Keep in mind that this is really in no particular order, as it's just a general list of the players that I looked up to the most and wanted to mold my game into.
I played football for a total of 10 years. Along the way, I played nearly every position on the field, and I loved every second of it.
Early on in my years, the coach told us to go home one Sunday and watch every NFL game that we could, but more specifically, to watch the men playing our position. There was nobody better to learn the position from than from those men.
After all, they are the best at what they do.
1. Barry Sanders (Running Back)
Think about it. What running back didn't want to be more like Barry Sanders? The fluidity of his cuts, the speed, the energy he exuded, and the way he never let his team's mishaps get him down. He always played at a top level.
When watching Sanders, you had to watch the man's feet. The shiftiness he showed was nothing short of unreal.
Even for those playing other positions, the Sanders' footwork was something that you wanted to have.
2. Jerome Bettis (Running Back)
Being one of the bigger kids on the team before I hit high school, I played the Bettis game. Juke when and if you have to, but the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. All you have to do is lower your shoulder and hit them before they hit you.
Granted, power backs' careers are not the longest that you will find. Yet, at the same time, there's no bigger thrill than going one on one with a linebacker up the middle and winning that battle. Knowing that for at least one play, you were better, and you were tougher. Nothing beats that feeling.
3. Ray Lewis (Linebacker)
Not only did he play for my college football team of choice, the Miami Hurricanes, but he was also drafted by a division rival. For some reason, my love of Ray Lewis never faltered.
He has been the epitome of what a linebacker should be. Tough, fast, strong, and smart, Ray Lewis is also a great leader and someone who genuinely loves his team.
He rarely gets fooled on the play action. If you see him step up to stop the run on a play action, it is because from the earliest stages of a linebacker's development, we are all taught to step up to stop the run first.
Lewis is also a student of the game. He recognizes plays pre-snap and really gets in the head of the offensive lineman.
My most memorable sack came out of the linebacker position, and it is all because of Lewis. I learned to read the quarterback and learn the cadence throughout the game. I read it, flew towards the line, eventually hurdling a center (ala Brian Dawkins' lion-like leap), and finally bringing the quarterback down.
4. Warren Sapp (Defensive Tackle)
This is not a testament to the man, but more so, a testament to the way he played the game.
I started out as a 3-4 defensive tackle, so obviously I watched the most dominant defensive tackle in the game at the time.
He literally carried the team on his back, freeing up the linebackers to make plays all while racking up sacks.
I think I learned more from him than from any other player I have ever watched.
5. Troy Polamalu (Safety)
Polamalu entered the league during my junior high playing days. That was just about the time I was making the move from linebacker to safety.
I have always admired the way that he plays the safety position. It's as if he considers himself to be a linebacker. He has been given free reign in the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineup. He can line up wherever he so chooses—as long as he keeps making plays.
I never had that freedom myself, but I can always imagine how great it would have been. Every time I was sent on a blitz, I would stay back off the ball until the last possible second and then sacrifice my body much like he does.
I also looked at how he made the right call on whether or not to go for the ball or to go for the big hit to knock the ball loose. Most importantly, I truly admire the way he tackles.
After junior high I was no longer the biggest or the strongest in the league we played in, so I had to change my tackling technique to stay on the top of my game and help the team to win. The take-out-the-knees philosophy was never something I had considered until watching him execute it properly.