Kevin Garnett and the 50 Most Intense Competitors in Sports History

Richard LangfordCorrespondent IFebruary 9, 2011

Kevin Garnett and the 50 Most Intense Competitors in Sports History

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    It is in the scowl, the screams, the eyes, the viciousness of movement and the greatness. It is the thing that can propel athletes from mortal to legend. It creates events beyond the ordinary—for better or worse.

    It is intensity.

    It is impossible to measure intensity, because some athletes mask it with equal or greater levels of cool. We can't tell what is going on under the surface.

    This list is for the athletes whose intensity bubbles out of their pores and oozes into their performances and lives. 

No. 50: Charles Haley

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    Charles Haley was a fierce and well-decorated pass rusher. He is also one intense person. Haley would whip himself into a legendary frenzy before games, and he was slow to come down from them afterward.

    Haley's intensity often found him in some questionable situations. He reportedly tried to strangle his coach, George Seifert.

    His behavior became such an issue that the 49ers had to appoint fellow tough guy and intense individual Ronnie Lott to keep him from falling off the deep end.

No. 49: Reggie Miller

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    Reggie Miller thrived on big moments. He was at his best when the stiuation was at its most intense.

    "Be the best villain you can be," was Reggie's advice to the world, a message that was on full display every time he played in the Garden against the Knicks.

    Miller's play on the court may only be matched in intensity by the trash-talking that went along with it. For Miller, trash-talking was not a distraction, but his fire.

No. 48: George Brett

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    If you don't think George Brett is intense try telling him his home run didn't count because he had too much pine tar on his bat.

No. 47: Isiah Thomas

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    Isiah was one of the smallest players on the basketball court every time he stepped onto it. He made up for that with a mountain of intensity and competitiveness.

    Thomas' fire burned every minute he played. There is no other explanation for how the diminutive point guard became the leader of the squad that is known as the Bad Boys. The Bad Boys carved their NBA legacy with intensity, and Isiah was at the heart.

No. 46: John Henderson

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    To get pumped up and ready for a game some people listen to music, some quietly contemplate the task, some pray, and then there's all-pro defensive tackle, John Henderson.

    Henderson likes people to hit him...in the face!

No. 45: Roger Clemens

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    You don't have the kind of career longevity and success of Roger Clemens without bringing a certain amount of intensity.

    Roger Clemens had no problem displaying his competitive side with high and tight fastballs. He used to work himself into a frenzy before games and then worry about calming himself down as the game went on.

    Never was this more apparent than the night he chucked a spear, that used to be a bat, at Mike Piazza. Clemens went on to explain that he thought it was the ball—a very doubt-able statement.

    What isn't doubt-able is the fact that his raging intensity was at the source of his actions.

    Well, that and probably steroids, but that's up for debate.

No. 44: Micky Ward and Arturo Gatti

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    If it wasn't for the movie The Fighter,  Micky Ward's name would hardly ever come up without being connected to Arturo Gatti.

    These guys battled each other in three bouts so intense and iconic that all of us who grew up on boxing reality built on Rocky movies could finally say, "Now THIS is boxing."

    There's no explanation of how either of these two fighters were able to continue, except the sheer force of the intensity of their wills.

No. 43: John Stockton

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    John Stockton's fierce intensity led to him pushing his undersized body into the paint, off the bodies of giants and then off the floor until the age of 40.

    His competitive drive was infectious, and made Stockton a great leader and arguably the greatest point guard the game has ever seen.

No. 42: Mark Messier

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    Mark Messier has the kind of controlled intensity that can carry a franchise. Not only is he considered one of hockey's greatest players, but also one of its greatest leaders.

    Messier had the transcendent ability to rise to his best during the biggest moments. There was no situation that was too big or too challenging for Messier.

No. 41: Randy White

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    Legendary coach Tom Landry summed up White best: "He could outmatch anybody's intensity from game to game."

    It was this intensity that helped White earn the nickname "Manster." Not only did White not take plays off, but he played them all at approximately 173 percent.

