Heart of a Champion: The 40 Toughest Players in NFL History
Steve Sabol, President of NFL Films, once stated, “There are so many definitions of toughness. There's the toughness of getting the snot knocked out of you, and the can't-be-intimidated, never-quit kind of tough. And then there's the injured tough, which is no-regard-for-your-body-and-play-with-broken-bones tough. Then there's mental toughness, when you're tough under pressure and not losing your poise. Then there's the toughness a person has, an aura, that he can intimidate other people by his play or his toughness.”
And then there's the players below who contain all of these qualities. It's incredibly debatable, but here is my attempt to rank them in order for toughness.
“A pro football linebacker is just naturally tough. You don't mess with him. If we were fighting a war, the linebackers would be the first guys to get killed. Why? We invariably would attack a bunker from where the enemy is shooting machine guns. We'd attack the bunker, and the quarterbacks would be sitting in a tank with the general saying, 'Well, what kind of attack are you planning?' “
39. Hines Ward, Wide Receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers (1998-present)
Hines Ward played wide receiver, tailback, quarterback, and punt returner in college. He is famous for his crack-back blocks, and broke the jaw of Cincinnati rookie Keith Rivers in a 2008 contest. The Baltimore Ravens placed a bounty on Ward, to which the former Super Bowl MVP responded, “Bring it on.” He was voted the smartest offensive player in the NFL (non-quarterbacks) and is considered the best blocking receiver in the NFL.
38. Don Meredith, Quarterback, Dallas Cowboys (1960-1968)
“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
37. Ernie Stautner, Defensive Tackle, Pittsburgh Steelers (1950-1963)
“Ernie Stautner comes in the huddle, and his thumb is broken back against his wrist. There's a tear near the break, and his bone is sticking out. He has a compound fracture of the thumb. He takes his thumb in his hand and wrenches it down into his fist. Doesn't show it to anybody. Doesn't say anything.
So he stayed there for the rest of the series, and then we came off, and I'm watching him because I'm the only guy who saw that he had a compound fracture. I saw the bone. So I'm figuring now he's going to ask for the doctor, and he may have to go to the hospital because this thing could get infected, and he says, “Give me some tape.” So they throw him some tape and he just starts taping this huge ball. He makes this big fist. Then we go back in. He plays the entire game. Never misses a down. I'm just astounded, and he's using this hand that is broken as a club. He's beating people with it. After the game, we go into the locker room and he says, “Hey Doc, I think I got a problem.” —Andy Russell, linebacker
36. Jon Runyan, Tackle, Houston/Tennessee Oilers & Titans, Philadelphia Eagles (1996-present)
Runyan has started 180 consecutive games at right tackle, and has played in the postseason on seven occasions. He is regarded as the second dirtiest player in the NFL and a 2008 poll revealed that one of the scariest things in the NFL is being blocked by Runyan on a screen pass. He has played through numerous injuries, including a broken bone in his back.
35. Jack Youngblood, Defensive End, Los Angeles Rams (1971-1984)
Youngblood played the final three games of the 1979 NFL playoffs, including the Super Bowl against the Pittsburgh Steelers, with a heavily-taped broken leg. He was called the “John Wayne of Football” by John Madden.
34. Mark Bavaro, Tight End, New York Giants & Cleveland Browns & Philadelphia Eagles (1985-1990, 1992-1994)
Nicknamed “Rambo” for his tough play and physical resemblance to Sylvester Stallone, Bavaro broke seven tackles on one catch across the middle against the 49ers in a 1986 game. He dragged Ronnie Lott twenty yards. Bavaro's play inspired the Giants, who went on to win the game, and the Super Bowl.
NFL tough guy was fined for: kicking fullback Larry Centers in the head (1995); breaking Kerry Collins' jaw on a preseason helmet-to-helmet hit (1997); throwing a football at linebacker Bryan Cox and hitting him in the groin (1999); punching tight end Tony Gonzalez (1999); and breaking the eye socket of teammate Marcus Williams in a scrimmage, forcing him to retire (2003). He also received fines for three illegal hits in the 1999 season. In 1997, he spit in the face of wide receiver JJ Stokes. Romanowski played in 243 consecutive games, a record for a linebacker, and played for four Super Bowl champions.
