When I showed up to the first organized team activity (OTA) following the NFL draft of 2005, the first thing I said to myself was "Holy $#^%! These guys are freakin' HUGE!!!"
This is the biggest difference between college and the NFL. Every guy out there is a fully grown, fully developed, well-trained, finely oiled machine. You're either rock solid, tough and ready to take a beating, or you go home early and cry to Mommy.
This article is intended to give a uniquely personal take on my journey detailing some of the mightiest men I've ever encountered—men who stand above all others in a sport comprised of the world's most physically imposing behemoths.
Men such as these are the embodiment of sheer power and brute strength. They're both unstoppable and immovable. Some guys are superstars in the weight room yet get pushed around all day long out on the field. Others may never do much with weights but are beasts between the lines.
This is the difference between weight-room strength and functional strength, and functional strength will be at the heart of my list.
The players I mention here reverberate through time, etching a permanent mark deep in my cognition. Perhaps they'll give rise to folklore or legend among the populace years from now.
They may never be listed with the best football players to play the game, but should an argument arise for the strongest, they should forever be in consideration.
Note: If, while reading, you find there are names missing from the list, it probably means I have not personally experienced their strength; hence, that's most likely why they were left off.
Without further ado, I bring you the "Strongest Men I've Ever Encountered!"
Dreaded were the times when Tyler Brayton was lined up in front of you during special teams practice. I remember vividly having this massive tower of a man gleefully strut his way up to the line of scrimmage with a smugness only a giant among midgets can have.
Brayton stands 6'6" tall and weighs more than 280 pounds, but when he's looking down at you in full gear, he seems a lot bigger.
He would hunch over, positioning himself in a very casual football position, waiting for the ball to be snapped back to the punter. Meanwhile, my mind would be racing, frantically trying to find a way to slay this pending Goliath in order to run downfield and tackle the punt returner and, ultimately, prove I belong on this team.
Suddenly, with the familiar words of the punt protector, a cadence is given as my peripherals widen to glimpse the movement of the ball and all sounds fade away. Then, just as the ball is released, all I see are these enormous tree trunks for arms, coming at me from both sides (they appear to go on forever and are attached to giant grizzly claws).
They sink their way deep into the back of my shoulder pads, essentially locking me into his body, unable to defend myself or escape. Literally, he can lift me off the ground and walk me back. When this fate falls upon his many victims, few escape. They find success merely by getting up, dusting themselves off and living to fight another day.
I learned the only way to avoid this doom was to step back just as the ball was snapped and then attempt to knock his arms down as he went in for the grab, hoping to deflect them just enough to prevent him from getting a good hold on the shoulder pad and then loop around his ungodly grab radius and run for dear life.
This would be a good time to mention that in a straight line, Brayton was also likely to outrun most linebackers.
This man has made a lucrative career in the NFL rushing the passer and stopping the run almost solely by using one very effective weapon: his strength—full-grown-man strength in abundance! This is what Shaun Ellis brings to work each and every day.
Watching him driving offensive linemen back like they were sleds became a regular sight. Ellis' mass is a thing to behold. It may even have a few moons trapped in its orbit. He shakes the ground as if his entire body was somehow corked with tungsten.
During practice, I once ran a loop stunt inside the B gap as Ellis was supposed to wrap around me. I was pushed down into the line by the offensive tackle, and the momentum took me right into the gravitational pull of his midsection.
When he and I collided, it felt like I had just bounced off a padded concrete wall. I think for him, my body might have felt like the breeze had suddenly picked up.
Unfortunately, the picture does not show enough contrast between his body and a normal human being. But let me assure you, Ted Washington was the biggest human being I have ever seen in my entire life.
He was so massive that the Raiders organization was forced to give him two lockers side by side at the facility. A man this big needs space (as he had an understandable aversion to anything that infringed upon it).
Ironically, Mr. Washington (who I mention with respect in hopes he does not show up on my doorstep to smash my skull) used to refer to me by the nickname only he used for me..."Snail." I got this name after he miraculously always ended up directly behind me in line for food.
Apparently, I could never get out of the way fast enough to allow him to satiate his monstrous appetite. I would take my time picking from a nice variety of foods all while, with his massive stomach growling, he grew increasingly impatient with me.
To sum up his mass, he made Warren Sapp appear to be an extremely undersized defensive lineman. Need I say more?
Big, strong, athletic and a human bulldozer.
In practice during training camp, I would watch in admiration as Haloti Ngata executed a blitz play from the middle linebacker position. He would be instructed to stand up and charge through the A gap on either side of the center with a running head start, knocking anything over along the way.
This was perhaps one of the greatest combinations of power and athleticism I have ever seen. To witness the speed at which this massive body was able to move was nothing short of a miracle.
