The 50 Most Colorful Personalities in NFL History

Adam LazarusSenior Analyst IDecember 31, 2010

The 50 Most Colorful Personalities in NFL History

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    The 50 most colorful personalities in NFL history each meet a very specific and naturally subjective criteria.

    For our purposes, let’s define “colorful” as someone who is rarely dull or boring, someone who when you see on television, you stop what you’re doing.

    Maybe because they’re funny, maybe because they’ll say something controversial or inflammatory, or maybe just because they’ll do something outrageous.

    Their performance certainly has something to do with their status as a “colorful” figure: a cocky player who backs up his words (or fails to) is more interesting than the strong, silent type.

    But we’re not talking about on-the-field play. Players like Michael Vick and Jerry Rice would have to be near the top of that type of list. For that reason, players aren't the only colorful personalities to qualify. 

No. 50: John Madden

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    There's a reason why Frank Caliendo's spot-on imitation of the former Raiders head coach is so popular and so hilarious. 

    Madden was interesting as a coach: he probably had to be in order to manage some of the other personalities on those late 1970s teams. 

    But the enthusiasm and stream-of-consciousness ("boom!", "you got this guy going here, this guy going here, this guy going that way.....") became mainstream once he hit the broadcast booth and spent nearly three decades there. 

No. 49: Peyton Manning

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    Manning doesn't really seem to be a colorful figure when you look at him, or when you hear him dissect his and his team's play on television.

    But in all of those commercials (especially the Double Stuff Oreo League) and his appearance on Saturday Night Live, more of his personality was revealed.

    And although it's not really a personality that's appealing, his somewhat mopey, irritated attitude when something goes wrong (interception, miscommunication with his receiver) is interesting to watch unfold. 

No. 48: Art Donovan

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    Those 1950s Baltimore Colts teams seemed to be pretty straight laced. They had Johnny Unitas at the helm, Raymond Berry, Weeb Ewbank, Lenny Moore, Alan Ameche—all-time greats, but not necessarily a supremely colorful cast of characters.

    But one of the lesser-known Colts of that day, defensive tackle Art Donovan, more than made up for it. He was an unbelievable story teller, as seen here on the David Letterman show, as well as many NFL Films clips. 

No. 47: Tiki Barber

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Barber's post-NFL life has continued to spark debate: everything from his personal life to his commentary on the status of his former team, the New York Giants, to his role as a (non-sports) commentator. 

    But even as a player, he never was afraid to speak his mind and criticize people around the game, especially his fellow Giants, Michael Strahan, Eli Manning, and especially head coach Tom Coughlin and his staff.

No. 46: Jerry Glanville

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    George Rose/Getty Images

    Glanville's greatest legacy is probably sitting a rookie named Brett Favre only to ship him to Green Bay that offseason.

    But he also uttered one of the greatest sideline sound bytes of all time: The NFL stands for "not for long when you make those types of !@#$$#@ calls."

    He gave plenty of similar quips over the years, both mic-ed up during games and in postgame press conferences. 

No. 45: Cris Collinsworth

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    NBC Sunday Night Football's in-game analyst does a great job providing insight in that role and has been a top notch replacement for No. 50 on this list, John Madden.

    And as a player, Collinsworth was equally interesting to hear speak. See above. 

No. 44: Charles Haley

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    Rather than try and explain Charles Haley's personality from afar, just listen to three of his former teammates, All-Pro Ken Norton and Hall of Famers Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin tell it. 

    Haley may have been "crazy" according to his teammates, but that didn't keep him from winning a record five Super Bowls during an eight-year stretch. 

No. 43: Merlin Olson

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    Not only did this 14-time Pro Bowler, Hall of Fame defensive tackle have a great broadcasting career that spanned for decades, his personality was routinely tapped to play roles in Hollywood. 

    Oh, and if you know your Anchorman lines, Ron Burgundy was "friends with Merlin Olsen, too. He comes over on occasion." 

    To be a part of that elite circle, Olsen had to be charismatic. 

No. 42: Warren Sapp

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    As an Inside the NFL personality, Sapp remains in our faces. And in 2008 was the runner up on Dancing With the Stars

    Yet he was most provocative and delightful to listen to during his last few seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, like when he skipped through the Pittsburgh Steelers' pregame warmups in 2003 or when he got into it with Brett Favre or Packers head coach Mike Sherman. 