32. Larry Wilson, Safety, St. Louis Cardinals (1960-1972)
Larry Wilson is best known for inventing the safety blitz. Wilson intercepted 52 passes in his career, but the one that stands out is the 91-yard interception touchdown from 1965—a pass he intercepted despite casts on both of his broken hands. Hall of Fame quarterback Bobby Layne has called Wilson “pound for pound the toughest player in the NFL.”
Dobler, in an ESPN poll, was named the dirtiest professional athlete of all time. He spent the week prior to a game building up his hatred over the opponent. Among Dobler’s principal offenses were biting, gouging, punching, kicking, and grabbing the face mask. In 1974, he used a cast on his broken left hand as a weapon. Dobler punched Pittsburgh’s Mean Joe Greene in the solar plexus and kicked the Rams’ Merlin Olsen in the head. He spit in the face of Eagles’ safety Bill Bradley as he lay injured on the ground. When Giants defensive tackle Jim Pietrzak wished him good luck in the playoffs, he punched him. He bit one tackle so many times that the player requested a rabies shot. Dobler swore that he would never intentionally blind someone, only blur their vision.
30. Deacon Jones, Defensive End, Los Angeles Rams & San Diego Chargers & Washington Redskins (1961-1974)
The NFL's unofficial record-holder with 26 sacks in the 1967 season, Deacon coined the term “sack.” Jones said that toughness is defined not by playing through pain, but by avoiding pain in the first place. Deacon perfected the “head slap,” a move that would be eventually banned by the NFL because it was “too effective.”
29. Walt Garrison, Running Back, Dallas Cowboys (1966-1974)
In a playoff game in 1970, Garrison broke three ribs in the first quarter and continued playing after he was carried off the field. He rushed for over 100 yards, caught several passes, and helped the Cowboys continue their path to the Super Bowl. Garrison has also played through a separated shoulder, a severely broken nose and a broken collarbone. Teammate Charlie Waters recalls the time that Garrison accidentally cut his thumb with a knife so that it was dangling from his hand. Garrison wrapped his thumb in tape and played the next day, rushing for over 100 yards.
28. Walter Payton, Running Back, Chicago Bears (1975-1987)
Gary Fencik: “I had the displeasure of tackling, by accident, Walter only once in my 12-year career. And boy, the rest of the day was hell for me.” The ironic part? Fencik, a Bears safety, speaks about a hit that occurred in practice.
27. Jerry Kramer, Guard & Kicker, Green Bay Packers (1958-1968)
Kramer endured 23 operations and required over 500 stitches in his NFL career, including a colostomy, which he described as “a horror movie that hasn't been made yet.”
26. Jim Marshall, Defensive End, Minnesota Vikings (1960-1979)
Could someone please explain to me why Jim Marshall is not in the Hall of Fame? As a 248-pound defensive end, he played in 282 consecutive games. Every game. For 19 straight seasons. He maintained his streak despite pneumonia, an ulcer, and a shotgun wound to the side. Marshall earned his fame as a member of the Purple People Eaters of the early 1970s.
Curtis was nicknamed “The Animal” and was one of the angriest men to ever play in the NFL. He was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Year in 1970 and once knocked unconscious a fan who entered onto the playing field during a game. He chewed through the bars of his face mask and reportedly ate the window panes of the team bus. He proudly stated that he played football because it was the only way he could hit someone and get away with it.
24. George Trafton, Center, Chicago Bears (1920-1921, 1923-1932)
Red Grange called George Trafton the “toughest, meanest, most ornery critter alive.” The 235-pound center had his college days cut short after he was expelled from Notre Dame and was considered the dirtiest player of his time. Trafton played before the NFL enforced late-hit, roughing, or unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. As a rookie in 1920, he angered the Rock Island Independents so bad that they sent four players into the game on a mission to destroy Trafton. Within 12 plays, Trafton had knocked each player out of the game, sending one of them to the hospital with a broken hand and an 11-inch cut across the forehead. Nicknamed “The Brute,” Trafton broke the leg and ended the career of halfback Fred Chicken by throwing him into a fence. The Rock Island fans were so angered that a rock-throwing mob chased him from the field.
Ronnie Lott was a cornerback who hit like a linebacker. His claim to fame occurred in 1985 when his left pinkie was caught between the shoulder pads and helmet of Cowboys running back Timmy Newsome, shattering the bone. When Lott’s finger didn’t heal properly, he told the doctors to cut it off, and they amputated his pinkie at the third knuckle. Over his 14-year career, which included Pro Bowl selections at safety, cornerback, and linebacker, Lott endured many injuries, including a broken leg and torn knee cartilage.
