The Biggest, Baddest Players in Bay Area Football History
Professional sports teams in the Bay Area have combined for a whopping 14 championships. This region is by far one of the most successful in the sports world. There is a combination of small markets and large markets. Some of the most relaxed and reserved fans find ways to mingle with some of the most passionate.
It is, by all accounts, the United Nations of the sports world and this doesn't change on the football field either.
The Bay Area has come up with some of the greatest athletes to ever wear a uniform, but this region has also fielded some of the meanest football players to ever suit up.
Today's article is going to focus on the 20 biggest, baddest players in Bay Area history. You will see players from the Oakland Raiders of the 1970s and San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s. You will also be surprised to see some individuals that are currently playing.
This should be fun.
20. Kevin Gogan, Offensive Line
Oakland Raiders: 1995-1996
San Francisco 49ers: 1997-1998
Gogan was the type of player that you hated when he was on another team, but loved when he suited up for your franchise. For a four-year period this massive offensive tackle and guard absolutely dominated the trenches for both Bay Area teams.
Whether it was eye-gouging, kicks to the junk or any other "dirty play," Gogan was always in the midst of controversy on the football field.
Sports Illustrated put Gogan on the cover in 1998 in an issue that focused on the dirtiest players in the league. Long-time writer Mike Silver had the following to say about the offensive lineman.
During a game, if he's facing an opponent who has imperfect teeth, Gogan will tell him to consider signing with the Niners because they have a good dental plan. Once a play begins—and, sometimes, after it is whistled dead—Gogan will punch, kick, trip, cut-block, sit on or attempt to neuter the man lined up across from him.
19. Tom Rathman, Fullback
San Francisco 49ers: 1986-1993
The former Nebraska star acted as an elite lead-blocker for Roger Craig, who had an amazing seven-year run with the San Francisco 49ers. More importantly, no one would mess with Rathman between the hashes and in the trenches. The current running back coach of the 49ers wouldn't just violate opposing defensive players, he would literally eat them for dinner.
Some would conclude that there was a tremendous amount of finesse to Rathman's game. After all, he did record a whopping 73 receptions out of the backfield in 1989.
This would be foolish to believe.
A week wouldn't go by without his nose bleeding from contact with opposing defenders. In short, Rathman was one of the meanest and baddest fullbacks of his time.
18. Phil Villapiano, Linebacker
Oakland Raiders: 1971-1979
This talented and hard-hitting linebacker was AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1971 and completely dominated opposing blockers. He made four Pro Bowl appearances and won Super Bowl XI with the Raiders.
His hard-hitting mentality and reckless play between the hashes fit perfect into what Oakland was building during that era. Not only would this Raiders team put the fear of hell into offensive players, they were well-known for running rough-shod in Santa Rosa during training camp. None more so than Villapiano.
17. Tim McDonald, Safety
San Francisco 49ers: 1993-1999
Tim McDonald had a good career going for him with the Phoenix Cardinals from 1987 to 1992, earning three trips to the Pro Bowl. However, he didn't get notoriety until the talented safety joined the San Francisco 49ers prior to the 1993 season.
McDonald earned his stripes playing next to Merton Hanks, who was more of a cover guy. He played the box extremely well and would lay the wood against opposing running backs. The 1994 season saw McDonald earn another Pro Bowl spot as the 49ers won the Super Bowl in dominating fashion against the San Diego Chargers.
16. Charles Haley, Defensive End/Linebacker
San Francisco 49ers: 1986-1991 and 1998-1999
Charles Haley intimidated quarterbacks and opposing blockers with a tremendous swim move on the outside. Playing in an era where safety wasn't a huge concern around the NFL, Haley refused to take it easy on signal-callers. He would lead with the crown of his helmet, knocking out his fair share of players throughout what should end up being a Hall-of-Fame career.
Haley recorded 12 sacks for the 49ers as a rookie in 1986, finishing up his career with over 100 sacks and 26 forced fumbles.
The talented pass-rusher was well-known for his dirty play, including punches to the stomach and knees to the groin. The five-time Super Bowl Champion has been a finalist for the Hall of Fame each of the last three years.
15. Ben Davidson, Defensive End
Oakland Raiders: 1964-1971
A spearing incident in a 1970 game between the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs put Ben Davidson into the thoughts of the national media. The ensuing outcry following the game led many to believe that this talented defensive end was just plain dirty.
However, he just played with the same mentality as others within the Raiders organization. This is something that has been lost when talking about the history of the three-time Pro Bowl performer.
Yes he was dirty, but this was during an era when the Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers made that cool. It wasn't an era where the NFL gave skirts for quarterbacks to put on in the backfield. Real men stood up and stood the test of violence, only to come through respected for it. Davidson was definitely one of them.
