To play in the NFL, by definition, makes you a tough person.
However, there are those players whose toughness goes above and beyond normal levels. They produce moments which leave fans stunned and amazed and show true grit that impresses fellow players, coaches and fans alike. There are performances by ironmen who sacrifice their body, and sometimes even their careers, in the pursuit of victory; players who know the true definition of pain.
This is a list of those special moments in the last 10 years that reminded fans that it takes more than just talent to be an NFL player; it takes a desire to win that trumps everything else.
It's only fitting that Mr. 297 leads off this list.
His career has been defined by his amazing toughness, and this particular play perfectly represents Favre's ironman attitude. In the third quarter of a 2004 game vs. the New York Giants, Favre was hit hard by defensive lineman William Joseph. Favre sat out two plays before returning on 4th-and-5 to throw a touchdown to receiver Javon Walker.
What's remarkable about the play is that Favre had sustained a concussion on the previous hit and later didn't even remember throwing the touchdown. With the new emphasis on player safety in the NFL, it's safe to say we likely won't be seeing many more touchdown passes from quarterbacks who can't remember throwing them.
While doctors forced Favre to sit out the rest of the game, his undying determination to win in spite of the potential health consequences is a part of Favre's legacy that will always be admired.
Big Ben's favorite person likely isn't Terry Bradshaw.
After Ben's unfortunate bathroom incident, Bradshaw had this to say to him, "Would they pay any attention to you if you weren't, you know, who you are?' Of course not. Because I'm not that attractive and neither is Ben." Ouch! Tell us how you really feel Terry. And to think this statement was made BEFORE Big Ben's nose looked about as straight as Elton John.
In all seriousness, however, Ben Roethlisberger is one of the toughest guys in the league. Not only did he come back from his life-threating motorcycle accident, but he repeatedly gets hit a dozen times every single game. He is built like a lineman, which allows him to absorb more hits than the average QB, however, his size was not able to prevent him from getting his nose broken by Haloti Ngata this year.
Like a true warrior, Big Ben stayed in the game despite bleeding profusely and did not miss any plays. Maybe his effort earned him some positive points with Bradshaw? Probably not, but it was still a great tough-guy moment for Roethlisberger.
In a 2009 game against the Giants, Carolina Panther receiver Steve Smith caught this pass while taking a huge hit from Safety Michael Johnson.
After absorbing the monster hit, Smith was still able to get into the end zone for the touchdown and proceeded to celebrate while his teammate tugged on his limp broken arm. Steve Smith is one of the toughest players in the game, and his style of play has led to many injuries unfortunately like this one. He remains unafraid to go over the middle and delivers his own powerful blows despite being a smaller guy.
This plays shows Smith's true toughness and is a reminder of what sacrifices certain receivers make in order to make the catch.
In the 2007 season, Philip Rivers hurt his knee in the divisional playoff game against the Colts and had to be removed from the game. The Chargers ended up winning, but Rivers' status was uncertain for the AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots. But sure enough when Sunday rolled around, Rivers was starting under center.
The Chargers would ultimately end up on the wrong side of a 21-12 Patriots victory, however what Rivers revealed later in the week was truly shocking. Rivers had been playing on a partially torn ACL in his knee and had undergone secret arthroscopic surgery earlier in the week just to be able to play in the game. The arthroscopic surgery was not a simple decision either, as doing so meant that he would need a more extensive operation in the offseason, and his rehabilitation would be longer as well.
It's not often that young quarterbacks such as Rivers would put their careers on the line on such a bold and courageous decision, and despite the loss, Rivers forever gained the respect of his teammates as one of the toughest players on the team.
Anquan Boldin burst onto the NFL scene in 2003 with one of the greatest rookie-receiving seasons of all-time. He's been one of the best receivers in the NFL ever since. He's had some trouble staying healthy, but nobody can doubt Boldin's toughness after this incident.
The brutal helmet-to-helmet hit in 2008 by safety Eric Smith left Boldin with a fractured sinus and knocked his upper jaw out of place. Doctors were forced to cut the jaw bones on both sides just to realign it properly, and his jaw required seven plates and 40 screws to hold in place. The hit was so brutal that Kurt Warner actually considered retiring after watching the play.
These are exactly the sort of hits the NFL want to make sure have no place in the game of football. Boldin somehow miraculous missed only two games and was head-butting players in practice his first week back. To make a comeback from such a horrendous injury and essentially shrug it off as part of the game shows Boldin's amazing toughness.
Simms might be one of the least well-known players on this list, but what he went through during a 2006 game against the Carolina Panthers was nothing short of remarkable.
The Buccaneers QB took many brutal hits that day, one of which resulted in the rupture of his spleen. Simms did not know the severity of the injury at the time and kept on playing throughout the game, only sitting out briefly two times. Simms even led the Bucs on a go-ahead drive late in the fourth, however, the defense blew the lead, and they ultimately lost the game.