    White was a force rushing the QB and an impossible-to-move object against the run. Opponents tired just at the sight of White lining up across from them. 

No. 40: Tiger Woods

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    Golf is one of those sports where it's almost impossible to tell the level of intensity inside the people playing it. The nature of the game almost requires that, in order to find success, the players do not get caught up in emotion.

    Tiger is clearly the exception. He has been at his best when he is at his most outwardly intense. It's what allows a golfer to be described as intimidating.

    Also, as we have come to find out, Tiger seemed to carry his intensity to his off-the-course activities.

No. 39: Bakkies Botha

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    When you've been suspended in rugby for dangerous play, chances are you play with a high level of intensity.

    Bakkies Botha's uncontrollable intensity has a tendency to get him in trouble from time to time.

    It is has led to him earning the nickname "The Enforcer," as well as accusations of biting and eye gouging.

    Botha is also prepared to bring it from the opening gun. The video is an incident of Botha throwing a malicious head-butt. It came less than a minute into the contest.

No. 38: Kyle Busch

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    Kyle Busch has a passion for racing. He runs a full NASCAR schedule and throws in most of the Nationwide Series and the NASCAR Truck races for good measure.

    Busch's intensity for racing leads to aggressive driving and equally aggressive behavior. In 2010, his teammate Denny Hamlin crashed into Busch and knocked him out of the race.

    Busch then advised his crew that they should take precautions to keep him away from Hamlin to prevent him from prematurely bringing Hamlin's life to an end.

    Busch's driving style and outspoken ways have earned him few friends among his peers and many fans who follow the sport.

No. 37: Monica Seles

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    Monica Seles' extraordinary career has largely come to be remembered for the Steffi Graf fan deranged enough to stab her.

    Before that instance, Seles became the nation's No. 1 female tennis player with an explosive and powerful game. Her intense focus on each shot came out in a distinctively guttural grunt.

    Actually, Seles was so intense she not only grunted on her exhale, but the inhale as well.

    Now that's intense.

No. 36: Mike Singletary

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    Mike Singletary's intensity almost caused his eyes to pop out of his head.

    From play to play, Singletary focused with such a singular passion that you have to wonder if the sheer force of his focus caused opposing offenses to unravel.

No. 35: Randy Johnson

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    As if Randy Johnson's three-quarter arm angle, 11" arms, faster-than-fast fastball and giant, hard breaking slider weren't intimidating enough, the guy brought an intensity to the mound that's seldom seen.

    Johnson spent the time before his starts transforming himself into an intimidating pitching menace. On his start days, Johnson did not like people.

    Sometimes he didn't like them on other days either—like the cameraman who persisted on taking his picture.

No. 34: Kevin Garnett

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    Kevin Garnett plays with an unbridled intensity that is infectious.

    Well, it's infectious for his teammates and fans of his team. For the opposition it's mostly just infuriating.

    If KG is on the court, he is playing all out. He brings it on both ends. The level of his effort can seemingly be measured in the buckets of sweat pouring from his body.

    Garnett's intensity goes beyond his play. He is widely regarded as the reigning king of NBA trash talk.

No. 33: Bob Gibson

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    Bob Gibson pitched angry. It was an effective strategy for the fire-baller.

    It also led to the occasional pitch "getting away from him" and into a batter. Of course, that was fairly effective too.

    Bob Gibson is the most intimidating pitcher in baseball history.

    He also has a long memory. That was not a good thing for Pete LaCock. LaCock took Gibson yard in Gibson's final professional inning.

    Later, the two played in an old-timers game and Gibson beaned him the first chance he had. "I've been waiting a long time for that," Gibson told LaCock as he sorely trotted towards first.

No. 32: Ray Nitschke

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    Ray Nitschke made every tackle like the person he was tackling had mugged his mother. It was his intense, hard hits that made him one of the most feared linebackers to ever play.

    Nitschke's persona and mark on the game were summed up in the made-for-TV movie Brian's Song. In the movie, Bears running back Brian Piccalo told doctors the "only thing [he was] allergic to is Nitschke."