14. Justin Smith, Defensive End
San Francisco 49ers: 2008-Current
Justin Smith got off to a late start in terms of earning the respect of the league and making Pro Bowl appearances. The veteran defensive end spent the first eight years of his career flying under the radar for both the Cincinnati Bengals and San Francisco 49ers.
Then, in 2009, the league and national media took notice as Smith showed exactly why he was a top-five pick out of Missouri. Smith is relentless at the point of contact, drives opposing blockers back with a tremendous bull-rush and has shown an incredible mean streak.
Smith's defining moment came in the NFC Divisional Playoffs in January against the New Orleans Saints. He literally threw blockers to the ground in pursuit of Drew Brees, making the future Hall-of-Fame quarterback extremely uncomfortable in the pocket for the first time in his career.
13. Jim Otto, Center
Oakland Raiders: 1960-1974
Talk about toughness. Jim Otto played in all 210 games in a 15-year NFL career with the Oakland Raiders. He earned 10 All-AFL Team honors and was a consistent force in the trenches at center. Otto had 40 different surgeries and 28 knee operations in his extensive career. The Hall of Fame center had his right leg amputated in 2007.
This is a man that gave everything he had on the football field and showed generations of football players after him exactly what it meant to be the heart-and-soul of a football team. For this the NFL should be paying homage.
12. Art Shell, Offensive Tackle
Oakland Raiders: 1968-1981
Most people probably think about Art Shell as a head coach for the Raiders in the late 1980s and early 1990s and then for one season last decade. What these youngsters probably don't understand is just how damn good of an offensive tackle he was for Al Davis and the Raiders during a 14-year career.
Shell made eight Pro Bowl appearances and was the part of three different Super Bowl Champions.
11. Ken Norton Jr, Linebacker
San Francisco 49ers: 1994-2000
As the son of a World Champion boxer, Ken Norton Jr knew exactly what it meant to be mean and tough. He knew how to intimidate opposing offensive players and took to the field every Sunday with a mean streak that the modern NFL could scarcely imagine.
As a member of the San Francisco 49ers from 1994-2000, Norton might not have received a great deal of national attention, but he was one of the primary reasons their defense clicked.
Joining the 49ers in 1994, Norton Jr. became the only player in NFL history to win three consecutive Super Bowl Championships. His demeanor at the line on the football field has since been remembered as belonging to one of the meanest linebackers in recent 49ers' history.
10. Kevin Greene, Linebacker
San Francisco 49ers: 1997
Earlier I wrote about Kevin Gogan and how you hated him when he was playing for another team, but loved him when he was suiting up for your franchise. The same could be said for Kevin Greene, only on a more massive scale.
This intimidating outside linebacker might have only played one season in the Bay Area, but both the Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers knew what he was about prior to him coming to the 49ers.
9. Lester Hayes, Cornerback
Oakland Raiders: 1977-1981
Lester Hayes was the first of a new era in cornerbacks who played physical up at the line and intimidated opposing wide receivers. He would get into their heads, which ended up causing a great deal of turnovers and dropped balls.
One of the most common scenes was Hayes at a stance, staring down receivers prior to the snap. Go a few feeds later and he would be standing over said receiver after laying some serious wood.
Overall, Hayes only played five seasons in Oakland before the team moved south. However, his impact on the football field was felt a great deal.
8. Dave Wilcox, Linebacker
San Francisco 49ers: 1964-1974
Long before the 49ers made their run towards the elite franchises in the National Football League, they did have some nice talent on the defensive side of the ball. It never translated to a championship or sustained success, but it was still there.
Dave Wilcox played over a decade for the 49ers, earning seven Pro Bowl appearances. He missed only one game due to injury and was among the most consistent defenders on pretty good 49ers' defenses. Opposing blockers feared going up against Wilcox at the line and would attempt to chop block the talented linebacker. Toughness and strength are two virtues that came to define Wilcox as his career progressed.
7. Bill Romanowski, Linebacker
San Francisco 49ers: 1988-1993
Oakland Raiders: 2002-2003
"Romo" was definitely one of the dirtiest players of his era. The active linebacker did some things that made the average television viewer cringe. He would literally pick quarterbacks up and body slam them to the ground. This became somewhat of an overriding theme in a career that was mired in controversy.
He plated in 243 consecutive games, which remains a record for linebackers. Romanowski won the Super Bowl four times and earned two Pro Bowl appearances.
Romanowski was involved in numerous on-field scuffles as well. He was fined $20,000 for a helmet to helmet hit on then Carolina Panthers' quarterback Kerry Collins during a 1997 preseason game. Collins ended up exiting the game with a broken jaw. Later that season, Romanowski spit on the face of 49ers' wide receiver J.J. Stokes. In 1995, he kicked an Arizona Cardinals running back in the head and was quickly thrown out of the game. These are just some of the incidents that seemed to follow the linebacker throughout his playing days.
