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!
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.
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.
Jack Lambert Was As Tough As They Come
Four-time Super Bowl champion Jack Lambert is considered by many to be one of the toughest players to ever put on shoulder pads, Playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the man missing his front four teeth set the tone for one of the most iconic defensive fronts in league history.
In 1976, after a 1-4 start to the season, Lambert blasted his teammates, saying they needed to win out to defend their title. And you know what happened? They won nine straight games, allowing a total of two touchdowns in that span.
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.
Doug Flutie Never Quit
Doug Flute was never supposed to be a successful quarterback in the NFL. Standing just five feet and ten inches tall, he is still the shortest starting QB in league history. And while players like Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, and Baker Mayfield have changed the way scouts look at height recently, Flutie really started the trend.
Always having to prove himself, Flutie played as long as he could. He was 43-years-old when he retired, last lacing up for the New England Patriots in 2005.
Bruce Matthews Didn’t Miss A Game For 14 Seasons
As if playing in the NFL for 19 seasons isn’t enough, Bruce Matthews was so tough that he never missed a game in his 14 years. His 296 career games played is third behind Brett Favre and Jerry Rice for non-kickers.
During his career, Matthews was elected to 14 Pro Bowls. And if you still doubt his toughness, consider this – the average career of an offensive lineman is three seasons. Matthews played for 19.
Jerome Bettis Ran People Over
There’s a reason Jerome Bettis was nicknamed “The Bus.” Built like a fullback, but playing running back, Bettis never shied away from contact, oftentimes preferring to run right through defenders. And somehow, despite all the physical contact, Bettis played for 13 seasons.
In those 13 seasons, Bettis won a Super Bowl, was elected to six Pro Bowls, and rarely missed a game. In 2015, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Lynn Swann Played Through The Pain
While it’s impossible to deny that Lynn Swann’s shorter than normal career should disqualify him from this list, it’s important to remember one thing – opposing defenses were constantly crushing the WR so he wouldn’t be able to burn them.
Most famously, during an AFC title game, Swann had to be hospitalized from a hit that gave him a severe concussion. He stayed in the hospital for two days. He then played in the Super Bowl, where he racked up 161 receiving yards and a touchdown.
Jackie Slater Played For 20 Seasons
When Jackie Slater was drafted by the Rams in 1976, Gerald Ford was the President. When he retired 20 seasons later, Bill Clinton was. He played his entire career with the Rams, both in Los Angeles and St. Louis.
By the time he retired, Slater has set the NFL record for most seasons played with one franchise. He was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2001 during his first year of eligibility.
Bruce Smith Was Unstoppable
Legendary defensive lineman Bruce Smith played 19 grueling seasons in the NFL. In 13 of those seasons, he recorded double-digit sacks, even though he was the most double-teamed player in the league at the time.
Smith played most of his career with the Buffalo Bills and retired with 200 sacks. No other player has been able to reach the two-century mark, although Reggie White came close with 198.
Mike Webster Was Addicted To Playing
After spending 15 seasons in Pittsburgh, Mike Webster took his talent to Kansas City. At the time, he was brought in to be on the team’s coaching staff. After some conversations, he convinced the team to let him play.
Webster won four Super Bowls during his career, and is noted as being one of the first players to bring attention to CTE. In 2002, Webster had a heart attack and passed away, and today is remembered as one of the greatest Steelers in team history.
Roger Craig Was A Double Threat
Roger Craig was one of the NFL’s first “offensive weapons,” and his body took a beating as a result of it. A running back who could always play wide receiver, Craig touched the ball a lot during the 49ers’ Bill Walsh era.
Craig was the first player in league history to rush for 1,000 yards and rack up 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. Quite frankly, it’s surprising that Craig has not yet been inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Brian Dawkins Loved To Lay Down The Hammer
Brian Dawkins may have played safety in the NFL, but with how hard he hit, he could have played linebacker, too. He was nicknamed “Weapon X” while he was on the Eagles for his physical style of play.
Drafted in 1996, Dawkins spent the first 13 years of his career with the Eagles, appearing in one Super Bowl and being named a First-Team All-Pro four times. And like so many others on this list, after he retired, Dawkins was enshrined in Canton, Ohio.