After the game, it was determined that Simms' spleen had been ruptured, and he was suffering from dehydration. He was immediately rushed to the hospital where he received emergency blood transfusions and had his spleen removed. He made a full recovery but had to spend the next several days in the hospital. While losing a spleen is not life-threatening, rupturing one is and usually results in internal bleeding.
The fact that Simms ruptured his spleen and still was able to stay in the game and almost lead his team to victory is unbelievable. Although he did not know it at the time, Simms was risking his life just by staying out on the football field in what was one of the largest displays of toughness in recent memory.
Brett Favre makes his second appearance on the list, which is no surprise considering how long he has played.
Favre has constantly battled through injuries, playing in games most QB's would not. Favre has managed to play through a separated shoulder (non-throwing side), bruised hip, knee, elbow and ankle, broken foot, and concussion among other things. Perhaps the most impressive of his 297 consecutive starts is his 2003 season, when he played 12 of the 16 regular seasons games with a broken thumb.
Ask any QB which finger they would least like to be broken, and they will most likely say the thumb. The thumb is crucial to getting a good grip on the ball and throwing it properly. A broken thumb makes the QB's job extremely difficult, and there is an extreme amount of pain every time the ball is snapped into the QB's hands. Favre not only found a way to play through the pain but also led the league in touchdown passes that year with 32.
To be able to play through such an injury at such a high level is something Favre has been doing his whole career, but this time it was truly extraordinary.
Love him or hate him, T.O. has been one of the greatest receivers of our generation.
He has been called a cancer and shown the door by the 49ers, Eagles and Cowboys after they got tired of his antics. Owens statistically, however, might be one of the top three receivers of all time, but his lack of Super Bowl rings is used by critics to demonstrate that teams are better without him than with him.
However, T.O.'s performance for the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX against the Patriots was one worthy of a ring, and no one can blame T.O. for the Eagles loss. Owens had nine receptions for 122 and made a huge impact, but what makes Terrell Owens' performance one of the toughest is that he shouldn't have even been playing in the game. T.O. suffered a severely sprained ankle and fractured fibula in a December 19th game against the Cowboys from a now illegal horse-collar tackle by Roy Williams.
Doctors told T.O. he would be out for the reminder for the year, and that even if the Eagles made it to the Super Bowl, he would still need several more weeks of recovery time. T.O. shrugged off the doctors and boldly proclaimed he would play in the game no matter what. Critics were highly skeptical, but not only did T.O. stick true to his word, but he delivered a performance worthy of Super Bowl MVP if the Eagles had won.
T.O.'s career has been filled with many controversial moments, but this is one that he can truly be proud of and shows that T.O.'s toughness and desire to win is not to be questioned.
While Favre's 2003 season is good for fourth on this list, it wasn't even the toughest performance by a QB that year.
McNair's entire career is a definition of toughness, however this particular season was especially impressive. McNair sutained calf, ankle, finger and knee injuries that year, and his name was practically written in Sharpie on the injury report. McNair would often not practice the majority of the week but would suit up every game on Sunday with the exception of two games. Despite the numerous injuries, Steve McNair's 2003 season was capped off by an MVP and made it all the way to the AFC Divisional Playoffs.
McNair's ability to play through injury every week and be recognized as one of the best players in the league is a true testament to his toughness and will forever be a part of his legacy.
And here is the No. 1 ironman moment of the decade.
Donovan McNabb's career has been full of people doubting him. He was famously booed when he was drafting by the Eagles, called out by T.O. for throwing up in the Super Bowl, scrutinized by the NAACP for being too much of a prototypical "white" QB, and most recently, benched by Mike Shanahan during a crucial drive at the end of a game for allegedly being out of shape and not knowing the two-minute offense.
Not many pro-bowl quarterbacks have led their teams to a Super Bowl and four consecutive NFC Championship games, yet McNabb is still constantly being torn apart by his critics. There is one moment in McNabb's history, however, that even his critics will agree was a tremendous demonstration of true toughness and grit.
In a 2002 game against the Arizona Cardinals, McNabb was sacked on the third play of the game, and immediately clutched his ankle in pain. He was taken back to the locker room to get it checked out but refused x-rays and instead only had his ankle taped. He went back out onto the field and proceeded to throw for 20-of-25 for 255 and four touchdowns. It wasn't until after the game that it was discovered that McNabb's fibula was broken in three places.
How any player could stand, let alone play, on such a seriously-injured ankle is amazing, and McNabb also had one of the best games of his career. The injury was serious enough to keep McNabb out for the last six weeks of the season, but he risked his career by withstanding the pain for that game and led his team to victory.
The fans and the media will continue to nitpick everything McNabb does, but this play forever cements McNabb's legacy as one of the toughest players in the league.
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