Photo of Tom Brady of the New England Patriots during a game versus the Denver Broncos. 

Image Credit: Todd Shoemake (CC BY 2.0)

If you're like me, you've recently become annoyed with all of the media and corporate hoopla surrounding the Super Bowl. I thought it would be nice to take a look back at some of the good ole' days of the NFL and the top ten players to ever play in the league. See if you agree with our list.

10. Johnny Unitas

Johnny Unitas experienced perhaps the rockiest road to NFL stardom among the players on our list. He was often told he was too small to play quarterback in college (6'1, 145 lbs. at age 18). Notre Dame cut the Pittsburgh native when he was a freshman. He settled on playing football collegiately at the University of Louisville. The adversity didn't stop there. The University of Louisville decided to tighten academic standards for it's athletes and Unitas was in danger of losing his scholarship during his second season.

Unitas played the majority of his NFL career with the Baltimore Colts before the team moved to Indianapolis. He also briefly played for the San Diego Chargers at the end of his career and was cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers, the same team that had drafted him in 1955. After being cut, Unitas worked construction in the Pittsburgh area and played semi-professional football. 

During his 18 year NFL career, Unitas won one Super Bowl Title (Super Bowl V) and three NFL championships (pre Super Bowl era). He was selected to the Pro Bowl 10 times, was the NFL's Most Valuable Player 4 times and was the NFL's Man of the Year in 1970. He finished his career with more than 40,000 passing yards and 290 touchdowns despite having a passing record of 78%. His most notable feat was his 47 game streak of touchdown passes, a record that was later broken by Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints. When the Colts were eventually moved to Indianapolis in 1984 by Bob Irsay, Unitas was outraged and severed all ties with the Colts organization.  




9. Barry Sanders

I once had the pleasure of running into a former teammate of Barry Sanders in the weight room of all places. One of the first things I had asked him was how much Barry could squat in the weight room. Barry had massive quads as you can see in the photo above. He replied with "You don't want to know". Barry Sanders was perhaps the most elusive running back the NFL has ever seen. Like so few NFL players, Sanders was also very humble and a quiet teammate. After playing in the shadows of NFL legend Thurman Thomas at Oklahoma State University, Barry exploded onto the College Football scene in 1988 and went on to win the Heisman Trophy that season. Not only was he the star running back averaging almost 8 yards per carry but he also played a significant amount on Special Teams as the team's kick and punt returner. 

The Detroit Lions drafted Sanders with the number 3 pick in the 1989 NFL draft. The Lions were the only team Sanders would play for during his ten year NFL career. Upon retirement, he made it clear that the losing nature in Detroit were the reason for his early retirement although they made the playoffs five times while Sanders was a Lion. 10 years is a long career for an NFL running back but Sanders was still dominant in his final days in the league. He is the NFL's third all time leading rusher (15,269 yards) trailing only Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton. His other on field accolades include being elected to the Pro Bowl every season during his career, ran for 2,000 yards in a single season, 109 career touchdowns and was a 6 time member of the NFL's All Pro First Team. 

Running backs Ray Rice (Baltimore Ravens) and Giovanni Bernard (Cincinnati Bengals) have shown similarities to Barry Sanders in their running style and elusiveness but we all know there will never be another Barry Sanders on the gridiron. 




8. John Elway

If you called John Elway the greatest quarterback to ever play the game, many football fans wouldn't disagree with you. And to think that his NFL career almost could have never been. When the Baltimore Colts selected Elway with the first overall pick in the 1983 draft, he wasn't looking forward to joining the Colts and their losing ways. He also didn't like the way the front office and coaching staff ran the organization. After being selected by the Kansas City Royals in the 1979 Major League Baseball draft and by the New York Yankees in 1981, Elway said he would play baseball if the Colts drafted him and refused to trade him. (Dan Marino was also drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the 1979 draft). The Colts eventually traded Elway to the Denver Broncos for two players and a future draft pick. He spent a whopping 16 years in the NFL, all with the Denver Broncos after finishing second in the Heisman Trophy voting at Stanford University. 