Either way, you cannot say that he wasn't as tough, mean and bad as they come.
6. Leo Nomellini, Defensive Tackle
San Francisco 49ers: 1950-1963
Not only was Leo Nomellini the first ever draft pick of the 49ers' franchise, he was one of the baddest dudes to ever suit up in the Bay Area. He competed in both boxing and wrestling, winning eight different championships in those sports. His tenacity on the football field was unmatched as Leo "The Lion" played in every single game of an extensive 14-year NFL career.
This was an era where all bets were off in terms of safety around the league. He would chomp at the bit when a running back came up the middle and usually used a close-line tactic when out of position at the point of contact, something that would definitely be illegal in the modern NFL.
In all, Leo made 10 Pro Bowl appearances and was selected to the All-Pro Team another nine times. Even as someone that didn't have the opportunity to watch him play, I can respect what Leo did on the football field and the toughness he represented.
5. Patrick Willis. Linebacker
San Francisco 49ers: 2007-Current
Patrick Willis has only been in the NFL five seasons, but already is being considered a candidate for the Hall of Fame with what he has done in those first few seasons. We are talking about someone that has earned Pro Bowl honors each season since joining the league in 2007, making the All-Pro Team another four times.
Willis brings a tremendous amount of passion and heart to the game as well. Growing up the son of an addicted and abusive father, it is obvious that Willis plays with a lot of anger on the football field as well.
I was in attendance for a preseason game between the 49ers and Minnesota Vikings two years ago. The game took place just a couple weeks after Brett Favre made the decision to return to the NFL for another season. On the Vikings first play from scrimmage, Willis came on a blitz and absolutely tore into the future Hall of Fame quarterback. Fans were brought to their feet in Candlestick, but this was just Patrick being Patrick.
He is strong, brutal and downright scary on the football field. It really is that simple.
4. Ted Hendricks, Linebacker
Oakland Raiders: 1975-1981
My first encounter with Ted Hendricks doesn't exactly bring back fond memories. As an adolescent I collected sports cards, like most other boys my age. On a trip to a trade show it was announced that Hendricks would be signing autographs for a small fee.
Walking up to the massive former linebacker of the Oakland Raiders, I noticed a glare in his eyes that could leave most eight-year-old boys running for the exits. His tone was deep and his words seemed to entrench themselves into my skull. It was then that I knew this dude was one bad mother.
My father and grandfather also had some stories about this mean, bad football player. He seemed to represent the physical nature of the Oakland Raiders during the late 1970s. He played in 215 consecutive games, consistently causing quarterbacks to run for their lives in the backfield. In fact, Hendricks was one of the first true 3-4 pass-rushing outside linebackers. Even in that role he was able to record 26 career interceptions.
3. George Atkinson, Safety
Oakland Raiders: 1968-1977
Ask Lynn Swan about his former bitter rival with the Oakland Raiders and the story will go something like this. George Atkinson was damn scary, he was one of those football players that really didn't care what type of pain or injury he caused on the football field. The former Raiders' safety didn't need money incentive to lay the wood and force players off the field on a cart. No, "Bounty Gate" probably wouldn't have been needed during his decade in the league.
During a 1976 game between the Raiders and Steelers, Atkinson threw a forearm to the back of Swan's head, rendering the receiver unconscious. There were multiple incidents like this related to these two teams as the two best defenses in the league at that time.
2. Jack Tatum, Linebacker
Oakland Raiders: 1971-1979
Jack Tatum is somewhat of a controversial figure around the National Football League. Most of this stems from his hit on former New England Patriots' receiver Darryl Stingley during a 1978 preseason game. The violent hit left Stingley paralyzed from the neck down. Tatum stood over the wide receiver for a good minute as he lay on the turf in Oakland without movement. The former Raiders' linebacker never apologized for the hit, claiming the hit was clean. Looking back in retrospect, it seems that Tatum has a good point there.
Love him or hate him, this is the way "The Assassin" played football. He would lay the wood, stand over the player and intimidate the hell out of anyone in his path and was never apologetic for it.
1. Ronnie Lott, Safety
San Francisco 49ers: 1981-1990
Ronnie Lott quite literally sacrificed his body on the football field. During a 1985 game it is well-known that the hard-hitting safety chose to have the tip of his pinky finger amputated rather than having surgery, which would have caused him to miss ample time.
Lott was one of those safeties that left opposing offensive players questioning their ability to go up the middle of the field, and rightfully so. He did lead with the crown of his helmet a great deal, but could also throw that shoulder into both the head and mid-section of receivers. Numerous times during his 10-year playing career with the 49ers, I noticed offensive players flinch before they were even hit. This caused a great deal of turnovers and made Lott one of the most feared defensive players in the entire league.
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