NFL: The 50 Toughest NFL Players of All Time
We don't watch football for the niceties. And though it isn't politically correct to say, we don't watch for the sportsmanship.
That competing athletes can get along is all well and good, but it doesn't get at the core of why we watch football.
We watch, quite simply, for the drama.
That drama is ratcheted up by a number of factors, including the epic stage the game is played on, the concentrated talent among the players and a third category that's more interesting.
I mean, of course, that the NFL is real. It isn't some pro-wrestling style of scripted drama. It's real drama. As a result, players need vast reserves of both mental and physical toughness to achieve greatness.
That's why we love the game.
So let's take a look at some of the toughest players the NFL has showcased.
Remember, it's impossible to list all the toughest players on here, so my list is merely a stab at it! If I've left off your idol, apologies!
No. 50: Doug Flutie, Quarterback
What a better way to start out this list than with a man many thought wouldn't and couldn't make it in the NFL?
Flutie triumphed at every level of football when the experts said he was too small. He's a hero out there for anyone under 6'0" and desires to play professional football (especially as a quarterback).
Not only did he have a career, but it lasted until the age of 43. Not bad for someone who was literally half the size of some of the other players.
No. 49: Bruce Matthews, Offensive Line
As one of the most durable players in NFL history, Matthews lands on this list through consistency.
He played every position on the offensive line, and closed out a 14-year stretch in his 19-year career by not missing a single game.
Playing offensive line, that streak is slightly more impressive than doing that at the kicker position.
No. 48: Jerome Bettis, Running Back
"The Bus" made a career out of doing what football players do at their most basic level: initiate contact.
He was never a man to run around the opposition. He ran threw them.
No. 47: Don Meredith, Quarterback
“Meredith was really tough. He got beat up so bad in his early years. His last game, up in Cleveland, he came out of the hospital to play with a broken rib, a punctured lung, and pneumonia. I saw Meredith's nose broken so bad that it spread all over his face. Looked like a raccoon.” —Bob Lilly
I'd say that's a solid case for this list.
No. 46: Lynn Swann, Wide Receiver
I know, I know, what's he doing here, right?
But consider that he played much of his career in an era when defensive contact rules were a joke.
So teams used to simply hit Swann in order to neutralize his explosiveness. He was famously given a severe concussion in the AFC title game, yet went on the play in the Super Bowl anyway.
He had a fairly anonymous Super Bowl. You know, unless you count the 161 receiving yards he had and the Super Bowl MVP he won (first time for a wide receiver).
No. 45: John Riggins, Running Back
Riggins was the quintessential fullback. He hit people for fun.
When "the Diesel" found his gear, linebackers were sent like bowling pins.
And for a man who took as many hits as he dolled out, Riggins had a fairly long career.
No. 44: Jackie Slater, Offensive Tackle
Another linemen who makes it because, well, he was a linemen.
And not just a any lineman, but a Hall of Famer. Slater came into the league in 1975 during the Gerald Ford administration.
He didn't leave until Bill Clinton was president. Think about the grind of being an NFL lineman for 20 years.
No. 43: Bruce Smith, Defensive End
Smith wasn't just some defensive lineman who put together a few seasons. He stacked up 13 seasons with 10 sacks or more during his 19-year run.
In that time, he accumulated numerous cut-blocks, cheap shots and vicious double teams (since he was always the best defensive player on his team).
But that never seemed to stop him.
No. 42: Mike Webster, Center
One of the pillars upon which the Steelers dynasty rested.
Webster wasn't the most physically gifted player of all time. But like so many other great players, he maximized his ability through a number of ways.
Probably the most obvious way was to endure pain and fatigue better than his opponents. He was as tough as they come and rolled through the 1980's even after many of his fellow Steeler legends fell off.
No. 41: Roger Craig, Running Back
Craig was a high-hurdler in high school and used that style in the NFL. He "kept his knees up" and dished out punishment to unsuspecting tacklers.
On top of being the first NFL player to rush and receive for 1000 yards in the same season, Craig could hit.
He was the rare offensive player who turned the tables on his defensive counterparts by making them hurt.
No. 40: Tom Rathman, Fullback
While Roger Craig was tough, Tom Rathman was even tougher. A rare pairing of the same backfield for this list, it's safe to say that both men warrant a place.
Rathman added toughness and strength to the 49er offense often described as "finesse."
No. 39: Brian Dawkins, Safety
Trust when I say that, as a Giants fan, there's a grudging respect for this guy.