    Nitschke's intensity led to an air of invincibility. So much so that when a steel tower fell at Packers practice, head coach Vince Lombardi was concerned—until he heard it had "only" fallen on Nitschke, "He'll be fine. Get back to work!" And he was.

    The tower reportedly suffered severe damage.

No. 31: Magnus Ver Magnusson

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    Magnusson used his intensity to dominate strongman competitions in the '90s. He won the title of World's Strongest Man four times and was runner-up twice.

    Is there anything more intense than pulling freight trains and throwing cars over brick walls? I think not.

    In fact, I got a hernia just typing that.

No. 30: Ronnie Lott

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    Ronnie Lott left the impression of his intensity on almost every receiver that dared dance across the middle against him.

    He also left the impression on his hand. Lott collided with Cowboys WR Tim Newsome and mangled his finger. Legend has it that Lott had his finger amputated right then and there, but as he himself clarified, Lott actually had it amputated in the offseason.

    This may even be more intense. Lott went right back into a game with a finger so injured that it had to be amputated. He then chose to have his finger amputated rather than risk missing any time the following season.

No. 29: Zinedine Zidane

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    Zidane brought it every game. He used his intensity to help fuel him to become one of the world's soccer greatest players.

    Occasionally his intensity was too much for him to handle. As you see in the video, and have probably seen before, Zidane has a hard time letting things go.

    Remember to always use your head—before using your head.

No. 28: Kornelia Ender

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    Kornelia Ender's intensity led to a training regimen that allowed her to completely blow away the competition in the 1976 Olympics.

    This was probably somewhat due to the fact that her training regimen consisted of coaches giving her steroids that would give an elephant emotional issues and added bulk.

    Either way, her focus and intensity was record shattering.

No. 27: Brian Dawkins

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    The man known as Weapon X has terrorized NFL offenses his entire career.

    His intensity has propelled him to level some of the most vicious hits in the NFL despite being a relatively-small 6'0" and 200 pounds.

    Dawkins is a born leader, and his abundant intensity is enough to turn his entire team into a group of raving madmen.

No. 26: Rulon Gardner

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    Billy Stickland/Getty Images

    Show me a wrestler who isn't intense, and I'll show you a wrestler who isn't very good. In a sport filled with intensity, Gardner stands out.

    Gardner used his fiery spirit to fuel a miraculous upset over Aleksandr Karelin and win a gold medal in the 2000 Olympic games.

    His spirit was again put to a severe test when he crashed his snowmobile and was stranded for 15 hours. Until he was rescued, Gardner thought he was going to die. The frostbite led to him having one of his toes amputated.

    He now keeps that toe in a jar in his fridge—a sign to all of us of his intensity, and to him of his mortality.

No. 25: John Elway

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    Quarterbacks are typically required to maintain a poise that masks their intensity. They have to be in more control of their emotions than other players on the field.

    While John Elway's poise and control covered his intensity like a sheet over a bright lamp—the light still radiated through. 

    Elway was a fierce competitor and the force of his will propelled three overmatched teams to the Super Bowl, and two talented teams to the trophy.

    It also led to the moment above pictured, one of the greatest and most intense in Super Bowl history.

No. 24: Vasiliy Alekseyev

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    Alekseyev set 80 world weightlifting records over the course of his career. He set all of those records after he devised his own unique training regimen.

    Weightlifting in and of itself is an intense endeavor. Alekseyev came up with a training regimen to make it even more intense.

    It involved things like diving into a river, a lake or a pool with a barbell, and then thrusting it out of the water.

    I don't imagine there were many warm water lakes and rivers available to him in Russia.

No. 23: Lyle Alzado

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    "Once in Denver in 1979 a guy sideswiped my car," Lyle Alzado tells us, "and I chased him up and down the hills through the neighborhoods."

    Needless to say, Alzado was intense on and off the field.

    Part of his intensity can be attributed to his steroid use...or was his steroid use attributed to his intensity?

    Who knows? I'm not here to play psychologist.

