Football is a violent sport. That's why players wear pads and helmets. But sometimes all that equipment still isn't enough to protect players from each other.
Some guys just push the violence a little too far. They draw penalties and get branded by opposing players and coaches as "dirty." Throughout the history of the game, there were lots of players who would be fined, penalized, and ejected from the league. But back in the day, it was perfectly acceptable to head-slap an offensive lineman (Deacon Jones's patented move, later banned). In the early Super Bowl era, "dirty" by today's standard was the norm. There was no offensive PI. Contact after 5 yards? No problem, as long as the ball wasn't in the air. The game was more physical, more aggressive. But some players from that era stood above the rest with their violent, dangerous, and overly-aggressive play.
Given that the earlier game was much more rough and refs were more willing to let the big hit go, its harder to discern between a cheap shot and a hard hit in that time, but there were several guys from back then who stood above the rest. As for current, or recently retired, players, there are enough guys who have rules named after them, or have a yearly nomination for League's Dirtiest Player. So without any further ado, my short list of prominent Dirty Players in NFL History.
Quite possibly the dirtiest guy ever to play in the NFL. In the 70s, when it was acceptable to horse-collar players, Dobler took it to the next level. As an offensive lineman, when a defender put his hands up to swat a pass, he'd punch them in the stomach. Spitting on injured players, kicking Merlin Olsen in the head, even punching Mean Joe Greene. Dobler did whatever he had to, whatever he wanted to, to whoever he wanted to. Conrad Dobler was the dirtiest player EVER.
Vicious hits, including a helmet-to-helmet on Jerry Rice, earned him suspensions galore and nearly a quarter million dollars worth of fines from the NFL. Frequently topped the NFL's Dirtiest Player poll throughout his 15 year career.
The definition of dirty. This guy didn't just cheap-shot opposing players, even his teammates weren't safe. He broke Kerry Collins' jaw in a preseason game, spat in J.J. Stokes' face for taunting him, threw punches at more players than he could count. Oh, yeah.. and he beat up a backup tight end on HIS OWN TEAM so bad he had to retire. He tore the guy's helmet off and punched him in the eye, breaking his eye socket. HIS OWN TEAMMATE. And he threw a football at Bryan Cox and hit him in the junk. That's kinda funny, actually.
Until Albert Haynesworth stomped Andre Gurode's unprotected head, Charles Martin had the longest suspension ever given out by the NFL. As a defensive end for the Packers, he wore a towel with Bears players' numbers on them: a hit list. His career was short, but he makes this list for picking up Jim McMahon and spiking him on the ground from behind, ending his season.
Quite simply the epitome of the cheap shot. Hines Ward will take out any defender, as long as the guy can't see it coming. Frequent blindside blocks that have led to penalties, fines and injuries, and Hines Ward feels no remorse. His excuse is that defenders bring the heat when he goes over the middle. But Hines, the difference is that you know its coming. Drilling a guy through his earhole when the ball is on the other side of the field is a little different. Just like Rodney Harrison, a great player who just doesn't know when to tone it down a little, he's usually at or near the top of the Dirtiest Player poll.
Nicknamed "The Assassin." Paralyzed Darryl Stingley in a preseason game. Nearly beheaded Sammy White in SB XI, one of the biggest hits in Super Bowl history. Do I need to say more?
Steve Wisniewski was another dirty lineman. He made a name for himself by cut-blocking, crackback blocking, and eye-gouging whoever got in his way. Any defender's knees were fair game, and The Wiz wasn't afraid to go right through them.
I'm sure there are plenty of others that didn't make my list. Feel free to throw your own choices into the discussion.