Toughest Football Players in NFL History

Joe Kapp, Quarterback

Minnesota Vikings quarterbackJoe Kapp carries the ball against the Green Bay Packers in 1967.

Joe Kapp spent the brunt of his career in Canada, where he was a Grey Cup champion, but the brute quarterback left an indelible imprint in his four NFL seasons. Actually, it was more like a purple bruise. At 215 pounds, the Vikings' inspirational leader often led with his head on draws, sneaks, sweeps and rollouts.

"A hell of a leader," teammate Dale Hackbart called him in Sports Illustrated. "He picked us up. There are three kinds of quarterbacks. There’s the brain like Bart Starr and the arm like Joe Namath and the leader like Joe Kapp."

In the 1969 season, Kapp guided the Vikings to the first Super Bowl in their history. He punched their ticket against the Cleveland Browns one week earlier, when he knocked out linebacker Jim Houston despite a 25-pound disadvantage.

Ernie Stautner, Defensive Tackle/End

Ernie Stautner at Boston College in 1948.

Ernie Stautner made his Hall of Fame name through savvy, quickness and dogged determination. That was the only way he could last 14 seasons as a 230-pound defensive lineman.

In "Passion For Sports," teammate Andy Russell recounted the time that Stautner had a thumb problem of some sort. Upon further review, Russell noticed a bone had pierced the skin, but the veteran continued to play on without a word.  

When the defensive unit returned to the sideline, Russell assumed that Stautner would seek medical attention for what looked to be a compound fracture. Except that all Stautner would say was, "Gimme some tape."

Then Stautner rolled the hand into a ball that he used as a club for the rest of the game.

Y.A. Tittle, Quarterback

New York Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle squats on the field after being hit hard while passing during a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh in 1964.

Y.A. Tittle hated "The Blood Picture," as the quarterback called it, but it would define his career.

The gruesome image showed the fearless pocket passer in a daze after a sack, hands on knees, while blood streamed down his bald head. He suffered a concussion and cracked sternum on the play. Then led the Giants to a victory the next week.  

Tittle wasn’t called "Old Reliable" for nothing, you know.

Reggie White, Defensive End/Tackle

Green Bay Packers defensive end Reggie White pressures Carolina Panthers quarterback Kerry Collins in 1997.

Mention Reggie White and words like "passionate" and "relentless" immediately come to mind. The "Minister of Defense" had a motor that wouldn’t quit until the final whistle. Consider that he started every game in 11 of his 15 seasons, and his compete level was even more remarkable.

White once pulled his hamstring so severely that the team medical staff feared a complete tear that would require a lengthy rehab period. Only a higher authority believed otherwise, apparently. The future Hall of Fame played through the injury without a setback, a remarkable recovery that he credited to the power of prayer.

Kam Chancellor, Safety

Seattle Seahawks strong safety Kam Chancellor knocks the ball loose from Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson in 2015.

Kam Chancellor was the Seahawks' gatekeeper of  Super Bowls past, the ballhawking, ball-busting strong safety who put the boom in the "Legion of Doom."

Here’s what Atlanta Falcons coach and former Seahawks defensive coordinator coach Dan Quinn had to say about Chancellor:

"He’s an impactful guy on and off the field. He’s an excellent player, and as good a player as he is, he’s that and more as a teammate. There’s been a couple of guys who have stood out as leaders, and his toughness is what totally sets him apart."

Bronko Nagurski, Fullback/Linebacker

Bronko Nagurski, with the Chicago Bears, in 1943.

Chicago Bears coach/owner George Halas once remarked that Nagurski "blasted through would-be tacklers as though they were a pair of old saloon doors." Papa Bear nailed it. The 226-pound brute knew only one direction — straight ahead.

Problem was, Nagurski wouldn’t stop until he ran headfirst into the brick wall at Wrigley Field, as he did at least once in his nine seasons. When Nagurski was unable to squeeze a dime out of tight-fisted management prior to the 1938 season, he went on to become a two-time championship wrestler.

And the NCAA thought so highly of him, it named college football's Defensive Player of the Year Award after him.

Ray Nitschke, Linebacker

Green Bay Packers middle linebacker Ray Nitschke in 1965.

That Ray Nitschke played every game in a borderline rage should have come as no surprise. The converted fullback spent his formative years on the mean side of Chicago, most of them without parents, who both passed away before he was in high school.

The transformation from a rookie named "Wildman" to Pro Bowl middle linebacker didn’t come easily. It wasn’t until Nitschke laid off the booze, hooked up with coach Vince Lombardi and hit the film room that he came into his own. But the hyper-aggressiveness and mean streak never left him.

As Nitschke once explained, "I’ve always learned that the best way to play the game is to hit your opponent a little harder than he hits you. It’s self-preservation."

Marshawn Lynch, Running Back

Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch, center, runs against the Los Angeles Chargers in 2017.

For those who butted heads against him, Marshawn Lynch was about as much fun as a colonoscopy in his heyday. The 215-pound "Beast Mode" scattered would-be tacklers like Skittles, his other addiction of choice.