    I am here to tell you things Lyle Alzado said: "I never met a man I didn't want to fight." He once proved it by going eight rounds with Muhammad Ali.

    He also apparently liked to fight animals. "If me and King Kong went into an alley, only one of us would come out. And it wouldn't be the monkey.”

No. 22: Kobe Bryant

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    The Black Mamba is about as singularly focused an athlete as you're going to find. His intensity leads to trash talking, trying to do too much and greatness.

    As Kobe's career has progressed, he seems to have replaced his off-the-charts athleticism with intensity. Kobe's work ethic has approached legendary status and so has his will to be great.

    Kobe does not let obstacles get in his way. As he has said and demonstrated, if he hits the wall he will just run right through it.

No. 21: Gordie Howe

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    Gordie Howe's intensity fueled him to play in the NHL from the age of six to 145.

    Okay, that's an exaggeration—but only a slight one.

    He did play in the NHL in five different decades. This combined with his general greatness earned him the nickname "Mr. Hockey."

    Howe's intensity was apparent every second he was on the ice, and it propelled him to develop the all-around game that led to him being a great goal scorer and his own enforcer.

No 20: Wayne Shelford

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    Wayne Shelford is a legendary and intense rugby player. He's one of the most celebrated members and captains of the famous All Blacks.

    Shelford's intensity made him a dynamic on-the-field leader. The All Blacks were undefeated during his three-year reign as captain.

    Shelford is known for his big hits, never-say-die attitude, and this story: He took a particularly vicious shot that left him with four less teeth and a ripped scrotum.

    With one testicle hanging free, Shelford asked the team doctor to stitch him. They did, and he returned to the game.

    That was almost too intense for me to type.

No. 19: Jim Brown

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    Jim Brown ran with malicious intent. He could run past, over or through defenders. His intensity on the football field was apparent every play.

    It's also apparent in everything he does. Jim Brown lives his life with passion. It is apparent in his careers, his opinions, his social work and his criminal record. 

    Brown has had several instances of domestic violence where his intensity and anger got the best of him.

No. 18: Pete Rose

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    You don't earn the nickname Charlie Hustle for not being intense. Especially when your name isn't even Charlie.

    Pete Rose played every out and made every bet like his life was on the line. Never was his insane competitiveness and intensity on display more then the time he plowed over catcher Ray Fosse in the All-Star game.

    If NFL players hit half that hard in the Pro Bowl, people would actually watch it.

No. 17: Dale Earnhardt

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    The guy's nickname is "The Intimidator," for crying out loud. What else needs to be said?

    While nothing else needs to be said, a lot can be said. Earnhardt's intensity allowed him to fearlessly compete and dominate in a sport that ended up taking his life.

    It also led him to build an business empire off the track.

No. 16: Lance Armstrong

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    I prefer walking over riding my bike. That way I don't have to worry about holding my bike beside me if I come to a hill. A lot of good both of my testicles are doing me.

    The Tour de France has to be the most grueling thing in sports. Lance Armstrong owned it.

    He pedaled his way to seven straight tour victories by climbing mountains with such speed and tenacity that the competition would mentally concede halfway through the long event.

No. 15: Lee Murray

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    Murray was a feared MMA fighter with a thunderous punch. He was as intense outside the ring as he was in it.

    Probably even more so.

    Murray grew up with a violent lifestyle. He spent most of his adolescence in gangs and his intensity often led to fighting. His most famous fight actually took place outside the ring.

    Murray and Tito Ortiz got into a brawl outside a club one night. Ortiz denies it, but various accounts have Murray knocking Ortiz out.

    All of this action was not enough for Murray. He has been convicted for being the mastermind behind the largest cash robbery in British history. It was an intricate plot that involved months of planning and the kidnapping of a family. It netted the culprits the equivalent of $92.5 million.

No. 14: Jimmy Connors

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    Jimmy Connors was a fierce competitor. While he was extremely talented, it was his intensity that propelled him to becoming the world's number one player.

    Over the course of his career Connors took part in some of the most grueling matches in tennis history. Connors' drive allowed him to push his body beyond the limits of any mortal man.

