Evan Habeeb, US Presswire

The Toughest Football Players The NFL Has Ever Seen

By: Mia Williams | Published: May 06, 2022

When it comes to the contact sport of American football, players need to be tough to withstand the aggressive nature of the sport. Whether they’re doing the tackling or getting tackled, each blow could be brutal both mentally and physically.

Out of all the players that have passed through the NFL, some have truly stood out for their resilience. From dealing with injuries and bouncing back to play their heart out, here are the toughest players the NFL has ever seen.

Emmitt Smith

The coaches at the University of Florida had no idea what was coming to them when Emmitt stepped onto the scene. While there, he broke several rushing records as a running back and was named All-American in 1989. Those accomplishments encouraged him to skip his senior year and enter the NFL draft.

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He was selected by the Dallas Cowboys as a first-round draft pick and went on to play for them for 13 seasons. When he retired in 2004, he had many records under his name, including All-Time Leading Rusher, most rushing touchdowns, most consecutive games with a rushing touchdown, and most 100-yard rushing games. Emmitt is a three-time Super Bowl champ, Super Bowl MVP, NFL MVP, Offensive Rookie of the Year, an eight-time Pro-Bowler, a six-time All-Pro, and so much more. Emmitt Smith is permanently on the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor.

George Blanda

When George started to get noticed as a University of Kentucky player, he surely had no idea how many records were ahead of him as a professional football player.

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George went on to set a record for most seasons played, 26, and was the oldest player upon retirement at 48. At that time, he also scored more points than anyone else ever. He was a quarterback for five different teams during his tenure. George also was awarded NFL Man of the Year in 1976, the year he retired after having started in 1949.

Cliff Harris

Throughout the entirety of the 70s, Captain Crash dominated as a safety for the Dallas Cowboys. He had the unusual talent of playing for both the offense and defense.

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During his time playing in the NFL, Cliff made it to five Super Bowls and six Pro Bowls in a row. We’re not saying it’s because he wore kid shoulder pads to make his hits more powerful, but we’re not, not, saying it either. As a Pro Football Hall of Famer, Cliff’s name rests permanently on the Ring of Honor at the Cowboy’s stadium.

Walt Garrison

Have you ever continued doing whatever activity you were involved in after breaking a bone or two? Walt has. This eight-year veteran played for the Dallas Cowboys and continued with a game after breaking his collarbone and ankle.

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Because in this line of work, it’s the touchdowns that matter. So, it probably isn’t a shock to learn he’s a Super Bowl winner and Pro-Bowler. He is in both the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame and the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame for pro rodeo.

Gino Marchetti

Gino began his 14-year career in the NFL  after enlisting in the army and fighting in WWII. He once commented that the discipline he learned from being part of the service was what helped propel him to take on things like college and eventually football.

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Picked in the second round of the 1952 draft, Gino played one year for the Dallas Texans and then the remainder of his career for the Baltimore Colts. He helped bring his team two NFL championships and was All-Pro 11 times, a Pro-Bowler 11 times, the 1950s All-Decade Team, and three All-Time Teams. The Baltimore Ravens have him memorialized in their Ring of Honor and the Colts have his #89 jersey retired.

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Ray Lewis

The University of Miami was taken by storm by this middle linebacker. Even though he only played in college for three years, he has the fifth-most tackles in Miami history. It was that love of the game that convinced him to opt-out of his senior year for a chance to be drafted into the NFL.

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His hunch was right, the Baltimore Ravens kept Ray in the game for the following 17 years. While playing for the NFL, he helped his team win two Super Bowls. On top of that, he was the Super Bowl MVP, twice the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, 10 times an All-Pro, 13 times Pro Bowler, and is currently in the Ravens Ring of Honor. Ray still holds three records: most combined tackles, most career solo tackles, and most solo tackles in a season.

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Joe Kapp

The Washington Redskins chose Joe during the draft of 1959. However, since they didn’t reach out to him, he actually started his professional football career for a team in Canada called the Calgary Stampeders.

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He ended up playing for two Canadian teams, the other being the British Colombia Lions. After having success across the border, Joe went to play for the Minnesota Vikings and later the Patriots. In over a decade of play, he is still the only quarterback to play in the Super and Rose Bowls as well as the Grey Cup.

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Ted Bruschi

While playing for the University of Arizona, Ted was twice All-American and a finalist for the Lombardi Award. When it was time to enter the draft, his record at school spoke for itself.