22. Bucko Kilroy, Guard, Philadelphia Eagles (1943-1955)
Giants lineman Al DeRogatis once accused Kilroy of biting him on the nose. Kilroy denied the charge. “I didn't bite his nose,” he said. “I bit his ear.” Kilroy, who played back in the days when offensive linemen weren't allowed to extend their arms to block, was considered the dirtiest player in the NFL, and he helped Philadelphia win back-to-back NFL championships.
21. Jim Brown, Running Back, Cleveland Browns (1957-1965)
Arguably the greatest combination of power and speed the game has ever seen, Brown missed one game in his nine-year career. He won eight rushing titles before abruptly retiring at the age of 30. He gave the following advice to future Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey: “Make sure when anyone tackles you he remembers how much it hurts.”
20. Emmitt Smith, Running Back, Dallas Cowboys & Arizona Cardinals (1990-2004)
Emmitt Smith transformed the epitome of toughness on national television in the last game of the season in 1993. With the Cowboys and Giants fighting for the NFC East and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, Emmitt played the entire game with a sprained and separated right shoulder. He ran 32 times for 168 yards and caught 10 balls for 61 yards. The Cowboys won the game, earned home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and captured the Super Bowl title. When asked why he played through the pain, instead of watching from the sidelines, Smith calmly responded, “This is why they pay me.”
19. Steve McNair, Quarterback, Houston/Tennessee Oilers & Titans & Baltimore Ravens (1995-2007)
Steve McNair is the definition of playing through pain. The former Titans star quarterback has injured nearly every part of his body at one time or another. He has played through numerous injuries such as a separated right clavicle, an infected right shoulder, a dislocated ring finger on his right hand, torn cartilage in his right knee, a strained calf, a hip pointer, a ruptured disk, back spasms, strained rib cartilage, severely bruised ribs, a left knee sprain, an MCL sprain, a left ankle sprain, severe turf toe, a cracked bone spur in his left ankle, a bone spur in his toe, and a severely bruised sternum. The 2003 NFL MVP, McNair has never missed a playoff start and led the Titans to the Super Bowl in 1999.
18. Dick Plasman, Wide Receiver, Chicago Bears & Chicago Cardinals (1937-1947)
Plasman refused to wear a helmet. Flat-out refused—that is, until the league made him. Teammate Hugh Gallarneau claims that, “He had a piece of cement for a head.” He once dove into a brick wall attempting to catch a pass, busted open his head, and was carried off semiconscious. His first words: “Did we score?” Believe it or not, Plasman suffered from blindness and post-concussion syndrome until his death at age 67 in 1981.
17. Larry Csonka, Fullback, Miami Dolphins & New York Giants (1968-1974, 1976-1979)
Csonka was a bull in a china shop. He was one of the best 4th-and-1 runners in NFL history. Csonka also broke his nose 10 times in his career, causing it to be permanently deformed, and would remain in the game despite blood pouring out of it. In 1972, he thought he broke his back on a hit by a Minnesota Vikings linebacker, so he crawled off the field. Minutes later, he set up the winning touchdown with a fake handoff. Csonka is also the only player in the history of the NFL to be penalized while carrying the ball—a forearm shot/right cross that knocked a safety unconscious.
16. Rocky Bleier, Running Back, Pittsburgh Steelers (1968, 1971-1980)
Bleier's story is one of the greatest in the history of sports. He was drafted into the U.S. Army after his rookie season and endured shrapnel wounds to his right leg. Told by doctors that he would never play football again, Bleier, recipient of the Purple Heart and Bronze Star, spent two full years attempting to return to the NFL. He finally returned after a three-year absence. Bleier eventually played on four Super Bowl championships and earned a reputation as both a fearsome blocker and a powerful runner. Today, he tours the country giving motivational speeches.
15. Jack Tatum, Safety, Oakland Raiders & Houston Oilers (1971-1980)
He was nicknamed “The Assassin.” He knocked out future Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey in the first game of his career. He knocked the helmet off Minnesota receiver Sammy White in the Super Bowl—probably the hardest hit I have ever seen. He paralyzed wide receiver Darryl Stingley in a preseason game in 1978 on a clean hit. He liked to think that his best hits border on “felonious assault.”
14. Mel Hein, Center, New York Giants (1931-1945)
Hein played fifteen seasons with the Giants and never missed a play. He only called timeout one time and that was to reset his broken nose. Hein remains the only offensive linemen to ever win the MVP award (1938).