    Connors thrived on emotion. He liked to get the crowd involved to help pump him up, and he did not take miscues by the officials lightly. Connors has scolded and flipped off a number of line judges.

    His intensity also led to clashes with authority after his career. In 2008 he was arrested after failing to comply with officers.

No. 13: Jake LaMotta

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    When a movie about your life is made, and a young Robert DeNiro is cast to play you, chances are you're intense. When the movie is titled after your nickname, "Raging Bull," there is no doubt you're intense.

    LaMotta was a talented boxer, but his greatest talent proved to be the incredible intensity that did not allow him to quit. One announcer summed it best as he described LaMotta's performance against Sugar Ray Robinson:

    "No man can take this kind of punishment!"

    The announcer was right. LaMotta was not a man; he was a bull.

No.12: Ray Lewis

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    Ray Lewis has been tormenting NFL offenses since he first stepped onto the field in 1996. He plays each play like he truly believes it may be his last.

    He then plays it with the violence that it may very well be his—or someone else's—last. 

    Lewis is jacked up to unprecedented levels from the moment he steps out of the tunnel. He is the unquestioned leader of the Ravens defense, and he does everything he can to make sure all of his teammates play with the same intensity he does.

    Intensity is more than just an act for Lewis. It also likely played a part in his role in a murder investigation that led to him pleading guilty to obstruction of justice, and then settling out of court with the victim's family. 

No. 11: Lou Pinella

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    Like most people, Lou Piniella has calmed down with age. This goes to show you how insanely intense he was as a player.

    Piniella has done everything in his life with great passion. He was driven to succeed and he had a hard time accepting failure.

    Piniella's intensity often led to clashes with the opposition, teammates and players on his team. Who can forget his clubhouse rumble with Rob Dibble?

No. 10: Dick Butkus

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    "When I went out on the field to warm up, I would manufacture things to make me mad."

    It's hard to believe Dick Butkus ever needed anything to give him even more intensity, but it takes a little more to be a champion.

    "If I had a choice, I'd sooner go one-on-one with a grizzly bear," former Green Bay Packers running back MacArthur Lane said.

    Make no mistake about it, Butkus had tremendous physical ability, but it was his intensity that put the fear of God into the opposition.

No. 9: Larry Bird

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    Larry Bird was a pioneer in the game of basketball in many ways. He left an indelible impact in countless facets of the game, but his biggest impact may be in trash talking.

    Bird was an intense competitor and he let his opponents know it. He thrived by getting into other people's heads and using that to fuel his fire.

    Let's let Dennis Rodman give us a sample of Bird's trash talking intensity:

    "I would be all over him, trying to deny him the ball, and all Larry was doing was yelling at his teammates, ‘I’m open! Hurry up before they notice nobody is guarding me!’ then he would stick an elbow in my jaw and stick the jumper in my face, then he would start in on my coach. ‘Coach you better get this guy out and send in somebody who’s going to D me up, because its too easy when I’m wide open like this.’"

No. 8: Jackie Robinson

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    In relation to the others on the list Jackie Robinson displayed what can only be called a reverse intensity.

    Make no mistake about it, Robinson was a fiercely intense individual and competitor—an intensity he had to direct towards keeping his composure and persevering in impossible circumstances.

    William Marshall summed it up best: "Jackie Robinson gave up his own dignity to gain self-respect for his race—integration will hang forever on his head. Few players with Jackie Robinson's intensity could have withstood the pressure that left him on the verge of a nervous breakdown."

No. 7: Maurice Richard

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    Maurice Richard shot his intensity out of his eyes like Superman does laser beams. It is not easy to frighten NHL players and Richard did it with the power of his gaze.

    Of course Richard's strength and willingness to finish a fight helped add legitimacy to his stare.

    He played the game all-out, and used his speed and power to become one of the great goal scorers. His intensity made him a natural leader.

    With Richard, the Candiens won eight Stanley Cups.

No. 6: John McEnroe

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    McEnroe had a notoriously hard time controlling his intensity. His lack of control of his inner fire was put on such display that he has made a lovable caricature of himself.