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The New England Patriots saw potential in this linebacker and picked him up in the third round. He spent the next 13 years with the same team and helped them win three Super Bowls. In addition, he was the 2005 Comeback Player of the Year, a Pro Bowler, twice an All-Pro, and eventually was inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame. Ted is now a coach for the Arizona Wildcats.

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Ernie Stautner

The German-born defensive tackle played in the NFL for the Pittsburg Steelers for 13 years. During that time, he took his team to the Super Bowl and won twice. Ernie was also nine times All-Pro, nine times a Pro Bowler, and awarded the Best Lineman in 1957.

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Once, after being injured so seriously that bone was exposed in his finger, he just asked for tape to close it up so he could keep playing. After retiring, he coached several teams over the next 30 years. Twenty-two of those years were spent with the Dallas Cowboys.

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Anquan Boldin

After being a standout for his Florida State University team, Anquan was drafted in the second round by the Arizona Cardinals. He started his professional career in 2003 and ended up taking his talents to five different teams over the span of his fourteen years in the league.

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nquan won awards as a wide receiver, including winning Rookie of the Year in 2003 and the Super Bowl in 2015. He also played in the Pro Bowl three times.

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Hardy Brown

It takes a lot of fierceness to be called the fifth most feared tackler of all time, so you already have an idea of what kind of player Hardy was. His professional playing began in 1948 with the Brooklyn Dodgers and continued through his time with the Denver Broncos in 1960.

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As a linebacker, Hardy had a signature push he did with his shoulder as he was barrelling through players. This was a sought-after trait throughout his 12 years in the NFL. There were seven teams he got to show off his experience with, and he was even a Pro Bowler in 1952. Unfortunately, the hard wear and tear on his shoulder left him with debilitating arthritis.

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Eli Manning

Playing 210 NFL games straight is quite a feat. After 16 years with the New York Giants, Eli retired in 2020. That came after many years of breaking records and winning championships.

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While he may not have gone out with a bang, Eli sure had some special highlights during his career in the NFL. To start with, as the quarterback, he won the Super Bowl twice and ended up being the MVP of both games. The famous footballer was actually only one of five players ever to be able to say that. He was also NFL Man of the year in 2016, a four-time Pro Bowler, and his #10 jersey was retired from the Giants.

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Bob St. Clair

Nothing says rough and tough like a man who devours raw meat. Bob did it so often that he was given a nickname in honor of his ways. “The Geek”, as he was referred to, once lost six teeth in one hit when he got a ball to the face.

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He is likely the only NFL member who played for the same town, in the same stadium for his entire career. Bob was a tackle that came in at six foot nine. The San Francisco 49ers kept him on the schedule for a decade, starting in 1953. Within that time, he was a Pro Bowler five times and All-Pro nine times.

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Bruce Smith

Only one player a year gets the distinction of being called a first-round, first pick. In 1985, that player was Bruce Smith. He was picked up by the Buffalo Bills, whom he went on to play for during the majority of his career.

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For almost two decades, Bruce was a rock star defensive end. He’s seen as one of the greatest the game has ever seen and still leads the league in quarterback sacks. Highlights of his career include being the NFL Defensive Player of the Year twice, 10 times All-Pro, 11 times a Pro Bowler, two All-Decade teams, and more. The Bills retired his #78 jersey with him, even though he played a few seasons for Washington.

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Drew Bledsoe

Before Tom Brady, there was another famous Patriot quarterback. This one was actually a first-round, first draft pick directly from college after he elected not to go his senior year.

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Through 13 years in the NFL, and three teams, it’s clear that there is no loyalty in business. Drew played his heart out for the Patriots for eight years before having an injury. While he was out for two months, Tom Brady stepped in. As it turned out, New England enjoyed their time with Tom and decided to trade Drew to the Buffalo Bills. Regardless, Drew is still a Super Bowl Champion.

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John Elway

There is the saddest club in the NFL where excellent quarterbacks never win the big game. It was beginning to look like John would be part of that group as he was nearing two decades on the field.

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Lucky for him, his luck turned around. Finally, he took the Denver Broncos to the Super Bowl and won twice. He was also the MVP for the last game. In addition, John was 1987’s MVP and 1992’s Man of the Year.