No. 41: Bum Phillips

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    George Rose/Getty Images

    His son Wade certainly wouldn't qualify for this list. But Oail Andrew "Bum" Phillips was an tremendous personality. He had to be to get away with coaching NFL games wearing a cowboy hat and jeans.

    Furthermore, his unabashed excitement on the sidelines displayed a love for the game that is rarely seen today.

    If you've ever seen NFL Films clip of Billy "White Shoes" Johnson's great Astrodome punt return, you'll see what we mean. 

No. 40: Brian Bosworth

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    Getty Images/Getty Images

    The Boz certainly didn't live up to the hype that he so famously built up while a star at Oklahoma then as a rookie in the NFL. 

    But he was sort of a precursor to some of the enigmatic lightning rods who stir up headlines today. 

    With the haircuts and self-promotion, he brought plenty of attention to both the defensive side of the game and the Seattle Seahawks. 

No. 39: O.J. Simpson

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    Prior to the double-homicide trial, O.J. was one of the most beloved American sports celebrities. 

    On top of his legendary playing career, there was his commentary on NBC and Monday Night Football, his recurring role as Nordberg in the Naked Gun movies, and his famous Hertz car rental commercials in which he ran through the airport.

    He may not have been a great actor, but there was something charismatic about him. Not any longer. 

No. 38: Fred "The Hammer" Williamson

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    Back in the 1960s, when trash talking wasn't as common as it is today, Williamson was one of the early boasters in the NFL.

    Prior to Super Bowl I, he talked about how he would punish Green Bay's receivers. Of course, he soon left the game with a concussion. 

    But his brashness and swagger were perfect for Hollywood and he has had many leading roles during a long career in acting. 

No. 37: Hines Ward

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    The Steelers all-time leading receiver is as famous for his smile as he is his hands. He's always laughing or grinning on the field, even after taking a nasty shot from a defender. 

    He wears his heart on his sleeve: Remember him bawling after the Steelers lost the 2004 AFC Championship Game, thinking teammate Jerome Bettis' career dream of playing in a Super Bowl would go unfulfilled?

    That is something that fans love to see. 

No. 36: Sammy Baugh

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    Baugh's personality came off as a simple country boy who just loved to play football. And that actually worked to his advantage.

    In 1941, during his playing career, he was given his own Saturday matinée gig, in which he played Tom King, a Texas ranger. 

No. 35: Rex Ryan

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    Ryan hasn't been at the forefront of the NFL for very long—less than two full seasons as an NFL head coach. Otherwise, his body of work might be enough to spring him into the top 10 of this list. 

    Nevertheless, in his short time, he's shown quite a personality, one that at times can be humourous, self-deprecating, rude, crass, fun-loving, intense and reflective. 

No. 34: Keyshawn Johnson

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    In less than a full season as an NFL wide receiver, the former No. 1 overall pick was already spouting off practically every thought in his head, publishing Just Give Me The Damn Ball.

    That brashness and confidence, no matter how bad things were for him and his team, would become his trademark and something that helps to make him exciting to listen to even today, on ESPN's Sunday NFL Countdown. 

No. 33: Bronko Nagurski

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    More than perhaps any player in history (except for maybe Jim Thorpe and Red Grange), Nagurski has become almost a mythical figure in NFL lore. Part of that was his tough, hard-nosed running style.

    But also because he quit the NFL in 1938 to pursue a wrestling career. That would be the equivalent of Adrian Peterson leaving the Vikings to go to WWE. 

    He only did so because promoters were willing to pay him much more money traveling across the country wrestling than playing football in Soldier Field.

    His personality had to be magnetic for people, during the Depression, to pay to see him toss around wrestlers instead of tacklers. 

No. 32: Bill Walsh

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    A colorful personality doesn't have to be all jokes, bravado or intimidation. An erudite genius pontificate can be just as interesting to listen to. And that's what Walsh was, a football genius. 

    Some of the audio clips of him discussing the game, especially offense, were fascinating to hear. The same is true about his relatively brief career as an NBC commentator.

