I love the NFL, but let’s face it: the league is a world apart from its gritty ancestry comprised of toothless tough guys and players who were employed simply because of their blatant disregard for their own bodies. These players stood out in a time where these hits were celebrated, not fined. They were the toughest, meanest, baddest SOB’s that ever set foot on a field. They serve as a stark reminder to how downright violent the game used to be. These guys would have a hard time earning a living in today’s league simply because of their fierce style of play.
This post is not meant to be a referendum on player safety and where you feel the league should go, but one thing is for certain: they sure don’t make ‘em like they used to.
Richie (Tombstone) Jackson (DE) 1966 Oakland, 1967-1971 Denver, 1972 Cleveland, 1972 Denver ;
Another proponent of the “head slap”, Rich Jackson was rumored to have cracked a helmet of a Green Bay Packer after using his signature move. A pretty tough guy in his own right, Lyle Alzado dubbed him the toughest man he’d ever met. Factor that in with a well-deserved nickname of “Tombstone” and you’ve got yourself a guy who would have some trouble staying out of trouble in the league today.
Steve Atwater (S) 1989-1998 Denver Broncos, 1999 N.Y. Jets
This one pained me to have to list, but the list wouldn’t be worth squat if it didn’t include Atwater. While he is most remembered for his hit on my personal football hero, Christian “The Nigerian Nightmare” Okoye, the truth is that it wasn’t even one of his best. The fact that it stood the test of time had more to do with Okoye being almost invincible and Atwater being the first guy to really pop him. Aside from that bad childhood memory, Atwater was a beast. He roamed the safety position and had the ability to strike fear on anyone stupid enough to come across the middle against him. He didn’t care if he clotheslined you or strangled you, but you would know who brought you down after it was done.
Ronnie Lott (S) 1981-1990 San Francisco 49ers, 1991-1992 Los Angeles Raiders, 1993-1994 N.Y. Jets
Lott was one of the best safeties to ever play the game. He was also frequently carefree and downright negligent when it came to tackling with concern for his own safety. He would completely sacrifice his own body if it meant putting a crushing hit on the ballcarrier. He threw his shoulder ad head with wanton abandon into the fray. Besides, a dude that cut off a dangling part of his pinkie finger so he could go back into the game is surely someone who would make Roger Goodell cringe when considering his so-called quest for player safety.
Hardy Brown (LB) 1950 Baltimore Colts & Washington Redskins, 1951-1955 San Francisco 49ers, 1956 Chicago Cardinals, 1960 Denver Broncos (AFL)
You may not know a lot about a guy who played in the 1950’s, but this is a guy worth knowing about. He had a patented “flipper” move where he would thrust his shoulder into the guy at the last second and literally knock him back like it was a wrecking ball. He played in a time where the equipment provided less protection than you’d have by putting on a heavy sweater, yet he seemed to relish the raw contact. Take a look at some of the limited game film and you will see why he would wind up on the league’s radar after merely a single hit.
Deacon Jones (DE) 1961-1971 Los Angeles Rams, 1972-1973 San Diego Chargers, 1974 Washington Redskins ; credited with inventing the head slap
The man who essentially created the concept of “sacking the quarterback” from the defensive end position had a knack for punishing those in his way. Whether it was the offensive lineman charged with blocking him, or the poor unsuspecting QBs that were his final targets, they knew where he was at all times. Still, this large, fast, man would ferociously slap linemen in the head to get by them. He famously said, “Anytime you go upside a man’s head they may have a tendency to blink they eyes or close they eyes. And that’s all I needed”.
Dick Butkus (LB) 1965-1973, Chicago Bears
Running into Dick Butkus was like running into a brick wall, only that wall happened to be moving towards you and had a bad attitude. Butkus is widely regarded as one of the best linebackers of all-time, and not coincidentally, one of the most feared. He punished anyone who got in his way and seemed incapable of trying to make a tackle without punishing the ballcarrier. He is a true tough guy that stands out in an era of tough guys. Unfortunately he’d be a fish out of water in today’s game and would likely be labeled “dirty” just for his hard, clean, aggressive play.
Chuck Bednarik (C, LB) 1949-1962 Philadelphia Eagles
Highly regarded as one of the most devastating tacklers in football history, Bednarik managed to lay serious hits on guys after getting no rest since he also played center on offense. His most famous hit is the one that knocked Frank Gifford out of football for a year and a half and would have surely earned Bednarik a lengthy suspension today. He played in time where guys wore what amounts to little more than a frozen chocolate shell for a helmet, yet that didn’t’ seem to stop him from laying some serious lumber on the field. There’s not a ton of film on him, but what’s available will make you understand what he did to opponents.
Jack Lambert (LB) 1974-1984 Pittsburgh Steelers
Some guys are tough, some guys try to look and act tough, and some guys are all of the above. Jack Lambert was one of those guys who looked the part, walked the walk, and talked the talk. His famous toothless scowl had most opponents fearful before the snap. Unfortunately things only got worse for them. He was a hard-nosed, hard-hitting SOB who took pleasure in making grown men afraid of him. I would pay good money to see him in meeting with Roger Goodell after getting chided for a “hard tackle”.
Chuck Cecil (S) 1988-1992 Green Bay, 1993 Phoenix Cardinals, 1995 Houston Oilers
His October 1992 cover of Sports Illustrated titled, “Is Chuck Cecil Too Vicious for the NFL?” is framed on my wall. This guy was getting fines for helmet to helmet contact before the league actually gave a crap about helmet to helmet contact. He was a true mad man who owned the middle of the field at a time when the safety’s main job was to make any receiver in the area pay dearly. It goes to show how much the league has changed even since the 90’s because Cecil would probably owe more in game fines then he actually made if he was still playing today.
Jack Tatum (S) 1971-1979 Oakland Raiders, 1980 Houston Oilers
Nicknamed, “The Assassin”, Tatum truly was one of the most feared hitters to play the game. To some he is known for his hit that paralyzed Darryl Stingley. While it is nothing to be trivial about, that type of hit is something that was a staple in Tatum’s career. He got after it on every play and typically he tried to separate the man from the ball by separating the man’s head from his body. His hit on Stingley (and many others like it) has to be something the NFL views as a black mark on the league still to this day.
“Mad Dog” Mike Curtis (LB) 1965-1975 Baltimore Colts, 1976 Seattle Seahawks, 1977-1978 Washington Redskins
I literally do not think Mad Dog could make a tackle in the modern day NFL without drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, hefty fine, and meeting in the league office with the Commish. This man defined the hard hitting no-nonsense NFL of the late 60’s and 70’s. Every time he made a tacvkle, there were some serious bad intentions behind it. Whether he clubbed, punched, strangled, or kicked the ball carrier, one thing was for sure: he was going to remember being hit by Mad Dog Mike Curtis. Check out the fan who felt his wrath at the 36 second mark:
Dick “Night Train” Lane (CB) 1952-1953 Los Angeles Rams, 1954-1959 Chicago Cardinals, 1960-1965 Detroit Lions
There have been a lot of tough players and hard hitters in the history of the NFL so there are some notorious players on this list. In my mind, Night Train Lane is the toughest and hardest hitter of them all…and it’s not even close. A notorious head hunter, Lane was famous for tackles that would makew the horse-collar look like flag football. Dubbed the “Night Train Necktie”, he would attack the player’s head as if trying to squeeze out the last ounce of ketchup form a squeeze bottle. I have never seen a man so reckless with his own body for the sake of making a hard hit. I honestly think he could have been the first player ever suspended for a full season for nothing more than hitting too hard. Check out his clips and take note of why he is the most unlikely to be able to play in the soft, modern-day NFL.