He certainly wasn't my favorite during his tenure with the Eagles (he now plays for Denver), but he did win my admiration.
Dawkins figured out the simple lesson in football: hit them when they have the ball, hit them when they don't.
No. 38: Randy White
"The Manster," as he was called, man-handled the league for the entire period of his career.
Part of the Doomsday Defense, White would embark on long stretches where he was simply un-blockable.
Though he wasn't the biggest guy at his position, he made the Hall of Fame on ability, determination and, undoubtedly, toughness.
No. 37: Mark Bavaro, Tight End
He once broke his jaw in a game against the Saints (and was eventually eating his food through a straw for weeks). But before the game was over, he had led the Giants from behind to win, catching the pivotal touchdown.
He was an iconic figure on the 1980's Giants, not simply being tough himself but inspiring toughness in teammates.
Most famously, he dragged nearly the entire San Francisco defensive backfield on his shoulders (Ronnie Lott included) during a massive Monday night game in 1986.
It helped spur the Giants to a comeback and a run which culminated in winning the Super Bowl.
Oh yeah, he also used to bench press manholes (random, but fitting).
No. 36: Walt Garrison, Running Back
It was fitting that Garrison played for the Cowboys since, well, he kind of was a Cowboy.
Or, at the very least, he embodied that persona. Rugged, durable and dependable.
He once broke multiple ribs in the first quarter of the game and kept going, rushing for over a 100 yards. That's game for this list.
No. 35: Mel Hein, Offensive Line
He's the only offensive lineman to ever win MVP, which he did in 1938.
And supposedly, he only ever called timeout on one play in his career.
It was to reset his broken nose.
No. 34: Reggie White, Defensive End
An all-time great in terms of production.
And in terms of fighting through double teams, White was doing that from the day he set foot in the NFL.
But despite being constantly under the magnifying glass of opposing O-lines, White chalked up 198.0 sacks in his career.
You don't get that kind of a tally by being a wuss. He was tough as nails. RIP Reggie.
No. 33: Kellen Winslow Sr., Tight End
He gets on here because of one game (not that the rest of his career didn't warrant it though).
But his playoff game effort in the 1982 contest with the Miami Dolphins stands as one of the all-time greats.
By the end of the game, which he helped to win, Winslow was dehydrated, had severe cramps, a pinched nerve in his shoulder and had three stitches in his lower lip.
Oh yeah, he also had over a hundred yards receiver, a touchdown and blocked a would-be-winning field goal by the Dolphins.
No. 32: Conrad Dobler, Guard
He was arguably one of the dirtiest players in NFL history.
Actually, check that. He definitely was one of the dirtiest players in league history.
Yet you can't be a pushover to exist in the NFL as one of it's dirtiest players. Other players know you're going to be dirty, so they tend to push back.
He had to bring his A-game. Every game. That does require a certain degree of toughness.
No. 31: Emmitt Smith, Running Back
He compiled way, WAY more carries than any other running back in league history.
And for those who would say that, "he had a great offensive line so he didn't get hit," remember that he wasn't rushing for touchdowns on every carry.
Just because he would average many yards a carry still means he was getting tackled at the end of the run.
Plus there was the time he was outrageously hurt before a crucial game against my Giants in 1993. He played anyway and diced up the poor G-men for more than 100 yards.
No. 30: Y.A. Tittle, Quarterback
Everyone knows this picture. That's toughness.
He was never the fastest or the most talented. But he was tough.
No. 29: George Atkinson, Safety
Many people remember him from the label Steelers coach Chuck Knoll branded him with: "the criminal element."
It was a quote that came Atkinson's way following hit semi-legal/illegal hits on Lynn Swann.
Yet Atkinson, which most people forget, was really a small safety, barely larger than Swann.
His ability to be one of the most physical safeties in the league regardless of his size is testament to his toughness.
No. 28: George Blanda, Almost Everything
He was one of a very small group of players who played on every team. Offense, defense and special teams.
Most memorably, he was a quarterback (and a good one). But he also played defense early in his career and finished a memorable saga in professional football as a kicker.
Who says quarterbacks aren't tough? Because in Blanda's case he could just as easily step out as a linebacker too.
No. 27: Earl Campbell, Running Back
Check out this video and tell me he doesn't belong on this list?
Yeah, that's what I thought.
No. 26: Sam Huff, Linebacker
He was one of the original stars on the defensive side of the ball. Central to Tom Landry's new 4-3 defense, Huff became the Giants defense's quarterback.