    Walsh came off as this astute mind who could out-think, rather than out-physical opponents, whose theories were fascinating to try to understand.  

No. 31: Mike Singletary

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    From one end of the San Francisco 49ers head coaching spectrum to the other. 

    Singletary's tenure by the Bay was, let's face it, a failure, and therefore the complete opposite of Bill Walsh's. 

    Still, he had a very colorful personality to say the least. Whether it was dropping his pants at halftime "to make a point," blasting Vernon Davis in his first postgame press conference, or quarreling on the sidelines with his quarterbacks, Singletary very rarely made for a dull moment during his two-plus seasons in San Fran. 

No. 30: Chris Cooley

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Cooley has become an above-average tight end with the Redskins, catching 392 passes for 4,343 yards and 32 touchdowns in seven seasons. 

    But his quirkiness has endeared him to the Washington fans just as much as his stats. 

    He's married to a former Redskin cheerleader, he talks to reporters with an energy and enthusiasm for life, accidentally posted a naked picture of himself on his website, and allegedly once tried to deposit his $14 million signing bonus check in an ATM drive-through. 

No. 29: Ray Lewis

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    Forget about his legal troubles in 2000 for a while. And forget how great of a player he is and has been for more than a decade. 

    Lewis' intensity and excitement are almost as much a part of his legacy. Every time he is mic-ed up, that shines. And whenever he does his pregame dance, as well. 

    As much as Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, he is an American sports icon and that personality is the main reason. 

No. 28: Shannon Sharpe

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    Sterling's younger brother has shown us his serious side: that time he vehemently defended teammate Ray Lewis during the Super Bowl XXXV media day when reporters only wanted to talk about Lewis' legal problems.

    But Shannon's greatest asset off the field was probably his sense of humor. Today, we see him routinely mocking players or situations on the CBS pregame show, but it was his taunt of the New England Patriots in 1996 (see video) that might have been his most colorful moment. 

No. 27: Bill Belichick

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    Most people regard the Patriots head coach as a lifeless, boring robot. And whether that is true, remains to be seen. He's shown plenty of moments of humor (and not just his fashion sense) and is good friends with Bon Jovi. 

    But even if he appears to be lacking in personality, that is sort of his shtick, his style. You get the sense he doesn't like the media or catering to the fanbases so he gives them this monotone, dull facade. 

    And if that's true, it's pretty brilliant.

No. 26: Max McGee

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    McGee had a great career in the NFL and holds the distinct mark of scoring the first touchdown in NFL history. 

    And he did so with a wicked hangover.

    McGee was a notoriously hard partier, and because he didn't expect to play in Super Bowl I, he enjoyed himself in Hollywood the night before Super Bowl I at the LA Coliseum. 

    That story didn't come out until a few years after, but it wasn't the first time McGee let loose.

    And with his Southern charm and fondness for having a woman on each arm, whom he referred to as his "fiancées," his personality was an all-time great. 

No. 25: Ted Hendricks

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    NFL Films characterization of the "Mad Stork" says it better than we can. 

    Had he played in today's NFL, wouldn't he find his way on to at least one reality show, if not more?

No. 24: Jon Gruden

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    No one seemed to have more passion as a head coach than Gruden.

    The highlights from the Buccaneers' win in Super Bowl XXXVII show as many clips of Gruden running up and down the sidelines screaming with enthusiasm as they show Tampa Bay defenders intercepting Rich Gannon. 

    There's a reason why he was so quickly tapped to contribute to Monday Night Football following his career. And there's a reason why he could have any open head coaching job he wants starting tomorrow. 

    He may eat, breathe and sleep football, but he does so in a way that many people find charming. 

No. 23: Freddie Mitchell

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    Remember, being a great (or even decent) player is not a requirement for this list. 

    But FredEx showed plenty of personality during his brief, four-year NFL career. 

    In 2004, he became something of a media darling, thanking his hands for making a catch in the NFC Championship Game and wearing oven mitts to protect those hands during the ensuring two-week break before the Super Bowl. 

    Even if he may have been a better self-promoter than wide receiver, people only took notice because he was good at that side job. 