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Tommy McDonald

After playing college ball for the Oklahoma Sooners, Tommy was a third-round pick of the Eagles. It was in Philadelphia where he started his NFL career in 1957.

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Over the course of the next decade, Tommy played for big teams such as the Dallas Cowboys, Los Angeles Rams, Atlanta Falcons, and Cleveland Browns. He played both the halfback and flanker positions on the field. After retiring in 1968, he went on to become a member of the Pro Football and College Halls of Fame.

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Rodney Harrison

For 15 seasons, Rodney played with two different teams. To start off his career, he played with the San Diego Chargers in 1994, followed by the New England Patriots in 2003. He retired as a player in 2008.

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Both times he won the Super Bowl were with the Patriots. However, he also played in the Pro Bowl twice and was All-Pro three times. He is now part of the New England Patriots Hall of Fame.

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Jack Tatum

There are rough players, then there’s Jack, who played so severely that he was called The Assassin. His playing style went too far in 1978 when he went up against Patriots player Darryl Stingley so hard that THE wide receiver was paralyzed from the chest down.

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Despite his hard-hitting style, he played in the NFL for 10 seasons. He spent the majority of his time with the Oakland Raiders plus one season with the Houston Oilers. During that time, Jack helped his team win the Super Bowl and he was an All-Pro twice. He was also a Pro-Bowler three times.

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Lorenzo Neal

After doing well as both a football player and wrestler during college, Lorenzo went on to be drafted by the New Orleans Saints in 1993. Across 16 seasons, Lo played for eight different teams all over the country.

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He is considered to be one of the best fullbacks in history. Lorenzo played in the Pro Bowl four times, three times All-Pro, and was even on the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team.

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Bruce Matthews

Talk about a jack of all trades! Bruce did a little bit of everything during his NFL tenure. Over almost two decades, he played tackle, center, offensive lineman, and even offensive guard with the Houston Oilers turned Tennessee Titans.

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No calling out here, he was never injured and never missed a game. That means Bruce actually holds the record as the third most games ever started. While active, he was All-Pro nine times, a Pro Bowler 14 times, was on the 1990s All-Decade Team, and his #74 jersey was retired from the Titans. His career in the NFL started in 1983 but did not end when he retired as a player in 2001. He went on to coach two different teams between 2009 and 2013.

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Dick Butkus

Between the mid-60s and mid-70s, Dick was a powerhouse playing for the Chicago Bears. Due to his size and tenacity, this footballer is viewed as one of the most intimidating, yet impressive, linebackers of all time.

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As a linebacker, he was Defensive Player of the year twice, All-Pro eight times, Pro Bowler eight times, and part of two All-Decade Teams. His #51 jersey is retired from the Bears.

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Jackie Slater

Big Bad Jackie played 20 seasons for the same team in two different cities. That team was the Los Angeles Rams, who eventually moved to St. Louis. This offensive tackle started his career in 1976 after being drafted in the third round.

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Slater went on to play seven Pro Bowls and be inducted into the Hall of Fame. He also broke records, first as the most seasons with one team and second as the most consistent member of an offensive line in NFL history. His jersey number was retired when he stepped down from football.

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Joe Montana

For years, Cool Joe has been revered as the greatest football player ever. He was calm, cool, and collected on the field. Most importantly, he was focused on winning.

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The Comeback Kid’s career began in 1979 with the San Francisco 49ers. While there, he won four Super Bowls and ended up being the MVP of three of them. Joe was the Offensive and Comeback Player of the year in the late 80s. He won a plethora of awards and was part of many special teams.

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Lawrence Taylor

Although he’s encountered quite a bit of chaos in his personal life, Lawrence Taylor  is believed to be the best defensive player ever. Playing for the Giants led him to win two Super Bowls and be voted MVP as well as Defensive Player of the Year three times.

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In addition to being Rookie of the Year in 1981, he was All-Pro 10 times and a Pro Bowler 10 times. Lawrence ended his career as a Giants teammate during the 1993 season after having been in the NFL since 1981.

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Jim Marshall

Another player who started out in Canada, Jim, played for the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 1959. The following year, he entered the draft and was picked by the Cleveland Browns.

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That only lasted one year though. He played the rest of his career, almost two decades, with the Minnesota Vikings. It was with them he helped win the Super Bowl in 1969. Jim also played All-Pro three times and Pro Bowl twice. The #70 jersey was retired with him after the 1979 season. He is on the Minnesota Vikings Ring of Honor.

