NFL Football: A List Of The NFL's Greatest Groundbreakers All-Time

Mark Anthony DiBello@MarkDiBelloContributor IMay 29, 2009




WR-Bob Hayes—“The Bullet” introduced the sprinter to pro football.

WR-Fred Biletnikoff—A receiver who actually caught passes, the first "real," perhaps, “possession” receiver…even if he introduced and later got stick-em banned.  His long hair led to a freedom of expression that personalized the league.

WR-Lynn Swann—balletic name for an artistic acrobat of a receiver, has ventured successfully into television and politics. 

WR-Jerry Rice—Perhaps the greatest receiver of all-time gave all small college players a hope and a chance to dance on reality TV.


TE-John Mackey—A Tight-End who could catch…how innovative.


LINEMAN–Gene Upshaw—Great player, leader and man on the field, and a better leader of men off the field as head of the Player's Union.

LINEMAN-Anthony Muñoz—Surely Latinos can play baseball, but how many football--  and have a high IQ to match?

LINEMAN-Jim Otto—How many players can play forever and be a 00 on top of it?

LINEMAN- Conrad Dobler—Dirty and disabled.  A poster-boy for the toughest sport on the planet. 

LINEMAN-John Hannah—Since you need 5 lineman to play, why not add the name of a Hall-of-Fame Patriot who sounds like a former President (John Adams), it just makes sense. And I think he was the unheralded model of the Pats old logo. 



RB-"Bronko" Nagurski—Legendary name, built like a truck, and became a wrestler.

RB-Paul Hornung—The “Golden Boy” brought good looks and girls to the game.

RB-O.J. Simpson—Have their ever been more popular initials in sport?  Not to mention, tragically, the former actor and announcer, murdered his wife in a jealous, co-dependent rage and his Bronco run a criminal highlight for decades.

RB-Barry Sanders—His early retirement cost him the all-time rushing record and exploited the business of sports that would lead to things like strikes and salary caps.

RB-Gale Sayers—His film heroics in “Brian’s Song” is the stuff memorials are made of, not to mention, his hurdling and swift style was majestic.

FB-Brian Piccolo—As noted:  Few saw him play; most think he looks like the actor, James Caan; but all cried for him when featured in the premiere ground-breaking football movie.

FB-Earl Campbell—Come on: tear-away jerseys, thighs the size of Texas and a punishing runner.  He’s a breed of football unto himself.  When asked if he ever got tired carrying the ball said, “No, the ball’s not heavy.”  


QB-Johnny Unitas—Johnny U wore an unattractive crew-cut and black high-tops…he didn’t look like a Quarterback, but for years, people knew the QB would be the team leader because of him.

QB-Joe “Willie” Namath—The NFL’s first poster-boy for fashion and football.  Not to mention, white shoes, winning predictions, and women; and booze, and women….

QB-Fran Tarkenton—He was scrambling before the egg and long before the likes of Mike Vick; even made it to television as a host.

QB-Warren Moon—Don’t hear much about him, but showed that African-Americans can play QB and come down, having thrown for miles, from Canada.

QB-Terry Bradshaw—He won Super Bowls, acted, broadcast and commercialized the NFL like no other dumb jock could do.

QB-Doug Flutie—Yes, little guys can play:  “Hail Flutie”; the CFL, The NFL and even a converted drop-kick.  Who doesn’t love little Doug Flutie?

QB-Michael Vick—The NFL’s greatest running QB to date, even if he couldn’t run from the law; Michael Vick can still play.


K-Pat Summerall—The greatest player/announcer the game has known.

K-Tom Dempsey— His handicap led to a record-setting 63-yard field-goal.

K-Horst Muhlmann—The NFL’s first successful soccer-style kicker that kicked-off a revolution.

K-George Blanda—A multiple-position player who gave old men a renewed hope of playing long past their prime.


P-Ray Guy—The first in time to really use “hang time.”


RETURNER—Billy “White Shoes” Johnson—A nickname that sticks and an end zone dance that became a trendsetter.


