Toughness is hard to define, but you know it when you see it. It is not simply a physical trait, but a type of mental fortitude. These 10 players may not have been the strongest and they may not have been the absolute hardest hitters or tacklers. They were, however, renowned for their determination, grit and overall willingness to keep battling when the odds were stacked against them. Whether it was Brett Favre’s iron-man-like streak of consecutive games or Walter Payton’s battle against himself, each demonstrated a certain, unique aspect of toughness.
The legendary Bill Russell once stated, “Concentration and mental toughness are the margins of victory.” That is what made each of these 10 players so rare and irreplaceable- a certain type of mental strength that could propel their respective teams to victory. Football, like life, is a game of inches. These men were the essential cogs in the machine that forced it just that little bit further. Without them, their teams likely would have fallen just short.
One of the greatest examples of this mental toughness is Lawrence Taylor’s legendary game against the New Orleans Saints in 1988. However, we must remember and honor the toughness demonstrated off the field, particularly that of Walter Payton. It’s been said that “Scars show toughness: that you’ve been through it, and you’re still standing.” Each of these men have the literal and metaphorical scars to prove that they’ve been through it all and remained standing with their heads held high.
“Toughness is in the soul and spirit, not in muscles.” I disagree; it’s in both. One cannot completely distinguish between physical and mental toughness in the realm of football or life. That is because both forms of fortitude rely on one another so much.
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10 Dick Butkus
There’s a famous song by Johnny Cash and written by Shel Silverstein called “A Boy Named Sue” about an unfortunately named chap who must go through his entire life battling others due to his feminine title. Butkus’s parents may have had this track in mind when naming their poor son Dick Butkus. But, as with Sue, they may have understood that regrettable names sometimes produce battle-hardened men who have had to fight their whole way through life. Butkus suffered nothing but hardship, as despite a legendary career in Chicago, he never once got to play a single postseason game.
He once stated that, “When I went out on the field to warm up, I would manufacture things to make me mad. If someone on the other team was laughing, I'd pretend he was laughing at me or the Bears. It always worked for me."
9 Jack Lambert
Jack Lambert immediately won his way on to Pittsburgh’s starting defensive unit in his rookie year. He was assigned to the middle linebacker position and never looked back, retaining the position throughout his entire, 11-year career. Lambert was an integral part of the legendary “Steel Curtain” defense that would help Pittsburgh win four Super Bowls. Lambert possesses an impressive resume, including: NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1974, NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1976, nine consecutive Pro Bowl appearances, 28 career interceptions for 243 yards (including a game-saving pick late in the fourth quarter of his fourth Super Bowl) and 17 forced fumbles.
Perhaps most impressive was the fact that Lambert missed just six games due to injuries throughout his first 10 years in the NFL.
8 Anquan Boldin
If his on the field actions don’t demonstrate his tenacity, his off the field exploits certainly do. In 2012, Boldin and his former teammate Larry Fitzgerald flew to drought-stricken Ethiopia to help locals move rocks in order to generate more arable land. Boldin's attitude is reflected in this quote, “I wasn’t put on this earth just to play football.” Fitzgerald is widely regarded as perhaps the greatest receiver of his generation, but Boldin is undoubtedly the toughest.
Boldin became a national sensation in 2008 when he was knocked out following a vicious collision with Eric Smith of the New York Jets. Instead of sitting out the remainder of the season, which no one would have blamed him for, Boldin was back in the line-up just three weeks later with steel plates in his face and a steely resolve in his heart.
7 Mel Blount
Mel Blount, another key component of the dominant Steelers defenses of the 1970s, not only had to contend with receivers, but also rule changes that would favor the offense. Blount was renowned for his “bump-and-run”-style pass defense, but this was made illegal midway through his career. Blount’s reaction to this change, which could have dramatically and negatively altered the careers of many cornerbacks, demonstrates his high level of mental resilience and stamina. By the end of his career, Blount would have 57 interceptions for 736 yards, including at least one pick in all fourteen of his NFL seasons. His most important interception came in Super Bowl XIII against Dallas, which would eventually lead to the game-changing touchdown drive.