13. Bob Lilly, Defensive Tackle, Dallas Cowboys (1961-1974)
In his 14 seasons, Lilly never missed a game. Not one. He endured torn-up knees, broken hands, broken ribs, and an acutely-painful hamstring tear but never missed a game. He played in 11 Pro Bowls and is considered one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history.
12. Tommy McDonald, Wide Receiver, Philadelphia Eagles & Dallas Cowboys & Los Angeles Rams & Atlanta Falcons & Cleveland Browns (1957-1968)
McDonald was the last NFL player to not wear a facemask. In one game, he was knocked unconscious by a 49er defender. With a broken jaw wired shut, McDonald could only drink milkshakes and watched his weight plummet from 175 to 143. In the Eagles' next game, against the Giants, McDonald caught three touchdowns and returned a punt 81 yards for a touchdown. McDonald suffered exactly zero broken noses and knocked out teeth in his career.
11. Earl Campbell, Running Back, Houston Oilers & New Orleans Saints (1978-1985)
“I can't think of anyone who even comes in a close second, when you say, “Running backs—who really hurts? It's Earl Campbell.” --Gary Fencik, safety
10. Chuck Bednarik, Center & Linebacker, Philadelphia Eagles (1949-1962)
“The greatest collision of all time was Bednarik hitting Gifford. It was a good, clean hit. Nothing dirty about it. I thought he killed Frank. I walked by Frank, and he was laid out. He missed the whole next year of football. You couldn't be upset about the hit; it was clean and legal.” --Sam Huff
Bednarik was the last NFL player to play offense and defense. He led the Eagles to championships in 1949 and 1960. He had a game-winning tackle of future Hall of Fame running back Jim Taylor in the closing seconds of the Eagles 17-13 win in 1960. Bednarik was nicknamed “Concrete Charlie” and to me, will always be known for the phrase I heard him say at training camp one year: “Today's football players are underplayed and overpaid.”
9. Hardy Brown, Linebacker, Brooklyn Dodgers & Chicago Hornets & Baltimore Colts & Washington Redskins & San Francisco 49ers & Chicago Cardinals & Denver Broncos (1948-1956, 1960)
190-pound linebacker Hardy Brown was the hardest-hitting player who ever lived. Hall of Fame linebacker Sam Huff said, “Hardy Brown was a designated hitter. He was not a great linebacker. Is he in the Hall of Fame? No. But I'll tell you what—he had more knockouts than any of us.” Brown fractured the face of an Eagles running back, broke another player’s vertebrae, and knocked a Steelers’ running back’s eye out of its socket. In 1951 alone, he knocked out 21 players. In one game, he knocked out the entire Washington Redskins backfield one by one. His famed right shoulder was responsible for dozens of broken noses and jaws. The origin of the since-outlawed helmet-to-helmet hit is sometimes traced to Brown.
8. Ray Lewis, Linebacker, Baltimore Ravens (1996-present)
The desire of Ray Lewis to be the greatest linebacker in NFL history is fueled by an inner toughness that manifests itself on the football field. Lewis is one of the greatest playmakers and natural team leaders the game has ever seen. Lewis's toughness peaked when he dislocated his elbow so seriously that a teammate was forced to help him put on his jewelry. Lewis missed two games, returned wearing a heavy brace, and registered 11 tackles against Pittsburgh. Ray Lewis has won a Super Bowl MVP, two Defensive Player of the Year awards, and has earned nine Pro Bowl invitations.
7. Bronko Nagurski, Running Back, Chicago Bears (1930-1937, 1943)
As Giants linebacker Johnny Dell Isola said during their playing days years ago, “I had heard a lot about him, but I thought most of it was exaggerated. We were at the Polo Grounds when I first ran up against him. It was 1st and 10, and they gave the ball to Nagurski up the middle. Well, a huge hole opened, and I saw him coming. I put my head down and charged into the hole. We met at the line of scrimmage, and you could hear the thud all over the Polo Grounds. I had my arms around his legs, and my shoulder dug into him. It was the hardest tackle I ever made, but I made it, and I said to myself, “Well, I guess that will show you, Nagurski!” Then as I was getting up, I heard the referee shout, “Second down and 2!”
