When we think of the word “legend,” there are a number of things that come to mind. We think of luminaries of their craft, who have had such a profound effect in their field that they will never be forgotten. These men and women stand head and shoulders above all in front of them, and those alongside them. They exemplify what it means to be special. They are the icons for millions of adoring fans and observers.
In football, we have been blessed with a number of incredible athletes over the years. It can often seem that this sport, or this most American of sports, produces greatness. It is almost like a conveyor belt of athletic perfection. From the quarterback with superhuman vision and an arm to die for to the running back who can make the smallest margins count, there are no sportsmen in the world like NFL footballers.
Only a small number of humans have what it takes to play pro football. An even smaller number possess the talent, grit, mental strength, and athleticism to achieve. When all is said and done, there are only a handful of players who can take their place in that pantheon of legends. These iconic men are the torch holders in a sport full of the highest caliber of talent.
Below, we will take a look at what it takes to be considered a legend. We will also identify some of the greatest men to have ever made the walk onto the field of play in the NFL.
History and folklore are awash with tales of gallant men and women who stood out among other mortals. From David and Goliath to Alexander the Great, these accounts have provided the human race with something to aspire to. Whether it was overcoming adversity, or snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, these stories are passed on through generations as examples when we need encouragement.
There is no doubt that the Alexander the Greats and Davids of the NFL would have found inspiration from many legendary tales. The irony is that they have lived their own version of many legends on their way to entering the history books, for their own distinct reasons. If you are thinking that it is a little far-fetched to describe athletes in the same breath as these guys, you obviously don’t watch enough football.
If you are as passionate about America’s national sport as we are, you will truly understand the influence of the Spartans and gladiators of the game. You will bow your head at the genius and glory of the legends of the sport, even if they represent your rivals. You will respect those who have made our sport the envy of the world and pay these men their dues.
From Johnny Unitas and Tom Brady being considered too small to play at the highest levels to stories of poverty and humble beginnings, many of the greats had to endure hardship. It can be tempting to think that these demigods of professional sports have always had things their way, but you would be very surprised to learn of the trials and tribulations America’s heroes have suffered.
The path to greatness is never straightforward. It is paved with fool’s gold and with twists, turns, and tests that separate the strong from the weak. There have been thousands of football players who have had the skills and talent to become legendary quarterbacks or wide receivers, yet just lacked the qualities that can turn an average man into a legend.
These features and attributes are what separate the best from the rest. Talent can only take a man so far. It is that little bit extra, especially in the face of danger, that can lead to the ultimate glory in football. The question is, what are these attributes and can we associate them to the great men in NFL history?
What does it take to be a legend of the NFL? That question alone comes with an unimaginable number of tangibles and points of consideration. For a start, there are many different positions out there, that all require a player to possess a number of unique qualities depending on where they play. What would make a great quarterback would not make a great linebacker.
However, it is far behind the arm strength, core strength, speed, or explosiveness that defines a true great. There are attributes which, for the most part, are learned in the harsh realities of life. Whether it is the reluctance to ever accept no for an answer, or the ability to dig into the deepest, darkest parts of the soul to find a spark of inspiration that can set a forest fire of hope around you and your team.
In the next section, we will take a look at ten of the greatest legends to have ever played in the NFL. However, first, we will look at five of the most underrated values that each player on the list shares with the next.
It is easy to believe when everything is going right. A Sunday stroll in the park with your girl when you are all loved up, when the skies are blue and the sun is shining, makes it easy to smile and be certain of yourself. However, the true greats of the game can believe in themselves when things are not as pretty. Trailing the Super Bowl game by one score in the final seconds of the fourth quarter, with millions watching? Think about it.
