Playing professionally at the NFL level requires an undeniable amount of toughness that some athletes just don’t have. Every Sunday for three to four hours, players put their bodies on the line and take hits that would make most grown men cry. And while it’s rare to take these hits and keep going, some NFL stars refuse to take a seat on the bench. From Brett Favre to Frank Gore to Walter Peyton, these are the NFL athletes who define what it means to be tough in the NFL.
Brett Favre Was The NFL’s Iron Man
Brett Favre started 297 games for the Green Bay Packers, New York Jets, and Minnesota Vikings before finally missing a game with an injury in 2010. The Hall of Fame quarterback was over 40-years-old when Father Time finally caught up to him.
For Favre, his toughness might have been why he un-retired twice. He never lost his passion for the game and spent the last few years of his career thinking he could keep things going, even when it became clear he couldn’t. Even today, there seems to speculation that he could un-retire for a third time at any moment.
Frank Gore Fought For All 15,000 Yards
In 2019, running back Frank Gore made history by surpassing Barry Sanders to become the NFL’s third all-time leading rusher. Originally drafted in 2005 by the San Francisco 49ers, Gore proved his doubters wrong, putting up 1,000-yard season after 1,000-yard season.
While he has missed games with ankle injuries, the length of Gore’s career is unprecedented for a running back. If he can continue to stay healthy, he could even pass Walter Payton to become the league’s second all-time leading rusher!
Dick Butkus Was Relentless
Dick Butkus didn’t have the longest career in the NFL, but for the nine seasons he played, he was a relentless force of nature. Playing linebacker for the Bears, Butkus was selected to eight Pro-Bowls and was named a first-team All-Pro six times.
Asked to describe Butkus, Deacon Jones once said, “a well-conditioned animal, and every time he hit you, he tried to put you in the cemetery, not the hospital.” Oddly enough, it was a lingering knee issue that shortened the stalwart’s career.
Jim Browns Was A Bruising Runner
When Jim Brown retired from the NFL, he was league’s all-time leading rusher. In nine seasons he bruised his way to over 12,000 yards and scored more than 100 touchdowns. His record stood for nearly 20 years when Walter Payton broke it.
About his tough-nosed running style, Brown once said, “make sure when anyone tackles you, he remembers how much it hurt.” In 1971, Brown was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and was unquestionably the best runner of his generation.
Ronnie Lott Literally Played Through Everything
Known as one of the hardest hitting defensive backs of all-time, Ronnie Lott earned his place on this list through one iconic story. During one game, Lott had the tip of one of his fingers crushed. Instead of leaving the game, he played through injury.
At the end of the year, he had the tip of his finger removed. Since that happened, the story has grown into a tall-tale about how he had his finger amputated at half-time during the game to keep playing.
Jack Youngblood Broke His Leg And Kept Going
Jack Youngblood played for 14 seasons in the NFL and only missed one game. That game, incredibly, was not the one that followed this injury. During the 1979 Divisional Round of the playoffs, Youngblood broke his Fibula.
One of the toughest players the NFL has ever seen, Youngblood kept playing, even starting the Super Bowl that year. Unfortunately, the Rams lost the big game at the end of the season to the Steelers, but it wasn’t because their star linebacker was missing!
Mean Joe Greene Was Actually Pretty Nice
A wrecking ball on defense for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ “Steel Curtain” defense, Mean Joe Greene had a knack for hurting other players. His in-game reputation for toughness, however, was the complete opposite of who he was off the field.
Greene combatted his nickname so much that he even filmed a commercial for Coca Cola where he gave a young fan his in-game towel. Greene played in the NFL for 13 seasons and won four Super Bowls in that time, earning his spot in the Hall of Fame.
Walter Payton Set The Standard
He may have been known as “Sweetness” on the field, but Walter Payton was anything but nice. He was a bruising runner during his career and retired as the league’s all-time leading rusher. As previously noted, he currently sits second on the all-time list.
Payton’s best season came in 1977 when he scored 14 touchdowns and rushed for 1,852 yards. During his illustrious 14 year career, he only failed to reach 1,000 yards rushing three times.
Lawrence Taylor Could Have Been Even Tougher
Lawrence Taylor spent 13 seasons in the NFL making life miserable for opposing offenses. He retired with 132 career sacks and was selected to the Pro Football of Hame. What’s really scary about Taylor, though, is that he never reached his full potential.
Off-field issues proved to be a problem for Taylor, who toughed his way through them to produce stunning results on the field. If he could have stayed clean, we can only imagine many more sacks he could have recorded or games he could have played.
Phillip Rivers Will Start No Matter What
Phillip Rivers has taken a lot of criticism over his career for his inability to win, or even reach a Super Bowl. One thing about the Chargers’ QB that has never been questioned, however, is his toughness. Few quarterbacks are tough as he is.