Elway took the Broncos to five Super Bowls and eventually lead them to two Super Bowl victories (XXXII and XXXIII). He was the Super Bowl MVP during Super Bowl XXXIII. He was the only quarterback to take one team to five Super Bowls until Tom Brady of the New England Patriots recently broke his record. Also among Elway's long list of accolades include being selected to the Pro Bowl 9 times, was the NFL's Most Valuable Player in 1987 and won the Walter Payton "Man of the Year" award in 1992 for his outstanding service to his community. By the time Elway retired in 1998, he had thrown for almost 52,000 yards and 300 touchdowns. He is the Denver Broncos all time record holder for career wins and holds records for every single passing category. 

Elway's most defining moment as a player came in 1987 vs. the Cleveland Browns in the AFC Championship game. Down in the 4th quarter, Elway marched the Broncos 98 yards to tie the game and lead the Broncos into Super Bowl XXI. He currently oversees the Denver Broncos everyday football operations and is very involved with the organization and it's front office.   




7. Reggie White

Reggie White is arguably the greatest defensive lineman to ever play football and his game resembled that of current Houston Texan JJ Watt. He will be most remembered for his days with the Green Bay Packers when he led them to a Super Bowl XXXI victory over the New England Patriots. White also spent eight seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles and a brief stint with the Carolina Panthers. The Chattanooga, TN native was football royalty in the state of Tennessee from the very beginning. Like so many other Tennessee youths, White dreamed of playing for the Tennessee Volunteers and that dream soon became a reality. White was a starter all four years in college. His 32 career sacks and 15 sacks in a season are still records at the University of Tennessee. 

Reggie did not play in the NFL right away and instead opted to play in the United States Football League for the Memphis Steamboats. The league folded after his second year and White signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. White's 221.5 sacks make him professional football's all time sack leader. He held the NFL record for sacks with 198 until that record was broken by fellow Hall of Famer Bruce Smith. 

White was a 13 time NFL Pro Bowl selection, 2 time NFL defensive player of the year and 10 time NFL first team selection. Aside from his 198 career sacks in the NFL, he finished his career with 1,112 tackles. His number is retired by the Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers and University of Tennessee. Sadly, Reggie passed away at the young age 43 due to an irregular heartbeat and complications with sleep apnea. He will always be remembered as the NFL's all time greatest pass rusher. 




6. Peyton Manning

Peyton Manning is a football player and he has the bloodlines to prove it. His father, Archie Manning was the long time quarterback of the New Orleans Saints. His brother Eli is currently the starting quarterback for the New York Giants. He is the only player on our list that is still an active player.  There isn't a whole lot Peyton hasn't accomplished in the NFL. He is without a doubt the most marketable player in the NFL at the moment appearing in a number of advertisements including Gatorade, Nationwide Insurance and Papa John's Pizza.

The former Tennessee Volunteer was the number one draft pick in the 1998 NFL draft. He has been selected to 14 NFL Pro Bowls (an NFL record), has played in three Super Bowls, was the Super Bowl MVP in Super Bowl XLI and has been the NFL's Most Valuable Player five times. He currently has thrown for more than 500 touchdowns (an NFL record) and 70,000 passing yards while maintaining a completion rate of 66% and passer rating of 98%. Strangely, he finished second to Charles Woodson in the Heisman race while at the University of Tennessee.

Manning will be most remembered for his days with the Indianapolis Colts for whom he played for 14 seasons. His career was cut short in Indy after fears that he wouldn't be productive following his neck surgery. He was released in 2012 due to the substantial amount of money he was owed by the Colts if he remained on the roster. There is ongoing speculation that Manning may not be up to snuff following a less than stellar performance in the playoffs during the 2014 NFL season with the Denver Broncos. He is currently weighing his options on whether or not to return for the 2015 NFL season. No matter the outcome of his decision, he will always be remembered as NFL royalty and one of the prolific passers the game has ever seen.  