And on top of mental capacity, he could hit.
His name still brings chills to Giants fans, even those who were born long after he retired (like, for example, me.)
No. 25: Bob Lilly, Defensive Tackle
He obviously would be on any "greatest defensive players" list, but he also deserves a spot here too.
In his entire 14-year career, Lilly never missed a single game. Through countless broken bones and other injuries that would keep me from going to my desk job, Lilly battled through in the NFL trenches.
He was big, strong and tough. And good. Pretty close to the perfect defensive tackle.
No. 24: Jerry Kramer, Guard
Kramer was the quintessential Vince Lombardi player.
He was versatile, smart and avoided making mistakes at all costs.
But above all, he could play better late in the game when he was fatigued than in the fisst quarter because he was extremely tough.
Despite numerous injuries and multiple hundreds of stitches, he kept on going (and blocking).
No. 23: Larry Csonka, Fullback
One man summarized the style of the 1972 Dolphins (and thankfully it wasn't Mercury Morris' rapping).
It was Larry Csonka, the one-man battering ram.
Csonka was another offensive player who bucked the trend of the game, trying to initiate contact with the defensive players, rather than vice-versa.
No. 22: Jim Marshall
Marshall played 282 consecutive games. That's ridiculous.
Especially given that he had kind of a bumpy road (an ulcer and a shotgun wound among other things).
That's either really dumb...or really tough. Or both.
No. 21: Jim Otto, Center
Otto was always cast as being not athletic enough or strong enough.
Yet he stomped out 15 seasons in the league. Otto also had more than 35 operations in his time. Ridiculous.
His quote: “Football is tough. You want to spell football: T-U-F-F. It's not for weak-hearted guys. It's a tough sport. If you want to get into something else, play with the girls.”
No. 20: Hines Ward, Wide Receiver
Ok, Dancing With the Stars jokes aside, no one can question his toughness.
He blocks better and more adamantly than almost any other receiver in the league.
And there isn't a receiver I'd rather have in crunch time making a difficult catch.
No. 19: Deacon Jones, Defensive End
There aren't many more scary players to have ever taken the field than Deacon Jones.
Even his name is kind of mean.
He would play through pain if it meant getting a sack (an unofficial stat in his day).
And his patented move, the head-slap, was banned later on because it was too rough and "effective."
No. 18: Ray Nitschke, Linebacker
Another Lombardi great, another really tough football player.
Nitschke was a classic middle linebacker, hitting everything he could see and taking no prisoners.
Lombardi may have been known for orchestrating his offense, but it was only because tough players like Ray Nitschke anchored the defense.
No. 17: Steve McNair, Quarterback
He rarely practiced, but when game-time came no one was better.
In the clutch McNair could make magic happen, even when he was playing on one good leg, sometimes no good legs (though he would will them to work).
His ability to carry his team is even more remarkable considering the numerous injuries he incurred nearly every season.
Another player taken before his time. RIP Air McNair.
No. 16: Rocky Bleier, Running Back
Bleier is one of the best stories on this list, hands down. After being drafted by the Steelers, he got drafted by another organization: the U.S. Army, one year later.
After taking serious wounds which left him with shrapnel, he was told by doctors that he'd never play football again.
But the doctors failed to account for how tough (and, to be fair, fortunate) Bleier was and is to this day.
He came back and help forge the great Pittsburgh dynasty of the 1970s.
No. 15: Johnny Unitas, Quarterback
Unitas may have had appeal across demographics to more than typical carnage-crazed football fans, but that doesn't mean he was anything less than ridiculously tough.
He took hit after hit in the days when it was legal to do just about anything to a quarterback except maybe trying to take his head off (and even then, if the ref wasn't watching, well...)
But Unitas stood tall and even played in Super Bowl III with a severe injury, doing the best anyone could in those circumstances.
No. 14: Jack Tatum, Safety
The Assassin, as Tatum was called, partnered with George Atkinson to form one of the most hard-hitting combinations of all time.
He had a knack for really hitting guys (knocking out John Mackey in his first game ever), though some of his hits bordered on legal.
No. 13: Mike Ditka, Tight End
If there ever was a perfect example of someone who could be smart enough to run the route, skilled enough to make the catch and tough enough to take the hit, it was Ditka.
He took some serious shots in his time, since the bigger linebackers would have to resort to more physical means in stopping the faster Ditka, but Mike wasn't one to be intimidated.
Long before he coached the Bears to glory, or he was immortalized by SNL, Ditka was just a tough football player. Period.