Your father and mother, your girlfriend, everyone you have ever known, loved, and thought was a bit of a… you know. All eyes are on you, the pressure could cut through a rock, the smell of despair from your legions of fans in the air. It takes a truly special player to be able to deal with that without cracking. A legend, however, believes that it ain’t over until its over. They throw the winning pass with a couple of seconds to spare…
It takes a lot of heart and courage to face the tests that many of the true warriors of the NFL need to in every game in their career. The courage to face up to every single challenge set before them and beat it. The will to stare danger in the eye and slay the dragon in the belly of the beast. Think about it, and these guys have been there and worn the t-shirt.
Just like when it comes to belief, it takes a great mind to have courage when everything is falling apart. It is easy to be courageous when you are the only lion in sight. It is not until a number of contenders show up, baying for blood and aiming to strip you down to your bare bones when you know what courage us. Many of us will understand this concept only too well, while others will not appreciate how the law of the jungle truly works.
Have you ever heard of a legend that wasn’t a leader, in one way or another? All of the true greats in the NFL have had a natural leadership that has inspired all around them. Just think of Joe Montana’s ability to rise his troops up to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. That level of leadership that can open the gates of hell when it truly matters. The philosophy of all for one and one for all.
There is a reason why greatness doesn’t come around very often. When it comes to legends, they are even more of a seldom occurrence. A true leader with an abundance of skills far beyond what any other player in that position can do, with that streak of genius, is surely what helps us define what a leader is in the NFL. If anything, these 10 legends sum up what it means to have it all.
Given the incredible pool of talent the NFL has showcased over the years, it seems nigh impossible to whittle it down to just ten players. Nonetheless, competition is competition and this is, in its own way, the reason why these legends of football have been able to take their places in the pantheon of NFL legends. Yes, there are many more who can stake their claim for a place in this list, but we only have ten spots. Sorry.
In compiling this list, we have looked at a wide number of factors. Of course, achievements and accolades will play a massive part in choosing the greatest legends in NFL history. However, the attributes we discussed above – such as coolness in the face of pressure, the ability to carry a team, and the self-belief to make the impossible happen – all play a factor in deciding who makes the final cut.
Please note that this list, for the most part, is not in an order of the greatest legend in the sport. It is important, as football fans, to have your own allegiances to players. This becomes even more important when those players represent – or have represented – your franchise.
Let’s start with a Giant by the name of Taylor…
It is almost the general consensus among pundits that Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor is the greatest linebacker, if not, defensive player, to have ever played football. There are fewer players to have the immense impact (pun unintended) that Taylor had in his 13-year pro career. The New York Giants standout justified his place in the franchise, as he was everything a giant should be on the field of play.
Fearless and downright reckless, there was no man or beast that could intimidate Taylor. Although he started playing football at the age of 15, the Williamsburg, Virginia-native soon established himself as a talented player. At the University of North Carolina, Taylor became the team captain and set a number of defensive records. In 1980 Taylor made the Consensus All-American team and earned Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year.
However, it was at the New York Giants where Taylor would achieve legendary status. Known as “Godzilla” in his playing days, Taylor completely changed the role of linebacker. His size, speed, and absolute disregard for his own safety made him the boogeyman of quarterbacks. He set numerous defensive records and revolutionized the game in his own particular way.
Taylor achieved pretty much everything there is in football. With two Super Bowls, ten Pro Bowls, and an accolade list to die for, there is no doubt he is a legend of the game. Unfortunately, Taylor’s private life has not been too kind to his legacy. A number of incidents have threatened to affect his standing among football fans. However, as a player, he would surely make most fans’ lists of NFL legends.
At 6″ 5′ and 300 pounds, Reggie White was the nightmare of offensive linesmen in the NFL. Known affectionately as “The Minister of Defense,” White was an unstoppable force who played with an intensity that was incredible to watch. There are many NFL historians, pundits, players, coaches, and enthusiasts who will tell you White was the greatest defensive player of all time. They have a strong case to argue, that’s for sure.
For a start, the Chattanooga, Tennessee-native was arguably the greatest pass rusher in football history. He also adored the run. Despite his gargantuan size, he had a burst of speed that was terrifying. There is no doubt that a man of White’s size and speed is, in the most positive and affectionate way, a freak of nature. When it comes to the combination of size and athleticism, White broke the mold.