Randy White Was The “Manster” Of Dallas
Randy White wasn’t always the biggest defensive tackle on the football field, but he was one of the toughest. During his days as a Dallas Cowboy, he was known as the “Manster” for being “half man and half monster.”
In 1978, he became one of the only defensive players to win Super Bowl MVP honors. In 14 seasons, he played in 209 games, only missing one. After retiring, White founded the Thai Boxing Association of America.
Mark Bavaro Put The Giants On His Back
In 1986, in a game against the San Francisco 49ers, New York Giants’ tight end Mark Bavaro proved how tough he was when it took multiple defenders to take him down.
Bavaro was a key member in the Giants’ Super Bowl run in the ’80s, and it’s hard to imagine the team getting there, much less winning, without their toughest offensive player. After retiring, Bavaro became a writer, having his first novel published in 2008.
Walt Garrison Competed In Rodeo On The Side
When he wasn’t running over defenders for the Dallas Cowboys in the ’70s, Walt Garrison was competing in rodeo competitions. While such a practice would be frowned upon today, it showed just how tough Garrison was back then.
On the field, Garrison played through extreme pain. In the 1970 NFC championship game against the 49ers, it was reported that he played with a serious ankle injury and cracked collarbone. Ouch!
Reggie White Fought Through Double Teams
Like Bruce Smith before him, Reggie White’s life on the football field was filled with double teams. He was one of the most feared defenders of his time, and retied with 198 sacks and a clear path to a first-ballot Hall of Fame induction.
And if White had started his career in the NFL instead of the USFL, he might be the league’s all-time sack leader. Tragically, White passed away in 2004 after a cardiac arrhythmia.
Kellen Winslow Sr. Had No Stop Button
Known as one of the greatest tight ends to ever play in the NFL, Kellen Winslow Sr. was an unstoppable force. His 1982 playoff performance as a Charger against the Dolphins is legendary.
During that incredible match up, Winslow Sr. led San Diego to victory with a touchdown, over 100 receiving yards, and a blocked field goal. Oh yeah, did we mention he played the game with four injuries? If that doesn’t define tough, we don’t know what does.
Y.A. Tittle Probably Should Have Been Benched
Y.A. Tittle was just about as tough as you can make a quarterback. He played in the NFL for 15 seasons and even played one season where injuries should have forced the team to bench him.
The injury came after Tittle threw a pick-six. He was hit, left with a bloody face, suffered a massive concussion, and cracked a rib. He then went on to play the rest of the season.
George Atkinson Was A Brutal Hitter
Considered undersized for his position, safety George Atkinson made up for it with just how hard he could hit. He was a missile on the field, which was both a good thing and a bad thing.
After giving Lynn Swann his second concussion, Atkinson was labeled as a dirty player who contained “the criminal element.” Atkinson played in the league for 12 seasons, and won a Super Bowl with the Raiders in 1976.
George Blanda Played Multiple Positions
Best known as a quarterback, George Blanda played his professional football career from 1949 until 1975. During his time on the gridiron, Blanda played several positions including linebacker and placekicker.
Late in his career, by the time Blanda was no longer a viable starting quarterback, he became a full-time placekicker, which is one of the reasons his career was extended for so long. In 1981, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Earl Campbell’s Career Was Short But Powerful
Another player with a shorter career is Earl Campbell. A bruising running back, he looked for contact, always hoping to impose his will on the other team. After seven seasons putting a beating on defenders, Campbell abruptly retired.
At the time of his retirement, Campbell said, “I’m a man; I’m not a little boy. I believe this is the best thing—not only for myself but for the Saints.”
Joe Staley Was A Warrior
Joe Staley played his entire 13-year career with the San Francisco 49ers. In that time, he saw the ultimate ups and downs of the game, going to two Super Bowls while also fighting his way through multiple miserable losing seasons.
Throughout it all, Staley was always on the field, setting an example for his teammates about being tough. Now that he’s retired, it is expected he will wind up in the Hall of Fame.