In pretty much every NFL game, the players on the field are giving everything they’ve got to try and help their team win.
Because of this, it can be difficult for any one player’s effort to standout and really catch your attention on a game-by-game basis.
At the same time, there are a handful of players who play the game with so much passion, toughness, and ferocity that it’s impossible to ignore their presence on the football field and this inspired play can actually transcend the game.
These athletes are some of the most beloved NFL players because their fearless style of play not only sets the tone for the rest of their team and defines the player himself, but it can also intimidate their opponents.
These players hard hitting, punishing, and intense brand of football is a double-edged sword because while it enables them to be great, it also wears down their bodies much quicker than other players who simply run out of bounds or those who look to wrap up the ball carrier rather than deliver that bone-jarring hit.
Earl Campbell’s career is one of the best examples of a great player whose style of play ended his career prematurely.
The punishing 5’11’’ Texas native exploded onto the NFL scene in 1978 where he put defenders on notice that having to tackle him for a day would leave them sore the next morning.
Unfortunately, Campbell’s tough running style only allowed him to play eight years in the NFL and because of the toll his playing style had taken on his body, the prolific power back, whose skills had begun to decline, was forced to retire at only 30 years old.
These eight NFL players are some of the toughest, most awe-inspiring performers the game has today, but no matter how tough they are, history tells us that their style of play is going to catch up to them sooner rather than later.
Because of the effect he can have on a game, it’s hard to argue with the fact that the USC alum is one of the most effective defensive players in the NFL today.
Turn on any given Steelers game and you will see Polamalu running all over the field, sacrificing his body to make play after play and generally wreaking havoc on the opposing offense's game plan.
At 5’10’’ and around 210 pounds, Troy isn’t exactly a small guy, but in the NFL he is almost always at a size disadvantage when trying to bring down opposing running backs, tight ends, or receivers.
But Polamalu makes up for the fact that he’s smaller than those he’s trying to tackle with strength, speed, toughness, and sheer determination.
But perhaps the best part of Polamalu’s game is the fearlessness with which he plays, as you will never see him back down from anyone or shy away from contact.
Of course, this fearlessness is what makes him such a valuable player but at the same time it puts Polamalu in vulnerable situations in which injuries can occur.
With the exception of 2009, Polamalu has stayed reasonably healthy over his seven year career especially considering his style of play.
But at 29 years old, time and big hits may begin to take their toll on Troy’s magnificent career.
Few players can set the tone for a game like Jacobs can, but then again, few players are as physically imposing.
Standing 6’4’’, weighing a ridiculous 264 pounds, and possessing enough speed to turn the corner, Jacobs is truly a defender's worst nightmare.
For most of the past five seasons, he has been steamrolling pretty much any defender dumb enough to try and tackle him by himself, and he was an integral part of the Giants' Super Bowl championship run in 2008.
Jacobs also has the ability to fire up the rest of his team with his bone-crushing runs; just ask Charles Woodson or LaRon Landry about those.
But regardless of how big, strong, and nasty Jacobs plays the game, he also feels the effects of the punishment he inflicts on defenders.
Anyone who runs the way Jacobs does is bound to have some injury troubles, and he has battled his share of nagging aches and pains throughout his time in the NFL.
While none of these injuries have been very serious, it seems we’ve already begun to see his body wear down from the constant punishment it has endured over the last five seasons.
In 2009, Jacobs fought through a few injuries yet again, but also seemed much more hesitant at the line of scrimmage, which led to him posting his lowest yards per carry since his rookie season.
At 28 years of age, Jacobs should still have a few good years in the tank, but I don’t think anyone would be surprised if he was out of the NFL by 30 or 31.
Another guy who defenders see in their nightmares is the Cowboys' Marion Barber.
Nicknamed "The Barbarian," this guy’s one of the toughest, hardest-running ball carriers the league has to offer, and if you’re trying to bring him down, you better bring two or three guys.
Barber runs with a reckless abandon that makes him extremely difficult to bring down, and it’s not surprising to see Barber standing in the end zone with three or four failed tacklers laying in his wake.
What makes Barber’s skill as a ball carrier even more impressive is that almost every time he touches the ball, he’s usually the one delivering the hit to the defender, instead of the other way around.
With his hard-hitting style of running and relentless ability to stay on his feet, Barber routinely sustains five or six hits on a given carry that would leave regular running backs on their backsides.
Barber has been lucky through his first five seasons in the NFL, because the Cowboys have used him in conjunction with other backs, thus limiting his carries and the pounding he takes.
But eventually, Barber’s ability to absorb contact from multiple hits on a given play will take its toll on the bruising back’s impressive physique.
There’s no question about it, Steve Smith is pound for pound one of the toughest guys in the NFL.