Over the years, the debate between Lawrence Taylor and Reggie White for the best defensive player of all time has become popular. White’s size would certainly give him the edge, in many regards. While Taylor had a reckless and vocally-intimidating style, White’s size and speed are legendary. Just ask any player tasked with running in his direction. It didn’t happen very often, that’s for sure. At least not voluntarily.
His eight-year stint at the Philadelphia Eagles is perhaps White’s greatest period of his NFL career.
Walter Payton is a name that will never be forgotten for as long as the NFL exists. “Sweetness” was simply one of the greatest running backs to ever grace the league, and one of the hardest working and intelligent footballers in the history of the game. Payton was a nine-time Pro Bowl selectee who retired in 1987 with one of the most impressive lists of achievements any player can boast.
It all started for Payton in Mississippi, where he made the All-Americans following a tremendous run for Jackson State University. He was a player par-excellence while at Jackson, where he attracted the eyes of many scouts down to his relentless work ethic and power. Chicago Bears snapped Payton up as the fourth overall pick in the 1975 Draft, which proved to be one of the greatest decisions the franchise ever made.
Just two seasons later, in 1977, he won the AP NFL Most Valuable Player Award. Payton stood out as one of the strongest running backs in the league, before solidifying himself as one of the greatest of all time. His “Never Die Easy” attitude and signature “stutter-step” moves made Payton a tremendous motivator to those around him and innovator for those who came after him. His legacy is still felt in and around Soldier Field.
Payton is a member of the NFL’s Team of the Decade for both the 1970’s and 1980’s. It was the latter decade when Payton won his first and only Super Bowl (XX) against the New England Patriots in 1985. A true legend and one of the most recognizable legends of the sport, Payton, unfortunately, passed away in Nov. 1999, aged just 45, from health complications.
There is no question that Jim Brown is one of the brightest legends in the history of the NFL. While many fans will know Brown for his successful acting career, make no mistake, there was no pretending when he hit the field in his playing days. At Syracuse, where he began his foray into football, Brown was a successful rusher who never took no for an answer. As a result, he broke several records towards being named an All-American.
It was at Cleveland Browns where he would carve out his name in NFL immortality, throughout the years of 1957 to 1965. A Pro Bowl invitee every single year of his career, Brown also claimed the AP NFL Most Valuable Player on three separate occasions. He held records in rushing yards among many other important areas on the field, which saw him considered by many critics as a candidate for the greatest of all time.
There are certainly many pundits and critics who believe that there was never a greater player than Jim Brown. His influence on fellow players was underrated until his championship-winning season with the Browns in 1964. Over the course of his nine seasons in the NFL, Brown led most rushing records by a long distance. His quality and productivity on the field set him apart from everyone else in his position in the NFL.
Brown’s stats were undeniably impressive. The former Browns man had 2,359 carries with 12, 312 rushing yards. He also scored 106 touchdowns, which – along with his carries and rushing yards – were record-breaking achievements in the NFL upon his retirement. He was also the only NFL player in history to average over 100 rushing yards per game, with 104.1. Jim Brown was the king of stats, and there are fewer greater legends to have ever played the game.
Throughout the history of the NFL, fewer quarterbacks have laid the foundations for how the game should be played quite like Johnny Unitas. In simple terms, “Johnny U,” also known by the moniker “The Golden Arm” was the quintessential example of all things quarterback. He had a great pass, unquestionable vision, and was as popular as they come in the NFL.
Unitas made his name with the Baltimore Colts, firmly establishing himself as the standout name in the franchise. He would go on to enjoy considerable success with the Colts, which culminated in a Super Bowl win (V). He was also named as the NFL’s Most Valuable Player on three occasions, in 1959, 1964, and 1967, respectively. While Unitas is considered one of the true all-time greats, things did not initially go his way.