DEFENSIVE LINEMAN-“Mean” Joe Greene—Arguably, the most profound nickname in NFL history and without question, the greatest commercial of all-time.

DEFENSIVE LINEMAN-Fred Dryera handsome lineman? One who had his own TV series?  Unprecedented!

DEFENSIVE LINEMAN-David “Deacon” Jones—The guy could play and he appeared in the “Odd Couple” as himself.

DEFENSIVE LINEMAN-Reggie WhiteThe “Minister of Defense” served to popularize God into the game…”thank God.”


LB-Dick Butkus—Think, linebacker: Think, Dick Butkus.  Would kill on the field and try to kill at comedy on TV.  Rocky even named his dog after him.

LB-Lawrence Taylor—changed the game on defense by adding speed to sack and intercept, and made the number 56, the quintessential jersey for outside linebackers.

LB-Jack Lambert—his toothless grin epitomized guts and determination.


DB-Jack Tatum—His hit left a player paralyzed in an occurrence that sadly happens one-time too many.

DB-Ronnie Lott made it known that DB’s can hit and tackle.  He’s rumored to have cut-off a piece of his finger just to keep playing in a game.

DB-Deion Sanders—standardized one-on-one coverage from “shut-down” corners…didn’t hurt his groundbreaking status that he played offense, baseball and may be the best returner and fastest player ever.

DB-Pat Tillman—He left the battle of the gridiron that is pro-football for war on a foreign land.  Most think he was a “hero,” but war is stupid and senseless.


ALL-STAR-Jim Thorpe, “The All-American,” and Native American played baseball and lacrosse and still had time for the Olympics.  The greatest cross-sport athlete of all-time before there were even professional leagues in some sports.


HONORABLE MENTION-WR—Steve Largent, a politician….RB—Ed Marinaro, an actor.  QB—Pat Haden, a Rhodes Scholar.


HEAD COACH-George Halas—“Pappa Bear” didn’t have a team named after him, but how many players and coaches helped build a league?

HEAD COACH-Paul Brown—Heck, the guy had a team named after him.  When will that happen again?

HEAD COACH-Vince Lombardi—He almost did more for a race (Italian’s) than Jackie Robinson.

HEAD COACH-John Madden—Forget the coaching…he was the greatest broadcaster to come from the field, and toss-in a video game for good measure.  Boom!

HEAD COACH-Bill Belechik—Had a Patriot team that he knew was so good, he actually coached them, it was reported, from day-one of practice, with a strategy to win back-to-back Super Bowls.




OWNER-Paul Brown—Okay, he made it as a head coach, but he also played the game, held every position in a franchise, just about.  Owned a team named after him and another team that played in a stadium named after him.   He’s got to be listed twice here.

OWNER-Al Davis—player, owner, intercessor, businessman and managing general partner (whatever that is)…and, an NFL legal legend.  Plus, he thought I was "somebody."

OWNER-Jerry Jones—Like his predecessor Brown, Jones played and now owns a team, that he surely coaches some and even built a stadium.

TEAM-The Raiders—The Last Outpost for either a unique, talented or worn-out player.  Fans that are rabid, moves from city-to-city, and a color scheme, especially the black, that dominates NFL jersey's.

TEAM-The Chiefs—The first team to merge as AFL Champions to the NFL.

TEAM-The Packers—The first team to win a newly-titled game called "The Super Bowl."  In fact, often called "Title Town."  Not to mention, put and stays put the state of Wisconson on the US map all while playing in suberbia and not an urban city.

TEAM-The Colts—Best logo, in my mind, although loses popular vote to the Cowboys.  Championship team and a midnight move to a new locale that led the way for "home" teams to more readily become "visiting teams."

TEAM-The Cowboys—revolutionized NFL marketing and retail sales, including branding their own nickname, "America's Team."




BROADCASTER-Howard Cosell—forever made broadcasting the game a part of the NFL experience on television.


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