In his best four-year period, Lynch scored 56 touchdowns. Twenty-three were runs of three yards or less. The man was made for short-yardage situations. Like second-and-goal at the 1-yard line in the final minute of a close game, for instance. The Seahawks faced that exact situation with Super Bowl XLIV on the line.

But rather than hand the ball to Beast Mode in a closed formation, the offense did the unthinkable — threw an interception out of a spread alignment instead. It’s just not right that Beast Mode will be remembered for the touchdown that he didn’t score, not for any of the ones that he did.

Jack Lambert, Linebacker

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert during a game against the Seattle Seahawks in 1977.

Lynn Swann was Super Bowl IX Most Valuable Player, but Lambert was the emotional MVP. In the second quarter, Cowboys toughie Cliff Harris chided the Steelers' placekicker after a shanked field field. "Jack Splat" immediately stepped in, threw Harris on his ass, then added a few choice words, punctuated by a pointed finger. From that point on, the Cowboys melted into a puddle.

Lambert had that way about him. All 220 tall, skinny pounds of him. What the middle linebacker lacked in beef, he more than made up for in testosterone. "Count Dracula" was a scary sight, what with his absent front teeth, but he also packed underrated smarts. The guy was an inspiration all over the field.

Lawrence Taylor, Linebacker

New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor in a 1986 game.

Know that video, the one in which Lawrence Taylor implores teammates, "Hey, baby, let’s go out there like a bunch of crazed dogs!"? Well, L.T. was more like a Doberman on steroids —  muscular and powerful with the speed, intimidation and endurance to match.

You never, ever wanted to rile the guy, because as linebacker Harry Carson said of his teammate, "When he got angry, he got angry."

So relentless and sometimes reckless was his approach, Taylor played through a slew of injuries over 13 seasons. In 1988, he famously tore shoulder ligaments and detached a pectoral muscle against the Saints in New Orleans. L.T. remained in the game with the help of a harness that kept the limb in place. He finished with seven tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles in a 13-12 victory.

Chuck Bednarik, Linebacker/Center

Chuck Bednarik's famous hit on Frank Gifford.

Chuck Bednarik was tougher than rump roast. He was the last of the full-time two-way players, a center on offense and linebacker on defense. It was hard enough to deal with "Concrete Charlie" for 30 minutes. Imagine what it was like for 60.

The clean lick that Bednarik put on Frank Gifford late in the 1960 season was No. 1 on his greatest hits album. The blow was so wicked that the concussed New York Giants star returned as a flanker. Twenty months later.

Bednarik scored his most significant tackle in the league championship game only weeks later. He brought down Green Bay Packers fullback Jim Taylor on the final play then announced, "This game is o-vah!"

That was Concrete Charlie all right — hard and to the point.

Ronnie Lott, Safety/Cornerback

San Francisco 49ers safety Ronnie Lott waits for the snap against the Washington Redskins during a 1990 NFC divisional playoff game.

There are tough guys, there are maniacs, and there are just plain sickos. And then there was Ronnie Lott, the uber-competitive cornerback/safety who was a lot of all three.  

That became painfully apparent in the final game of the 1985 regular season, when Lott had his left pinkie badly fractured, one of several serious injuries in his career. Either the future Hall of Famer would have a surgical procedure and sit out the playoffs, or he would have the digit amputated at the third knuckle and continue to play. Lott did the almost unthinkable and played the next week.

Years later, Lott said he regretted the unkindest cut of all. But consider what made the guy tick inside — and it’s even money that he would do it by himself next time.

Joe Greene, Defensive Tackle

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle "Mean" Joe Greene looks to bring the pain against the Dallas Cowboys in 1972.

Watch game films of Joe Greene in his athletic prime, and you see a 6-foot-4, 275-pound man who couldn’t be blocked. "Mean Joe" could shoot the gap to take down the ballcarrier on one play, run down the quarterback on the next, swat aside a pass attempt on the next. The guy just didn’t play fair.

Midway through his career, Greene began to line up at a 45-degree angle over the center. The so-called tilted nose alignment was a stroke of genius for the "Steel Curtain" defense, but for Mean Joe, not so much. Because opponents had no choice except to put two or three blockers on him regularly, his left shoulder was pounded on repeatedly for years.

Greene played in the first 91 games of his career before a pinched nerve in the shoulder grounded him for a brief time in the 1975 season. The pain never went away. Even with one functional arm, he remained the heartbeat of two more Super Bowl championship teams, a testament to his legendary strength and steely resolve.

Dick Butkus, Linebacker

Chcago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus doesn't agree with an official's call during a game against the Cleveland Browns in 1967.

If the NFL ever wanted to do away with those silly dances, it would only have to ask Mr. Buttkick, er, Butkus to intervene.

"If a guy celebrated like that on me, I’d wait for the next series of downs and do a little celebration of my own on him," Mr. Butkus once said on a CBS telecast. "Then after he woke up — if he did — I’d say, 'Well, want to dance some more, hot dog?' "

Mr. Butkus was so nasty he intimidated intimidators. That larger-than-life persona tended to overshadow his skills on the field, where he recovered 25 fumbles and probably forced at least that many over nine seasons. He did all this with chronic knee issues that forced an early retirement.


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