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Mark Bavaro

Mark was a fourth-round pick by the New York Giants after being a star on the field at Notre Dame. He began his career in the league in 1985. Bavaro helped take the Giants to and win the Super Bowl twice.

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He later played for the Cleveland Browns and the Philadelphia Eagles before retiring due to a knee injury after the 1994 season. Aside from the big game, he played All-Pro twice and in the Pro Bowl twice.

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Tom Brady

Tom made a lot of moves during his time at Michigan State. However, no one could have known what a storied career he’d end up having as a professional football player. When he was picked in the draft, it was during the sixth round and he was the 199th pick.

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The team that chose him was none other than the team he spent 20 seasons with, the New England Patriots. To date, Tom holds almost all of the quarterback records and most times as a Pro-Bowler. He has taken more than one team to the Super Bowl and has won seven times. What other awards has he stacked up? Five-time Super Bowl MVP, three-time NFL MVP, twice the Offensive Player of the Year, NFL Comeback Player of the Year 2009, All-Pro six times, Pro Bowl 15 times. Honestly, it just keeps going.

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Steve Young

Steve is another first-round, first pick that had a career start after college that was sort of a fiasco. Playing for 15 seasons is no easy task, especially as a quarterback. Steve spent the majority of his time with the San Francisco 49ers but started with a team in a league of its own, the Los Angeles Express.

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After it was dissolved during his first year of play, he was swooped up by Tampa Bay before ending with the 49ers. He is a Super Bowl champion three times over, Super Bowl MVP, twice the MVP, the Offensive Player of the Year in 1992, and more.

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Larry Wilson

After 13 years with a team, you’d imagine he would have accumulated some post-season wins. Unfortunately, all that time with St. Louis Cardinals gave him a unique record as being only one of a handful of players to play a decade without any playoff games.

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While he may not have been on a winning team, he was named Defensive Player of the Year in 1966. Larry was also an eight-time All-Pro player as well as an eight-time Pro Bowler.

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Christian McCaffrey

As a standout at Stanford, Christian was noticed early on by NFL scouts, and for good reason. When he went on to be part of the draft in 2017, he was picked eighth in the first round.

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The Carolina Panthers added the running back to their roster and that’s where he’s played since. He’s been an All-Pro twice and played in the Pro Bowl in 2019. Christian was also the AP College Player of the Year in 2015. It’s clear that not only is he working on his bicep game, but he’s also out to make his career last a long time.

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Ed Sprinkle

For 12 seasons, Ed was known as The Meanest Man in Football. Lucky for the Chicago Bears, he played for them. Unfortunately for everyone else, they were a target.

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Before taking on the NFL, Ed played football and basketball in college. He started his professional career just before WWII ended in 1944 and retired after the 1955-56 season. During that time, he played defensive end and was known for being aggressive. That tactic won him many games and landed him in the Hall of Fame.

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Earl Campbell

The Tyler Rose, named after his hometown in Texas, was a first-round, first pick of the 1978 draft. Earl was known as a ferocious running back who made a name for himself at the University of Texas, where he won the Heisman Trophy. Earl played for two teams during his seven-year stint in the NFL. First, was the Houston Oilers for five years, then followed by the New Orleans Saints for the last two.

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While playing, he won Most Valuable Player in 1979, Offensive Player of the Year three times, Offensive Rookie of the Year, All-Pro three times, Pro Bowl five times, 70s All-Decade Team, 100th Anniversary All-Time Team, and more. After the Houston Oilers became the Tennessee Titans, they retired his #34 jersey and honored him in the Ring of Honor.

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Julian Edelman

At Kent State, the wide receiver made waves and broke records. The kind of plays he was making got the interest of the New England Patriots, who picked him in the seventh round of the draft in 2009.

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For the next 12 seasons, Julian helped his team win three Super Bowls and he ended up being the MVP for the last one. Edelman holds the record for the number of punt returns during the first half of any Super Bowl. He’s also one of the most successful receivers in the postseason.

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Jim David

In college, Jim played multiple positions, and multiple sports, for Colorado A&M and was ranked #2 in receptions. The Detroit Lions picked him during the 1952 draft in the 22nd round.

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He settled on defensive back and ended up playing in the Pro Bowl six times. “The Hatchet” played for eight years and was never injured. He’s ranked #5 in all-time receptions in Detroit Lions history.

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