No. 22: Joe Horn

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    One incident probably doesn't make a "colorful personality." Unless it's the infamous celebration Joe Horn gave us on a Sunday night in the Superdome in 2001.

    That took a level of creativity (and planning) that is worthy of a spot on this list. 

No. 21: Don Meredith

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    Although Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman would soon become better known, Don Meredith set the standard for Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks/icons. 

    As a player he was beloved by fans and media, but when he joined Monday Night Football in 1970, his folksy Texas attitude became as much a staple of the show as Howard Cosell or the game itself. 

    Like many of the players-turned-broadcaster/actors on this list, Meredith didn't all of a sudden develop that colorful personality after retiring from his playing career in 1968. 

No. 20: Howard Cosell

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    It's impossible to have Don Meredith on this list and not have his Monday Night Football counterpart. (Since Frank Gifford was the straight-man in their three-ring circus, he doesn't quite fit this list). 

    Cosell may be the only entry who didn't suit up for an NFL game or coach one from the sidelines, but he remains one of the most important figures in the post-merger NFL.

    Without his lightning-rod appeal at the forefront, Monday Night Football might not have survived.

No. 19: Terry Bradshaw

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    Not unlike Sammy Baugh nearly half a century earlier, Terry Bradshaw was seen as a simple country boy who just happened to be the best quarterback in the NFL, slinging passes at will. Recall the Hollywood Henderson incident, prior to Super Bowl XIII?

    While Bradshaw still holds onto pieces of that image, he remains a pretty complex, intriguing personality. He's can be very thoughtful in his commentary, even serious. He can also be exceptionally clever and funny. 

    And although his acting and singing careers leave something to be desired, he is almost always entertaining. 

No. 18: Randy Moss

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    Moss is no stranger to controversy and the spotlight. The year 2010 might have been his busiest campaign in those terms. It certainly was his most well-traveled.

    And even if people despise Moss for his antics (like when he fake-mooned the crowd at Lambeau then declared he'd pay the fine with "straight cash, homey") or his unapologetic attitude about taking plays off, he does so in a way that isn't entirely corrosive...unless you count that caterer incident in Minnesota. 

    Regardless, his personality, no matter how destructive or selfish, is enormous, and, some would say colorful. 

No. 17: Bubba Smith

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    Smith was a great player for the Colts, Oilers and Raiders in the late 1960s and 1970. 

    And his enormous size, legendary status at Michigan State, and ferocious play made him an intriguing character for fans and the media back in that earlier era. 

    But to a later generation, he was known for his role as a tough guy in comedies like the Police Academy films.

    And his performance as "Spare Tire" Dixon in an early 1990s episode of Married With Children was an momentous exhibition of shimmering personality. 

No. 16: Michael Strahan

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    Currently, Strahan is a virtual household name as a member of the Fox pregame show and sponsor for Subway and Dr. Pepper.

    But even during his playing career, he showed much personality. He was a regular on the Best Damn Sports Show Period and always good for a sound byte. 

No. 15: Vince Lombardi

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    Lombardi may have been the first true coaching icon of the NFL. Even though his team was loaded with Hall of Fame and Pro Bowl talent, he was the star of that 1960s Green Bay Packers dynasty. 

    Part of the reason why was his intelligent, studious approach to the game, part of it was his unquenchable desire to win, and part of it was his venomous attitude to players who made mistakes.

    He was the embodiment of what people thought a coach should be. 

No. 14: John Randle

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    The face paint and bunches of sacks are what most remember when think of Minnesota Vikings longtime defensive tackle John Randle.

    But as many people repeatedly discussed when the undrafted Texas A&M-Kingsville Hoggie went into the Hall of Fame last year, he was an exciting character filled with energy, and not just when the ball was snapped. 

No. 13: Lawrence Taylor

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    Like several of the men on this list, the larger-than-life personality of Lawrence Taylor probably helped cause some of his legal problems.

    And although his great pass rushing skills were his greatest legacy, Taylor's "let's go out there like a bunch of crazed dogs and have some fun" excitement and hatred for losing endeared him to fans, coaches and the media. 

No. 12: Deion Sanders

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    As a two-sport professional athlete, Deion was naturally going to be a darling of the media and the fans. But in his chase for national superstardom, Sanders had another thing going for him: supreme confidence. 