Unitas’ first dream was to play for Notre Dame. However, upon trying out for the Fighting Irish, coach Frank Leahy allegedly claimed that he was “too skinny” and that he would “get murdered” out on the field. Unitas would instead represent the Louisville Cardinals and do pretty well for himself in the process, despite allegedly showing up to his first practice weighing just 145-pounds.
To put this into perspective, 145-pounds is the limit for an MMA featherweight. Despite seemingly having an inadequate build, Unitas showed signs of great skill and was often the best performer on a team that had flattered to deceive. Unitas signed fo Pittsburgh Steelers fresh out of college but was released not soon after. Having turned to construction work to feed his family, times looked bleak for the quarterback’s career.
It was in 1956 when legendary coach Weeb Ewbank of the Baltimore Colts snapped up Unitas, from under the nose of the Cleveland Browns. Despite throwing an intercept that led to a touchdown in his first start, Unitas established himself as a standout player at the Colts. He would be a major part of the team that would go on to beat the New York Giants for the NFL Championship in the “Greatest Game Ever Played” in 1958.
There are fewer players in the history of the NFL held with the reverence that Don Hutson is. Despite retiring in 1945, his name is one which is still brought up by fathers, uncles, and grandfather who simply know their football. Known as the Alabama Antelope, Hutson made his name at the Alabama Crimson Tide while studying at the University of Alabama in the 1930’s.
A national champion and consensus All-American while at Alabama, Hutson would join the Green Bay Packers. The Pine Bluff, Arkansas-native would embark on a legendary career which would see him heralded as one of the greatest ever players in football over the seven years of active play. Hutson is widely regarded as the first modern wide receiver and responsible for many of the passing routes that exist in football today.
He is still regarded as one of the greatest wide receivers in the history of the sport, which is pretty incredible given his pioneering efforts. At the time of his retirement in 1945, Hutson owned the vast majority of receiving records in the NFL, which included yards and touchdowns. His impact on the sport was truly legendary and helped to grow the sport in popularity as well as improve the way the wide receiver plays the sport.
With superb speed and offensive awareness that Hutson credited with playing with snakes as a boy, he could change a game in the blink of an eye. The records he set in his prime prove just how incredible a player he was and how he was lightyears ahead of his time. Simply one of the greatest players to have ever laced up boots and stepped on to a football field.
One year before his retirement as a player, Hutson became the assistant manager of the Packers. However, it was his playing career that set him out from the rest of the pack.
Another old-timer, but certainly a common name in the mix for the mantle of the G.O.A.T, the awesomely named Bart Starr is a true legend of the NFL. Until the arrival of a certain Tom Brady, Starr held the record for the most wins in the NFL championship, at five. Starr was simply an outrageously talented quarterback who redefined the skill-set required to play at the top levels of football.
Known as “America’s Quarterback,” the legendary star man of the Packers helped create one of the very first dynasties in the NFL. A legend on the field and off, Starr’s support of various charities, causes, and policies helped endear him to an audience far behind the average football fan. That being said, it will always be football that defines Bart Starr, and this is probably how the great man would have wanted it.
After all, it took only one year for Starr to help deliver the first championship game in Packers’ history, back in 1960, against the Philadelphia Eagles. Frustratingly enough for Starr and the Packers, they were beaten 17-13, even though they had outgained the Eagles by 401 yards to 296. The following year, the Packers were back in the championship game and blew away the New York Giants by 37-0.
This would be their first of five championships over the subsequent seven years, led by one of the greatest ever quarterbacks to grace the game of football. To deny his legacy is to have no idea about football at all. Starr was named as the Most Valuable Player of the very first two Super Bowls, taking the league MVP award in 1966. He is an all-time great and one of the very finest examples of a footballer and a gentleman to ever grace the NFL.
The greatest wide receiver of all time? That may be up for debate, according to some. What is not arguable is that Jerry Rice is a bona fide legend of football. In fact, Rice was so good that he still holds a number of NFL records despite retiring in 2004. The former 49ers star man is commonly in the discussion for the greatest players in football history, and his numbers prove just how incredible he was.
