coughlin defeated Bill Belichick's 18-0 Patriots in the Super Bowl by three points. It was considered by many to be the greatest upset in the history of football.
Over the next three seasons, Coughlin's Giants didn't win a single playoff game.
During the 2011 season, his job was in jeopardy again. During the regular season, the Giants played the Patriots, who were on a 20-game winning streak at home. The Giants ended that streak, winning by four points.
Later that same season, the Giants resumed their strange quest to completely fall short of expectations. Coughlin's job was still up in the air. Yet somehow, they defeated the defending champion Packers and the red hot 49ers, which punched their ticket to Super Bowl XLVI for a rematch with the Patriots.
The Patriots seemed like they were on a mission, and they entered Super Bowl XLVI on a 10-game winning streak. Meanwhile, the Giants had the potential to become the statistically worst team to ever win the big game. The Giants won by four points.
And yet, despite all of this, Tom Coughlin has managed to continually fly beneath the radar. The man is an enigma. His career continues to defy logic.
How does he do it? His mastery of football is clear, but his methods are mind-boggling. His coaching persona regularly flip-flops between fanatically furious and sweetly tender.
He understands the rules of the game but complains at just about every call that goes against his team. He wins big games and championships, but he does it with teams that are barely adequate by championship standards.
Tom Coughlin is a hero to many football fans. To others, he's a destroyer of dreams and dynasties. Depending upon which week you ask New Yorkers, he's a legend or he's over-the-hill. To Patriots fans, he's the Nadal to their Federer.
The guy is polarizing. But one thing is true: he wins big games by a hair, and he does it when nobody expects him to do it.
In the history of NFL coaches, he's one of the most unlikely heroes you'll find.
As Tom Brady listened to the names of the 198 guys being drafted ahead of him, he considered selling insurance for a living.
It made sense when you considered his faults.
Poor build. Skinny. Lacked great physical stature. Lacked strength. Lacked mobility in the pocket. Lacked a strong arm. Slow on reads. Slow to react. Never delivered the ball on time.
That was the perception of Tom Brady in a nutshell. He ended up as the 199th pick in the 2000 draft and went to the New England Patriots as a backup to starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe.
Barring an unforeseen injury to Bledsoe, Brady would most likely spend the next 10 years on the bench. That, or he'd spend his prime years bouncing around from team to team throwing picks and reads in practice until finally calling it a day and retiring.
By 2001, Brady was the starting quarterback for the Patriots, and he had a Super Bowl ring on his finger. He snatched up two more rings before he turned 28.
By the time his first MVP award rolled around in 2007, he was considered by many Boston sports fans to be in the elite class of Bobby Orr and Bill Russell.
We can spend hours listing Brady's awards and spitting out all kinds of fancy stats, but there's only one thing you need to know about him: Since 2001, the Patriots have had 10 seasons of winning 10 games or more.
Interpretation: The man wins, and he wins consistently. Nothing else matters. Pretty impressive for a guy who supposedly sucked at everything.
It's tough earning respect in the NFL when you're not considered the best football player in your own family. When you're not even considered the second best player in your family, well, that's when you know things are unlikely to turn around for you.
Manning was drafted in 2004 with the burden of sibling inferiority on his shoulders. It didn't take long for his shoddiness and his blank stare to define him as a charity case.
Heading into the 2007 season, he was known for fumbling and throwing costly interceptions. Pick-Six Eli was considered the Fredo Corleone of the Manning family. It wasn't uncommon for him to be heckled at home games, nor was it uncommon to see mocking signs claiming he was adopted.
As wobbly as Manning's body was, his heart was steady. The hits rolled off his back, and his blank expression allowed his teammates to see in him what they wanted to see. They saw someone who was unshakable.
Eli Manning's legacy means different things to different people, depending upon what city you live in. To New Englanders, he's the guy who kept Tom Brady from leaping past Joe Montana in the history books. To New Yorkers, he's the guy who defines the essence of their city.
Eli Manning is unquestionably one of the most important athletes in the history of New York sports, and he is the most unlikely hero in the history of the NFL.