The 5’9’’ 185 pound wide receiver might be small in stature, but ask anyone who’s ever tried to tackle him, and they’ll tell you he plays with a fury and ruggedness to his game that few others possess.
Despite his size, Smith is one of the more physical receivers in the league, able to win jump balls thanks to his leaping ability and possessing the fearlessness to go over the middle if necessary.
But when a guy of Smith’s size goes over the middle, the resulting collisions can be catastrophic.
For an example of the damage that can be done, you need look no further than the Panthers' final game of the 2009 season, when Smith broke his left arm going over the middle to reel in a touchdown from Matt Moore.
If there’s a player in the NFL tough enough to persevere through these big hits, its Smith.
But after pouring his heart and soul into over 120 regular season games for the Carolina Panthers, the pounding his body has taken has put a lot of miles on his smaller frame.
The 31-year-old is such a tough player that you get the feeling he would play with almost any type of injury that would allow him to go out on the football field.
While this disregard for his own well-being is admirable, it may also lead him to an early retirement.
Peterson is the definition of a physical specimen; the guy’s 6’1’’, around 220 pounds, can outrun most corners, and run over most linebackers.
Coming out of Oklahoma, there was little doubt about Peterson’s talent, but there were some serious questions about his durability, as he had endured a few injuries during his college career.
Most of these durability questions had to do with Peterson’s upright and physical running style, which generally lends itself to injuries.
Thankfully, through his first three NFL seasons, Peterson has proven his critics wrong and stayed healthy, which has enabled him to be one of the best backs the league has seen in a long time.
When he gets going in the open field, there might not be a more exciting player in all of the NFL, and he’s not the type of runner to tip-toe out of bounds.
Peterson likes to finish off his runs by delivering a punishing shot to whoever is unlucky enough to be standing in his way.
If you’ve ever watched the Texas native with the ball in his hands, he pretty much runs like an angry bull, embracing contact and always looking to take on a third or fourth defender.
But, as with the other players on this list, one of his biggest advantages (his size) also makes him a big target.
While Peterson should have many great years of football left in him, it would seem inevitable that his punishing style of play will have him out of the NFL before his time.
The 5’8’’ safety from Iowa is one of the hardest hitting players the NFL has today, and Sanders is able to play the game with such power and explosiveness that you would never know he was one of the smallest guys on the field.
When healthy, Sanders is a mainstay on the Colts defense and was a big part of their championship run in the 2007 season, during which he was also named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year.
But when a player who is only 5’8’’ and around 205 pounds plays the game as hard and as fast as Sanders, there’s bound to be plenty of injury issues.
Thanks to these numerous injuries he has sustained during his six year NFL career, Sanders has missed more games than he’s played in.
The good news for Sanders and the Colts is that he is healthy and ready to go for the 2010 season.
But Sanders will be looking to lay the lumber to anyone coming through the Colts secondary because that’s the only way he knows how to play the game, and unfortunately it will probably lead to more injuries and possibly an early retirement.
Anquan is basically a 6’1’’ wrecking ball with arms and legs and when the 228-pound receiver gets his hands on the ball, most corners aren’t happy about the fact that they’re going to have to attempt to bring him to the ground.
Throughout his seven-year NFL career, Boldin has made a living going over the middle and fighting for extra yards, which requires him to routinely withstand huge collisions.
Boldin is not only well-equipped to do so, but he also ventures over the middle without any hesitation to the fact that he might incur serious bodily harm.
Anyone who saw the sickening hit he took against the Jets a few seasons ago which left him unconscious and fractured a bone in his face, knows just how tough a player Boldin is.
After that hit, the former Florida State alum underwent surgery and missed just two games, returning to action after the team’s bye week only three short weeks later.
Like the other players on this list, Boldin is physically and mentally equipped to withstand the brutal way in which he plays the game, but the body can only take so much abuse.
Jeremy Shockey might not be one of the best tight ends in the league, but the guy plays about as hard as anyone in the NFL.
The tattooed, golden-locked monster routinely shrugs off defenders on his way to positive yardage and throughout his career was known for being able to run through a couple of would-be tacklers before going down.
At 6’5’’ and 250 pounds, Shockey is one big target who almost exclusively goes over the middle and both delivers and receives his share of big hits.
Shockey seems like the type of guy who would gladly play football without any pads as long as the rules remained exactly the same.
We’re talking about the player who lost his helmet once upon a time against the Eagles during a playoff loss in 2006 and seemed unaffected while he continued to fight three or four Eagles defenders for a few extra yards.
Shockey just turned 30 a few days ago and while he should have a few good years left, he has showed some signs of slowing down because of the intensity he brings to every game.