A young Mike Ditka in the days before
becoming a living football legend.
See more pictures of football.
While thousands of men have suited up, only a relative few can be considered truly great football players. They're the men whose names and athletic accomplishments have or surely will survive the test of time.
The links throughout this article will take you to profiles of many of the great football players and coaches the game has known. You'll find freeze-framed looks at the men who not only made football America's most popular sport, but also its passion.
Included are stories of the game's pioneers, such as Amos Alonzo Stagg, Jim Thorpe, and Red Grange. Grange, known as the "Galloping Ghost," epitomized football during the "Golden Age of Sports" -- the 1920s.
The decision of this electrifying runner from the University of Illinois to turn pro with the Chicago Bears in 1925 was headline news and drew the first pro football sellout to Chicago's Wrigley Field.
Others who followed, such as Bronko Nagurski, kept the romance of the game alive during the Great Depression. His very name inspires images of the bruising style of 1930s football. He was so tough that when one coach was asked how he planned to stop him, he merely shrugged and said, "With a shotgun as he's leaving the locker room."
As the game matured, great passers emerged. It's no exaggeration to say that Sammy Baugh was a major factor in turning football from the grind-it-out days of old into the exciting, air-it-out modern game.
While "Slinging Sammy" was putting the ball up, there may never have been a better receiver pulling them down than Green Bay's Don Hutson. His 488 career receptions were 200 more than anyone else had to that point.
Names such as Joe Schmidt, Dick Butkus, Gino Marchetti, and Ray Nitschke -- football tough guys of the 1950s and 1960s -- are all here. Their "impact" on the game was felt by every ball carrier who ever faced them on the field. They were the game's intimidators.
Detroit's Joe Schmidt was one of
the best linebackers in the
history of football.
There are other players who, in addition to their on-the-field greatness, were synonymous with an era or event. Such a man was Joe Namath. Broadway Joe's "guarantee" boast of victory before Super Bowl III can only be compared to Knute Rockne's "win one for the Gipper" when you talk about impact statements in football lore.
Namath talked the talk, but he more than walked the walk. Namath, the first pro to pass for more than 4,000 yards in a season, was more than the New York Jets' star; he was the American Football League's hope.
Other AFL stars such as the Kansas City Chiefs' Willie Lanier, Buck Buchanan, and Len Dawson are also remembered in this article.
Success, as most people realize, can't be measured in win-loss columns or official game statistics alone. There are the intangibles -- those things that so often separate the near-great from the truly great.
Johnny Unitas's rise from the sandlots of semi-pro football to superstardom, the accidental discovery of Deacon Jones by a pro scout, and Don Maynard's second-chance career with a new league are a few examples of unusual circumstances that affected the careers of some of these great players.
Not forgotten in this book are the special relationships between teammates. Would Deacon Jones have been as effective rushing the quarterback if teammate Merlin Olsen hadn't tied up the middle? Would Joe Montana have racked up his passing records had Jerry Rice not been so reliable?
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Important, too, are the stories that show that even men like Vince Lombardi, a true legend, were not perfect. In a moment of self-criticism, Lombardi once reflected on his near-mishandling of all-time great Herb Adderley. "I was too stubborn to switch him to defense until I had to," he said. "Now when I think of what Adderley means to our defense, it scares me to think of how I almost mishandled him."
Take a look at these articles for an exciting peek into the pageantry of autumn, a salute to America's greatest warriors -- the men of football. And for an even more in-depth listing of these football legends, continue to the next page to learn about the greatest offensive players ever.