No. 12: Jack Lambert, Linebacker
When you think of a tough guy in the NFL, don't you kind of think of this picture?
It's an iconic image, that's backed up by one of the league's toughest middle linebackers.
Lambert simply knew that he might not have been the strongest player ever, but he could be both one of it's smartest (which people forget) and it's toughest. Mission accomplished.
No. 11: John Elway and Steve Young, Quarterbacks
A tie! You knew there would be at least one on this list (and know, this has nothing to do with the fact that I can't count.)
But it makes some sense though. Because both quarterbacks displayed mental toughness, the often forgotten part of the vague category of "toughness."
In fact they probably displayed mental toughness better than any other members of this list.
Both had to overcome extreme football adversity since they were labelled as guys who "couldn't win the big one."
Yet in the end, they did.
They also showed tremendous amounts of more conventional toughness, since their respective styles generally led them to being in harms way.
No. 10: Lawrence Taylor, Linebacker
LT (the real LT) was one of the toughest men to play the game, and more than for just the usual reasons.
He was not only a relentless player on the field, but his conduct off of it only served to jeopardize and fatigue his body and career.
Normally when guys do drugs it's to increase their performance. But Taylor's lifestyle and life choices only hampered and hindered his sharpness.
But did it really keep him from being elite?
Umm, why don't you ask Ron Jaworski? That might not make him the traditional, likable tough. But it does make him tough.
No. 9: Walter Payton, Running Back
Sweetness was not only one of the league's most prolific running backs, he was also one of its toughest.
On top of getting hit over and over again thanks to his ridiculous career carry totals (and occasionally suspect line play from the Bears), he played his home games in Chicago.
That's not easy year in and year out. Plus the stories about his training regimen are still legendary. He's the classic case of someone who wasn't born the best. But he worked and worked until he became it.
No. 8: Mean Joe Greene, Defensive Tackle
He was so tough he even gets a lifetime nickname for it.
But in all seriousness, Greene was the foundation of the Steel Curtain defense in the 1970s.
Everything Pittsburgh did defensively started with Green and his ability to take on multiple blockers on every play.
Going beyond the normal expectations was the expectation for Greene. Plus cool Coke commercials.
No. 7: Chuck Bednarik, Linebacker
Bednarik was the kind of old fashioned football player that appears very rarely today. Even his name made him blue-collar.
Yet he played extremely tough and hard. His hit on Frank Gifford is the stuff of legend.
And his quote about modern players as "underused and overpaid" further cements his reputation.
No. 6: Brett Farve, Quarterback
He remains one of the most polarizing people in sports. But one thing we should all agree on is that his ridiculous streak of games started warrants him a place high on this list.
What's even more insane is that, because of his battle of pain killer addiction, he didn't take a lot of medication during the latter part of the streak.
Think about that for a second. He was probably one of the achiest men in America for years and yet he couldn't really do anything to feel better except go play more football.
No. 5: Jack Youngblood, Defensive End
Over a career that stretched 14 years, Youngblood acquired a reputation as someone who would play no matter the circumstances.
So when his team, the Rams, improbably ran to the Super Bowl in early 1980, he wasn't going to be stopped by anything.
Even a broken leg.
Yes, that's right, Youngblood played the final three games of that season on a broken leg and helped the Rams make their miracle run, which came up just short of shocking the Steelers in the Super Bowl.
No. 4: Bronko Nagurski, Fullback
Besides having one of the most classic names in football history, Nagurski was flat out tough.
Many rumors have grown up about him in the years since he's retired. What's for sure though is that not a single person who ever saw him play would ever disagree with the idea that if you had to get one yard to win a game that your life depended, Nagurski would be the guy.
No. 3: Ronnie Lott, Safety
On top of being one of the hardest hitters of all time, Lott was a leader and a winner.
Most ridiculously, he also once had part of his own finger cut off at halftime in a game against the Redskins. Only after the game, which he had finished, did he worry about such trifling concerns as the status of his own body.
No. 2: Jim Brown, Running Back
On top of being one of the baddest men alive, Brown was put the fear of God in defensive players in his day.
He could run over, around or through just about anyone on the field.
And he played with pain, winning no matter what.
No. 1: Dick Butkus, Linebacker
Butkus was the most menacing player of all-time. His name is synonymous with tackling and hitting and the essence of football.
He was a ferocious defensive presence.
And Steve Sabol's words do better than anyone else's: “His career stands as the most sustained work of devastation ever committed on any field of sport, anywhere, any time.”
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