5. Lawrence Taylor

"LT" as he was nicknamed was probably the most troubled player off the field among the other NFL greats on our list (drug use). But he was still perhaps the greatest player to ever put on a New York Giants uniform and perhaps the NFL's all time greatest linebacker. At 6'5 and 240 lbs., Taylor was an intimidating force. He grew up a Dallas Cowboys fan and made no secrets about it, even claiming that he had hoped the Cowboys would draft him. Although he wasn't heavily recruited out of high school, he still managed to catch on with the North Carolina Tar Heels. The New York Giants selected Taylor with the number 2 pick in the 1981 NFL draft, the only team he would play for in his 13 NFL seasons. As a Giant, he had a turbulent relationship at times with the Giants front office and with Bill Parcells but they somehow always made things work. 

While with the Giants, he won two Super Bowls (XXI and XXV). He was also selected to 10 Pro Bowls, was a 10 time all pro, 3 time defensive player of the year and was the league's sack leader in 1986. Taylor finished his NFL career with 9 interceptions, just over 1,000 tackles, 33 forced fumbles and 132.5 sacks. He was largely known for his reliability as a player having missed only 11 games in 13 NFL seasons. Following his career, Taylor has appeared in professional wrestling, Dancing with the Stars as well as movies such as "The Waterboy", "Shaft" and "Any Given Sunday".  




4. Walter Payton

There will always be that ongoing debate about who the NFL's all time greatest running back was. The candidates are always the same: Barry Sanders, Jim Brown, Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton. Nicknamed "Sweetness" for his kind personality and smooth running ability on the gridiron, Payton's athletic abilities were very deceiving based on his small stature. Like a few of the other players on our list, Payton came from humble football beginnings playing at Jackson State University in Mississippi. He went to Jackson State primarily so that he could play with his older brother, Eddie. During his time at Jackson State, Payton averaged right at 6 yards per carry and scored 63 career touchdowns. 

Walter was drafted by the Chicago Bears with the 4th pick of the 1975 NFL draft, the only team he would ever play for. He did not show dominance during his rookie season but that all changed during his sophomore campaign. During his playing days, he lived by the adage "Never Die Easy" which translated to Payton running over defenders for extra yards instead of sliding or running out of bounds. 

Payton finished his career after 13 seasons with the Chicago Bears having amassed 16,726 rushing yards, 110 rushing touchdowns and 21,803 all purpose yards. All three are NFL records that have since been broken. He also threw for 8 touchdowns and 6 interceptions, both are NFL records for non-quarterbacks. His other accomplishments include leading the Chicago Bears to their lone Super Bowl victory (1985), was voted into 9 pro bowls, was the NFL's Most Valuable Player three times and was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993. 

Although Walter is no longer with us after passing away from a rare liver disease, there are two awards in football named after him. There is the NCAA's Walter Payton award which goes to the best offensive player in the Division 1 FCS grouping. There is also the Walter Payton "Man of the Year" award which celebrates the NFL's best community service leader. Long live Sweetness! 




3. Joe Montana

Whenever you hear of football players that were "overlooked" in the NFL draft, the name Joe Montana usually comes up. Despite winning a national championship at Notre Dame, Montana wasn't selected until the 82nd pick (3rd round) of the 1979 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers. He would play there for 14 seasons before spending his final two seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs.  

Just Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw (Pittsburgh Steelers) and Tom Brady (New England Patriots) are the only Quarterbacks to win 4 Super Bowls during their careers. He was perhaps the best quarterback when it came to making 4th quarter comeback victories (31 total). The most memorable 4th quarter comeback being "The Catch" in the closing minutes of Super Bowl XXIII vs. the Cincinnati Bengals. I learned one of the neatest tidbits about Montana while watching the movie "Draft Day". On yet another 4th quarter drive, Montana spotted John Candy in the audience. In order to calm his teammates down, he shouted in the huddle "Hey! Is that John Candy?" The game ended with a touchdown pass from Montana to John Taylor to once again defeat the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII. 