    It was easy to perceive his tantrums as that of a spoiled brat, but they are the result of his intense drive and perfectionism.

    As his father says, "John sets high standards for himself and doesn't suffer fools gladly."

    His intensity was also on display in more ways than his on court behavior. He has been in rocky relationships and careers, and he has gone after them all with fire and intensity.

No. 5: Jack Lambert

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    Jack Lambert's maniacal intensity on the field set the gold standard for all NFL defensive players.

    Tim Gleason sheds some light on Lambert's unwavering intensity in his book From Black to Gold. In the following excerpt, he recounts a moment of Lambert during one of his college practices:

    "The practice field was too muddy that afternoon, so the team, without the luxury of major-college facilities, practiced on a parking lot full of cinders and gravel.  That meant nothing to Lambert, even wearing shorts.  He still pursued with reckless abandon and displayed the same intensity at a practice, on gravel, that he did on game-day.  On one play, Lambert ended up face-first in the cinders.  He refused treatment as if nothing happened.  For the rest of the practice, Lambert calmly picked pieces of gravel from his face, knees and elbows."

    Yup, Jack Lambert was an intense dude.

No. 4: Bill Russell

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    "Just the sound of his footsteps intimidated opposing players."

    Red Aurerbauch knew the effect his star player's intensity had on the opposition. 

    Tony Kornheiser let us in on the all-encompassing nature of Russell's intensity when he said, "He didn't bend rims—he bent minds."

    Bill Russell dominated basketball, and he did it mostly from the defensive end. Russell's intensity was at the heart of 11 championship Celtic teams—two of which he coached.

    I don't imagine he had to say much. 

    Russell also carried his intensity with him in the courage he displayed that made him a pioneer in the American Civil Rights movement.

No. 3: Pat Tillman

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    Pat Tillman gave up the NFL out of an intense sense of duty to his country in light of the September 11th attacks. Tillman decided to join the Army.

    In typical Tillman style, he not only joined the Army, but he became an Army Ranger. The Rangers eat intensity for breakfast and then go about the rest of their day in a way that adjectives don't do justice.

    Tillman's intensity was well on display before these acts. He became the Pac-10's Defensive Player of the Year as a 5'11", 185 pound linebacker. He then went on to become one of the game's top safeties.

    Tillman's athletic ability led to him being drafted 226th in the 1996 NFL Draft. His intensity led to him becoming one of the best safeties in football.

No. 2: Michael Jordan

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    Michael Jordan's intensity pours through his singular focus of winning...at everything.

    He may be the most competitive person in the history of people.

    It was his intensity that led the Bulls to a 72-win season. Jordan played every second like it was the last second of the season.

    Jordan's typical calm public demeanor masks the shark beneath the surface. As he revealed in his Hall of Fame speech he often used spite to rev up his insane intensity. 

    Jordan didn't just leave his intensity to his game either. He is a legendary trash talker and gambler. He led a hard charging life style and seldom slept, even during the NBA season.

    This is a man that seems addicted to intensity.

No. 1: Muhammad Ali

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    Ali's intensity came through in countless ways. It showed itself in his performances, in his interviews and in his adherence to his beliefs.

    He rose to prominence in a time where it was dangerous for an African-American to be loud and intimidating. In interviews, Ali was just that.

    When asked to go to Vietnam, Ali refused to participate in something he did not believe in and chose to go to jail instead.

    He then had the intensity to will himself back to the title even when he was overmatched. Ali could take a punch as well as he could give them.

    He fought ten rounds against Ken Norton with a broken jaw. He later went on to beat George Foreman after he successfully employed a strategy that involved Foreman wearing himself out by throwing punches while Ali covered and leaned against the ropes. 

    Ali's intensity may have been on greatest display when he fought Ernie Terrel. Terrel refused to call Ali by his new Muslim name. Ali told anyone who would listen that he was going to humiliate Terrel, and that is exactly what he did.

    Between each big shot, Ali taunted Terrel with the question, "What's my name?"