In Rivers’ most famous show of putting the game before his body, he once played in the playoffs after tearing his ACL. For most players, a torn ACL means surgery and year-long recovery. For Rivers, it was just another bump in the road.
John Elway Did What Phillip Rivers Couldn’t
When John Elway entered the NFL he was called a diva. He famously refused to play for the team that drafted him, eventually forcing his way to the Denver Broncos. Once there, he played through the hurt and proved how tough he was, both mentally and physically.
Near the end of his career, a new book was being written about Elway, one that stated he couldn’t handle big games. Elway led the Broncos to four Super Bowls, losing twice early in his career. Then, to close out his career, Elway wrote his own ending, winning back-to-back Super Bowls.
Steve Young Put His Body Through A Gauntlet
Steve Young was one of the NFL’s original running quarterbacks. Playing at a time defenses could really level signal-callers, he put his body through a gauntlet that would cause most modern quarterbacks to retire today.
To prove the pain was worth it, Young set a Super Bowl record by throwing for six touchdown passes and getting the “monkey off his back” handed down to him from Joe Montana. When he retired, Young had helped introduce the NFL to the mobile quarterback, setting the stage for players like Michael Vick and Lamar Jackson.
Mike Ditka Showed What Tight Ends Were Really Capable Of
These days, Mike Ditka is known more for his head coaching resume than his days as a player. A tight end by trade, Ditka revolutionized the position, showing athleticism and toughness that the league had never seen.
When Ditka had the ball in his hands and was charging downfield, it was safer for defenders to get out of the way then try and tackle him. It was this reputation that ensured Ditka a spot in Canton and opened the door for other similar tight ends like Shannon Sharpe and Rob Gronkowski.
Rocky Bleier Came Back From A Career-Ending Injury
You might not know the name Rocky Bleier, but after hearing his story you’ll never forget it. As a rookie in Pittsburgh, he was sensational, but before he could make a real impact he was drafted into the army.
While serving, Bleier was shot in his leg and awarded a Purple Heart. He was told by doctors he would never play football again. Then he got a letter from the Steelers saying they needed him. Against all odds, Bleier began rehab and training and ultimately made his way back to the starting lineup.
Hines Ward Rarely Missed A Game
In the NFL, it’s rare for a wide receiver to play for 14 seasons with the level of production Hines Ward did. A Steelers’ legend, Ward rarely missed a game, had hands that rarely dropped balls, and loved blocking for his running backs.
It is that last statement that earns Ward his sport here. Receivers don’t usually get involved in the blocking game, but for Ward, it was a point of pride. It helped that Jerome Bettis was carrying the rock most of the time.
Deacon Jones Coined The Term Sack
When Deacon Jones played in the NFL, the “sack” was not a statistic that was recorded. He was so ruthless when it came to tackling QBs, though, that it was invented just for him.
Because of this, we will never know how many sacks Jones finished his career with. The numbers vary, with some experts saying 172, while other claims it should be well over 200. Either way, you know you’re tough when a statistic is created because of how you play the game.
Jim Marshall Was The Defensive Iron Man
A defensive end by trade, Jim Marshall set the NFL record for defensive players by appearing in 282 consecutive games. In that span, Marshall had an ulcer and overcame off-field violence to never miss a snap.
Sometimes it’s not what you do on the field that proves your toughness. In Marshall’s case, of course, it’s both. To play in 282 consecutive games is hard enough, and to do with with a few dangerous off-field issues is nearly impossible.
Jim Otto Didn’t Let Surgery Hold Him Back
Over the course of his 15-year career, Jim Otto underwent a mind-boggling 74 operations! By the time he retired, Otto regretted nothing. Reflecting on his career he wrote The Pain of Glory.
In the book, he revealed that his surgeries didn’t always go as planned and he nearly died several times. Still, Otto did what he had to do to keep his career afloat, and for that, he has our undying respect and admiration.
Larry Csonka Had A High Opinion Of Himself
The first fullback on this list, Larry Csonka was a tone-setter on offense who had a very high opinion of himself. Preferring to run through defenders instead of around them, he once said if he went on safari that lions would “roll their windows up” when they saw him.
The 1972 season defined Csonka’s career. Playing with the Dolphins, he rushed for over 1,000 yards, a rare feat for a fullback. Miami went undefeated that year, becoming the only perfect team in NFL history.
Emmitt Smith Is The All-Time Rushing Leader
You didn’t think this list would be complete without the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, did you? Emmitt Smith played for 15 seasons and retired with over 18,000 yards rushing. That record is one of the few in the league that feels like it will never be touched.
Smith played a vital role in the Dallas Cowboys championship dynasty of the ’90s. He didn’t always have the best offensive line, so he always ran with authority. Smith spent the last two years of his career in Arizona before calling it quits for good.