George Halas: “Nagurski blasted through two would-be tacklers as though they were a pair of old saloon doors and kept on going right into the endzone. His head still down, Nagurski ran full speed into the brick outfield wall there at Wrigley Field. He went down, then got up and trotted off the field. As he approached me on the sideline, he shook his head and said, “That last guy really gave me a good lick, coach.' “
Nagurski once knocked unconscious four would-be tacklers on a kickoff return touchdown in his rookie season. Nagurski became a professional wrestler after his NFL career and was a two-time world heavyweight champion. In 1995, Nagurski was honored when the Football Writers Association of America voted to have his name attached to college football’s Defensive Player of the Year trophy.
6. Lawrence Taylor, Linebacker, New York Giants (1981-1993)
LT was easily the most disruptive defensive force in NFL history. He was double-teamed, every play, for his entire career. He played a game against the Saints with a dislocated shoulder. He recorded three sacks and forced two fumbles with a severely torn pectoral muscle. He played three games with a fractured tibia. He ended the career of MVP quarterback Joe Theismann with a compound leg fracture in a Monday Night game in 1985. Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett calls LT “an old-school player. He played with pain and didn't come out. He played the game like it was supposed to be played, with pain and passion.”
5. Johnny Unitas, Quarterback, Pittsburgh Steelers & Baltimore Colts & San Diego Chargers (1956-1974)
Unitas could intimidate without being one of the physical players. He played in an era when quarterbacks did not receive much protection, specifically on late hits. Throughout his Hall of Fame career, this three-time NFL MVP played with a number of injuries, including a badly broken nose, broken fingers, ripped arm tendons, and torn knee cartilage. In 1958, with three broken ribs and a punctured lung, he led the Colts to the NFL title while wearing a protective harness. Two years later Unitas played the entire season with a broken vertebrae. Unitas missed most of the 1968 season due to injury but returned in the Super Bowl to lead Baltimore on its only touchdown drive in a 16-7 loss to the Jets.
4. Joe Greene, Defensive Tackle, Pittsburgh Steelers (1969-1981)
Nicknamed “Mean," Joe Greene was one of only a handful of defensive players in NFL history who could singlehandedly change the outcome of a game. He helped the Steelers win four Super Bowl titles in a six-year span in the 1970's and is probably the most important player in team history. As a rookie, he was notorious for threatening veterans and starting fights in training camp. In a playoff game in 1972, Greene recorded five sacks, forced a fumble, recovered a fumble, and blocked a field goal in a 9-3 win vs. Houston. Greene was notorious for kicking a player when he was down and had to be ejected from a game in 1975 for repeatedly kicking a Cleveland Browns player in the groin. He defined toughness as, more of a mental aspect than a physical power, saying, “Toughness doesn't necessarily mean physical prowess; it's more mental.”
3. Jim Otto, Center, Oakland Raiders (1960-1974)
Otto played fifteen seasons and never missed a game, despite 10 broken noses and over 40 back, knee, and shoulder operations, including 28 to his knees alone. Otto now suffers from arthritis, and severe neck problems. He has fought off three life-threatening bouts of infections to his arthritic joints, and almost died on the handicapped table once. He had his right leg amputated in 2007. He said, “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.”
2. Brett Favre, Quarterback, Atlanta Falcons & Green Bay Packers & New York Jets (1991-present)
Favre has started 287 consecutive games, including the postseason, an all-time record for a quarterback. Favre has played through unbelievable injuries, including a broken and sprained thumb on his right hand, a badly sprained left ankle, a sprained left foot, a sprained left knee, a torn ligament in his left knee, a severely bruised left hip, and a separated left shoulder. He suffered a cracked vertebra, a concussion, and crushed intestines during a car crash before his senior year of college. He underwent surgery to have 30 inches of his intestines removed, and returned for the second game of the season. Favre has earned three MVP awards and led the Packers to a championship in 1996.
1. Dick Butkus, Linebacker, Chicago Bears (1965-1973)
Dick Butkus was the angriest, most ferocious, menacing, and yes, toughest player to ever play the game of football. Butkus's opponents claimed that Butkus was like an odor that you could feel or sense on the field. Anything loose—a knee pad, a shoe, a chin strap—would be ripped off by a Butkus tackle. Butkus has bitten officials, bitten opponents in the groin, scratched, punched, everything. Going across the middle against Dick Butkus was considered attempted suicide. Butkus was a turnover machine and earned eight Pro Bowl selections in his nine seasons. Steve Sabol had the following to say about Butkus: “His career stands as the most sustained work of devastation ever committed on any field of sport, anywhere, any time.”
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