As with most great stories in football, Rice’s is pretty incredible. According to the Starkville, Mississippi-native, his mother refused to allow him to play football in his freshman year at school. When his principal caught him skipping school, Rice ran away. Pretty quickly. As such, the principal recommended him to his football coach in his sophomore year, and the rest, they say, is history.
Rice became a standout player at Mississippi Valley State University, which led to him being named as a first-team Division I-AA All-American. The future Hall of Famer was a record-breaking phenom, capable of anything. He struck up a legendary partnership with redshirt Willie Totten while at the University, which was named the “Satellite Express.” Rice earned the attention of NFL scouts, though some were apprehensive.
Despite being considered a little slow, the San Francisco 49ers traded their two draft picks to snap Rice from under the noses of the Dallas Cowboys. His first season was a little shakey, but Rice would eventually grow in stature. Over the next few seasons, the former Mississippi Valley standout would smash records in every department, establishing himself as one of the greatest players of all time.
To many NFL fans, Joe Montana is simply the greatest player to have ever played football. Despite the greatness that has come before and after Montana, his name is one of reverence. To those who witnessed “Joe Cool” in his prime playing days, Montana was certainly a revelation on the football field. His 16 seasons in the NFL were all worthy of consideration when it comes to the “G.O.A.T conversation.”
Montana is certainly one of the best – if not the very best – player to emerge from the halls of the world-famous Notre Dame. Having won a championship with the Fighting Irish, Montana would move to San Francisco 49ers in 1979, embarking on a career which would go down as one of the greatest in the history of the NFL. His achievements certainly blew most before him out of the water.
The New Eagle, Pennsylvania-native started and won four Super Bowls while at the 49’ers, becoming the first player to ever be named the Super Bowl MVP three times. He holds the record for most passes without an interception, at an incredible 122 in four games, with an all-time quarterback rating of… wait for it… 127.8. Pretty unbelievable stuff, all things considered.
What set Montana apart from his contemporaries was his sheer unwillingness to accept defeat. In his career, the Philadelphian lead his team to 32 wins despite trailing in the fourth quarter. His composure was legendary, which only complimented everything else that the standout quarterback had in his arsenal of weaponry. There is little doubt that Montana is one of the true legends of the NFL, and his stats prove this beyond any doubt.
For many NFL superfans, there has been no player to ever come close to achieving what Tom Brady has in football. What makes this all the more incredible is that Brady was seen as too slow, too small, and simply not good enough to cut it in the big leagues. Brady reportedly once told Patriots owner Robert Kraft that he was “the best decision” the New England Patriots “ever made.”
At that time, Brady was the Pats’ sixth-round draft choice and was far from the most exciting players in the roster. But, by God, were Brady’s words prophetic? There has never been a greater player in the franchise than Brady. A high number of football fans believe that there has never been a greater player in the league than Tom Brady, and his stats certainly support this argument.
Among his achievements are…
You know what? Brady is the greatest of all time. We’ve said it and don’t need to say anymore.
The pantheon of NFL legends is certainly a place reserved for only the truly remarkable. In a sport that is close to resembling the battle field, where the smallest margin separates glory from failure, it is no mean feat to frequently find success. Yet, these men have done the remarkable, they have fought to attain that glory, carrying their teams through the good and bad. What makes them different from others is that inner belief, courage, and resilience.
Of course, skill and talent are also in abundance. The NFL has seen its fair share of skilful and talented men, all battling their hearts out to be crowned kings at the end of the season. From the early days of the league to the modern age, the tales of triumph and of exceptional humans have been made into legends. In the future, these men will still be remembered for their contribution to the NFL.
They will represent the level and class that sets the bar for any young footballers hoping to replicate their achievements. They are, quite simply, the modern age legends who can be turned to for inspiration when all seems lost.