Aside from Montana's four Super Bowl victories, his many other accomplishments include being the Super Bowl MVP three times, was elected to the NFL Pro Bowl eight times, was the NFL's Most Valuable Player twice and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He finished his career with more than 40,000 passing yards, 273 touchdowns and a career passer rating of 92%.  




2. Jim Brown

A former co-worker of mine was a former player with the Buffalo Bills and once lined up against Jim Brown back in the day. "He was the greatest athlete I had ever seen in person", he said. In regards to how great of an athlete he said Brown was, this could be backed up by the fact that Brown lettered in lacrosse, track, baseball, basketball and football in high school. Although he didn't come out of a college powerhouse football program, he finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting at Syracuse University. Like Barry Sanders, Jim Brown was elected to the Pro Bowl every season that he played (9 seasons, all with the Cleveland Browns).

Brown finished his career with 126 touchdowns, 12,312 rushing yards and a rushing average of more than 5 yards per carry. He scored four touchdowns in a game on a whopping six occasions. Other accolades include being the NFL's rookie of the year, first player to score 100 career touchdowns, 4 time NFL MVP, was the NFL rushing champion for eight seasons and the Cleveland Browns won the 1964 NFL championship (pre Super Bowl era). It's safe to say Brown's career helped shape the passion for Cleveland Browns football for Ohio residents for many years to come.  




1. Jerry Rice

The NFL now operates in a world where your showing at the NFL combine in the spring can make or cost you millions of dollars. Hey! Let's not forget that the greatest wide receiver and arguably greatest player of all time ran a 4.7 second 40 yard dash at his combine. Never had the NFL seen a player so precise in his route running and so sure handed with the football. Rice attributed his great hands to his summers working construction with his father. Jerry's father would often toss him bricks to and from the rooftops of homes. Rice came from humble beginnings in the college ranks. He didn't play at either SEC schools in his home state (Ole Miss/Mississippi State). Instead, he played at Mississippi Valley State University. The size of the school clearly didn't hinder Rice's path to the NFL. Rice finished in the top ten on the Heisman Trophy ballot in 1984. That season, he caught 27 touchdown passes and had nearly 2,000 receiving yards.

Many football fans probably didn't know that Rice was selected first overall in the now defunct USFL draft in 1985. NFL scouts weren't as impressed. The only two NFL teams to show significant interest in Rice were the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers traded up for Rice in the 1985 draft (16th pick) to keep the Cowboys from drafting him. The move would prove to set the tone in establishing the 49ers as perhaps the greatest franchise in the NFL's Super Bowl era. 

Jerry Rice was a San Francisco 49er from 1985 to 2000. He had brief stints with the Oakland Raiders and Seattle Seahawks before retiring in 2004 having missed only 10 regular season games in 20 seasons. During his career, he was part of three Super Bowl teams, was a 10 time all NFL first team selection, one time Super Bowl MVP, made 13 Pro Bowl appearances and became the NFL's all time leader in catches (1,549), receiving yards (22,895) and touchdown receptions (208). The emergence of young wide receiver Terrell Owens and salary cap issues forced Rice to sign with the Oakland Raiders just across the Bay. Many of his records still stand today by good margins. Rice was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010 and his number 80 is now retired by the San Francisco 49ers. Will the NFL ever see another wide receiver as classy and graceful as Jerry Rice? Don't count on it.

We hope you've enjoyed our list. Here is a short list of the former NFL players that almost made our Top 10 and likely would have made yours. 



Honorable Mention

  • Brett Favre, Green Bay Packers

  • Dan Marino, Miami Dolphins

  • Dick Butkus, Chicago Bears

  • Anthony Munoz, Cincinnati Bengals

  • Tom Brady, New England Patriots

  • Emmitt Smith, Dallas Cowboys



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