6 Mike Ditka
You know Mike Ditka is tough just by looking at him. Ditka revolutionized the tight end position, which was once an after-thought position on offense. Ditka possessed all the requisite talents for blocking as a tight end, but also demonstrated that the tight end could be a threat if one could simply catch the ball consistently. Ditka would go on to win rookie of the year after putting up over 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns during his inaugural year in Chicago. Ditka would play in 86 consecutive games from 1961 to 1967 and, after two-injury riddled years in Philadelphia, would regain his peak form in Dallas. It takes a lot to put up that type of streak as a tight end, but Ditka’s strength to come back after devastating injuries shows his true resilience.
5 Ronnie Lott
Ronnie Lott made an impression on his first day in the NFL. On his first day at training camp in San Francisco, Lott was named starting left cornerback. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame website, “It has been said that Lott had the uncanny ability of being able to sense the direction a play was about to take and then somehow disrupt it. 'He’s like a middle linebacker playing safety,’ Hall of Fame coach Tom Landry once remarked. "He’s devastating. He may dominate the secondary better than anyone I’ve seen."
Today, Lott is known for his uncanny business abilities and helps current athletes with their transitions into the business world. But his legacy was enshrined in the Hall because of those bone-crushing hits.
4 Deacon Jones
Deacon Jones, the man who invented the very term “quarterback sack”, was the definition of a sensational sleeper pick and may never have made it into the NFL were it not for the zeal and dedication of two L.A. Rams scouts. Eventually taken in the 14th round, Deacon caught the scouts’ attention when they noticed that the 272-pound, 6-foot-4 tackle was faster than most of the backs they had been tasked with observing.
Deacon’s resume includes: founding member of the “Fearsome Foursome”, being nicknamed “Secretary of Defense” by Los Angeles fans and named “Most Valuable Ram of All Time” by the LA Times; and was awarded “Defensive End of the Century” by SI in 1999.
3 Brett Favre
You can fault Brett Favre for a lot (and believe me I have), but you cannot question this man’s determination and dedication to football. Favre demonstrated toughness from a young age as the second of four boys of a “tough-nosed football coach.” Favre would go on to start 297 consecutive games for the Green Bay Packers, then the New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings from September 20th, 1992 until December 13th, 2010. This incredible, iron-man record still stands today and included a Monday night game the day after his father passed away where Favre would throw for 399 yards and four touchdowns. “I think my stubbornness, hardheadedness and stupidity is what has allowed me to play for 20 years.” Favre was even asked by the St. Louis Rams to return to football in October of 2012 on the cusp of his 43rd birthday.
2 Walter Payton
Walter Payton was ironically named “Sweetness”, but, like many great heroes, he had a dark side that betrayed his lighthearted public persona. His biographer Jeff Pearlman has gone on record stating that Payton was suicidal and constantly abusing his pain medications. According to an interview given to Sports Illustrated by Payton’s longtime agent Bud Holmes, "Walter would call me all the time saying he was about to kill himself, he was tired. He was angry. Nobody loved him. He wanted to be dead."
Despite this inner turmoil, Payton always found time to focus on the needs of others, culminating with the establishment of the Walter & Connie Payton Foundation, which helps at-risk youth. Today, Payton is most well known for being the namesake of the prestigious Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, which annually honors an NFL player’s volunteer and charity work. Payton was the very definition of mental fortitude, as he never succumbed to the demons inside him and instead redoubled his efforts bringing light to the lives of others.
1 Lawrence Taylor
Lawrence Taylor is the greatest defensive NFL player who ever lived. Period. He revolutionized the outside linebacker position, transforming it from a more passive position that would simply react to the offense to a more assertive role on defense. Taylor is one of only two defensive players in history to have ever won MVP. During his MVP season, Taylor amassed a career-best 20.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, 105 total tackles, and five passes defended.
However, it was a 1988 game versus the New Orleans Saints where he laid his claim for the toughest player in NFL history. During the game, Taylor tore his pectoral muscle and yet remained in the game, donning a harness to keep his shoulder locked in place. The Giants would eventually win the game 13-12 and Taylor would secure a stunning three sacks, seven tackles and two forced fumbles.
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