You could see the look of terror in the eyes of the offensive linemen as he charged toward them. Upon contact, there were several instances where the offensive linemen's feet would completely lift off the ground as he essentially ran them over, all the while barely losing momentum on his way to the QB.
The force of the impacts he created as they ran this play over and over again would generate such loud, thunderous clashes that it could even be heard over the cheers from fans and fellow teammates. It was similar to watching a semi truck run head-on into a pickup truck.
Both cars are relatively big, but obviously, the pickup is no match for the semi.
Watching this Mississippi native in the weight room was truly a sight to behold. Tommy Kelly is a massive mountain of a man who stands 6'6" tall and weighs more than 300 pounds.
He would add so much weight onto a bench bar that it would begin to bend into a bow-shaped object. He was able to bench-press more weight than I could ever squat on my best day.
It's men like Tommy Kelly who remind us relatively average-sized folks why we could never make it in the NFL. He's so large and massive that when I would stand next to him, playing virtually the same position, it would be a similar size disparity to Shaquille O'Neal standing next to Kobe Bryant.
About midway through my first regular-season football game in Gillette Stadium on opening night, our punt team was sent out at around midfield. This dictated that the Patriots play their punt-safe team, which is comprised of their starting defense, as opposed to the typical special teams unit.
This meant I was lined up in the same spot as a left guard. In other words, I was face to face with an enormous, bowling ball-shaped mass named Vince Wilfork, who was aimed right at my abdomen.
I thought to myself, OK, no problem, Ryan. This is the NFL. This is what it's all about.
When the ball was snapped, Vince launched toward me as I did my best to quickly get back into my kick steps and set up to protect the punter. After two vigorous steps, my feet dug deep into the stadium grass. Suddenly, before I could even reach my arms out to get my hands on Vince, his "Anaconda-sized" arm, with a giant mitt attached to it, found its way casually onto my right shoulder pad.
It appeared that he was only going half-speed, giving little effort to the punt-safe scenario; I figured this would work to my advantage. However, once that hand landed on me, I remember feeling as if I was suddenly struck by one of those things cops use to break down doors during raids.
What happened next was I got knocked back with incredible force, only to be yanked back by the same hand that had knocked me back. This time he was using my body as a tool to help him change directions so he could run back to block for his punt returner. He used my body as a slingshot. I was quickly discarded, landing flat on my face, left to wonder what I just signed up for.
The disparity in strength between Wilfork and myself was so alarming that I knew very early on in my career I would be forced to use every trick I could think of in order to succeed in this league.
Despite this story, there's still one juggernaut even stronger, a guy who could amazingly dominate a specimen such as Wilfork.
He's the strongest man I've ever experienced, plain and simple!
During my rookie year with the Oakland Raiders, we were playing a preseason game at home against the Arizona Cardinals, the team that just so happened to draft Leonard Davis.
At that time, and in that game, Leonard was lined up at left tackle and was obviously playing with the first-team offense. I, on the other hand, was slated to go in at left defensive end at the start of the second quarter with the second-team defense.
This is usually when the starters for both teams come out, but Arizona's head coach decided to let his starters get one more series before coming out for the game.
This put me head to head against 6'6", 375 pounds of pure functional muscle. I was only 6'2" and weighed about 245 pounds, but I was familiar with going against guys who were much bigger than me. I had impressive and deceptive quickness and figured I could handle this. Besides, I set the sack record at my school. I was a bad man in my own right.
On the first snap, I lined up and launched myself right at him, and then I gave him a nice stutter step and went for a shoulder dip. As I attempted to bend the corner and blast my way around him, I saw myself literally flying in the air heading in the opposite direction of the quarterback. I then landed hard, grinding into the sand of the Oakland A's dirt infield.
Judging by the angle at which he was able to reach me, I realized that he had thrown me completely off my feet and onto the ground using only one arm! This was a very rude wake-up call and quite the auspicious welcome to the NFL.
I ended up facing him about two more times that drive before he was taken out. Each time, I was batted around so horribly that it left me feeling unbelievably helpless and outmatched. His arms were so long and his wingspan so massive that I was unable to use quickness to get around him. I was left with very few options.
The NFL is the most popular sport in this country for a reason. The combination of skills and physical ability it takes to succeed may be beyond comprehension for the average fan. But I can assure you, it can be downright scary for even the biggest and strongest men alive.
This sport is the ultimate pairing of brute force and graceful elegance—the quintessential clash between the unstoppable force and the immovable object.
Experts say the game is won in the trenches. Clearly, the weapon of choice for a trench fight is mass, density and power.
These men have this in abundance.