    Sanders believed in himself and his talents and that he was the best, something that was appealing to many NFL fans....and despicable to others.

    The high-stepping taunt was his colorful personality translated onto the field. 

No. 11: Brett Favre

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    Whatever people think about Favre and what has transpired during the last two seasons of his career, he was one of the most compelling figures in the game for two decades. 

    The waffling and crying were a drama that was impossible to overlook, but as this video shows, he was pretty funny and always made for a good quote. 

No. 10: John Riggins

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    Riggins was definitely one of the most unique, dance-to-his-own-drumbeat characters in the history of the NFL.

    He wore an Afro, a mohawk, did wacky commercials and walked away from the game in the middle of his prime only to return and win a Super Bowl MVP.

No. 9: Michael Irvin

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    George Rose/Getty Images

    There were several big personalities on that Cowboys dynasty of the 1990s: Jimmy Johnson, Deion Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman, Charles Haley, etc.

    But none were quite as colorful as "The Playmaker."

    Irvin's off-the-field antics were part of his legacy, but so was the zeal and passion that were as much his trademark as anything. 

No. 8: Bill Parcells

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    Something of a modern day Vince Lombardi, Parcells earns a higher spot on this than the former Packer coach for one reason: his back-and-forth with the media. 

    At each one of his stops, New York (twice), New England and Dallas, he routinely verbally sparred with reporters. And it was often hilarious, often uncomfortable to watch. 

No. 7: Jim McMahon

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    The legendary 1985 Chicago Bears team had several colorful characters on their roster including William "The Refrigerator" Perry—even Walter Payton had his entertaining moments away from the field. 

    But (aside from their head coach) the most colorful figure on Da Bears had to be their "punky QB."

    He reportedly mooned a helicopter that week in New Orleans, constantly feuded with the league, and stuck out like a sore thumb at Brigham Young.

No. 6: Chad Ochocinco

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    The wide receiver formerly known as Chad Johnson is obviously one of the biggest personalities in the NFL today.

    And given how the modern game is dominated by such players and followed intently by a 24-hour media, that makes him one of the biggest personalities ever.

    But aside from the entertaining touchdown celebration, he doesn't have the great collection of sound bytes to pull inside the top five. 

No. 5: Deacon Jones

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    It was quotes like this one, Jones' explanation of how he coined the term "sack" for tackling a quarterback, that showed how Jones personality captivated fans and reporters across the NFL for 15 seasons.

    "You take all the offensive linemen and put them in a burlap bag, and then you take a baseball bat and beat on the bag....You're sacking them, you're bagging them. And that's what you're doing with a quarterback."

No. 4: Clinton Portis

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    A colorful personality should be, first and foremost, entertaining. Adding humor helps push that personality up this list. And adding complete and utter wackiness earns a spot near the top. 

    And however they started, Clinton Portis' alter egos met all those criteria.

    There was Dolemite Jenkins, Sheriff Gonna Getcha, Choo Choo, Southeast Jerome and plenty others. 

No. 3: Mike Ditka

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    As a Hall of Fame tight end for the Bears, Eagles and Cowboys, Ditka's personality didn't really come out until he took over the spot once held by his mentor, George Halas. 

    And with all that time in front of the camera, explaining the game to reporters, his personality immediately shone through, as it continues to do on ESPN today.

    Although he wasn't as prone to comedy as his contemporary, Bill Parcells, thanks to his terribly short temper, he was slightly more colorful. 

No. 2: Joe Namath

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    Who else could get away with wearing sunglasses on the sideline?

    With the long hair, the occasional Fu Manchu and the playboy attitude, he was the most compelling figure in sports during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

    And although he was a star before Super Bowl III, at Alabama and with a $400,000 contract, it was "the guarantee" in Miami prior to the Jets-Colts showdown that cemented his status as the game's premier headliner. 

No. 1: Terrell Owens

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    Love him or hate him, T.O. has the most colorful personality. 

    Over his career, he's shown all the qualities: arrogance/confidence, drama (all of 2005 in Philadelphia), excitement, unpredictably, crying (that Tony Romo press conference) and humor.