Top 10 Hardest Hitters in NFL History
With this season’s Super Bowl upon us, I thought it would be a good time for a list about American Football. I know, I know…every time a list is posted that features this sport, howls of protest ensue: “This is too American, outside the U.S., no one cares”, or “It’s not ‘real football’ (aka international futbol)”, or “Unlike rugby, these wimps wear pads and helmets”, and so on. Whatever man, we seasoned Listversers have heard it all before, ad nauseum. And so, in response I say: Get over it. Tomorrow will be a new list, perhaps one that is more to your liking. In the meantime, stop your whining, sit your candy-asses down, and check out this list and these video clips of some of the meanest, most badass NFL players ever to have strapped on the cleats. You don’t have to be a fan, but I ask that you just respect that these guys played the game like it was meant to be played, leaving it all on the field and then some. And for those of you that ARE fans of the National Football League, sit back and enjoy! And if your favorite player isn’t listed here, by all means tell us about him in the comments and maybe treat us to a bonus clip.
Please note, in the interests of full disclosure, I wish to address this here rather than in the inevitable comments: NFL Films produces and airs on the NFL Network cable channel a program called “Top 10”, which ranks and showcases players, teams, games, and other notable achievements in various categories for each hour-long episode. I hereby acknowledge that my list closely resembles an episode of theirs titled “Most Feared Tacklers”. Now truthfully, I was not even aware of this program’s existence until I had written the majority of my list and began looking for highlight film to accompany each of my entries. Consequently, some of the clips I am featuring here are taken from that program because it turned out to be the best footage available on a given player. I have credited those clips accordingly in the applicable entries. As with other sports-related ranking lists, it’s not uncommon for one to draw similar conclusions as those that have come before. However, I can assure you that the framework of this list was based on personal knowledge supplemented with independent research to add detail, my selections and rankings for this list are my own, and that my write-ups here are original material (with the exception of a few specific quotes).
1965-1975 Baltimore Colts, 1976 Seattle Seahawks, 1977-1978 Washington Redskins
Mike “Mad Dog” Curtis was drafted out of Duke by the Baltimore Colts in the first round (14th overall) of the 1965 NFL draft. Initially drafted as a fullback, he was soon converted to linebacker as coaches became impressed by his aggressive play. Aptly nicknamed, Mad Dog was a tenacious defender and an intimidating tackler. In his role as team captain, the 6’ 3” 232 lb. Curtis was a fierce competitor both on the field and during practice, never allowing his teammates to let up or take a play off. During his 14 year career, Curtis was voted to four Pro Bowls, made all-pro five times, played in two Super Bowls and earned a championship ring in the Colts’ Super Bowl V win over the Dallas Cowboys. It was his interception in the final minute of that game that set up the Colts’ winning field goal.
1993-2003 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2004-2007 Denver Broncos
This 6’ 2” 220 lb. hard-hitting DB out of Stanford University was selected in the third round of the 1993 draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and enjoyed a stellar 15 year career. As an integral member of the league’s number one ranked defense in 2002, he celebrated a victory with the Bucs against the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII. Playing with reckless abandon all over the field, Lynch always seemed to make the highlight reel following each week’s game. Despite his aggressive style of play, Lynch was surprisingly durable, missing only but a few games during his career due to injury. Lynch was a nine-time Pro Bowl selection and earned all-pro honors on four occasions.
1958 – 1972 Green Bay Packers
Ray Nitschke was the heart and soul of the great Packers defenses during Green Bay’s dynasty years of the 1960s, playing on five championship teams, including the first two Super Bowl winners. A real gentleman off the field, on game day he was a mean S.O.B. who seemed to truly enjoy hitting people. QB Bart Starr once called him a “classic example of Dr. Jeckle and Mr. Hyde”. A 3rd round draft pick in 1958 out of Illinois, the 6’ 3” 235 lb middle linebacker earned either first- or second-team all-league recognition seven times and made the Pro Bowl in 1964. He was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1978, his first year of eligibility. Post-retirement, his role as Bogdanski in the 1974 Burt Reynolds film The Longest Yard was particularly humorous and memorable.
1961-1971 Los Angeles Rams, 1972-1973 San Diego Chargers, 1974 Washington Redskins
This once obscure 14th round draft pick of the Los Angeles Rams revolutionized the position of defensive end. The “Secretary of Defense” as he was known, anchored the left side of the Rams famed Fearsome Foursome defensive line for 11 years before being traded to the San Diego Chargers in 1972. Exceptionally fast and agile for his size, the imposing 6’ 5” 272 lb. Jones developed into an outstanding pass rusher, delivering punishing hits on opposing QBs. He coined the term “quarterback sack”, and if sacks had been an officially recorded statistic during his career, his unofficial total of 173 ½ was tops by a huge margin at the time of his retirement in 1974. Today that total would put him at third on the all-time list. Jones also invented and perfected the head-slap maneuver, a practice that was widely emulated by others during his time but has since been outlawed by the league. Jones amassed eight Pro Bowl selections and five first-team all-pro honors during his career. He was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1980. This clip is from NFL Films “Top Ten Pass Rushers”, where Deacon was ranked #1.
1974-1984 Pittsburgh Steelers
“Number 58 comes to play.” As the backbone of the legendary “Steel Curtain” Pittsburgh Steeler defenses of the 70’s, Jack Lambert gets the nod here over teammate “Mean” Joe Greene. Another off-field gentleman, in uniform this guy was tough as nails, and his familiar maniacal toothless scowl was an intimidating sight to behold. As NFL rules were undergoing modifications in effort to better protect vulnerable quarterbacks from injury, Lambert is remembered for making the famous and oft-quoted remark “you should just put dresses on them”. A second round draft pick in 1974, Lambert won Rookie of the Year honors that season, one in which the Steelers won the first of four championships during his tenure. In 1976 he was named Defensive Player of the Year. A consummate pro, Lambert spent his entire eleven-year career with the Steelers, making the Pro Bowl nine times, all-pro nine times, and was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990. He is regarded as one of the best linebackers of his generation.
1989-1998 Denver Broncos, 1999 N.Y. Jets
After a stellar collegiate career at the University of Arkansas, the Denver Broncos chose Steve Atwater with the 20th pick in the first round of the 1989 draft. The 6’ 3” 218 lb. former Razorback was an immediate upgrade to the Broncos’ poor defense, as the first-year player led the team in tackles and finished second in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. Atwater quickly developed a reputation around the league as a fierce hitter, and in his second season it was his shot on Kansas City Chiefs 253 lb. running back Christian Okoye (aka “The Nigerian Nightmare”) that defined his career. Up to that point, Okoye was running roughshod over every defense he faced, but in one of the best hits I’ve ever seen, Atwater straight up knocked him on his ass. Another awesome performance was during the Broncos’ Super Bowl XXXII victory over the Green Bay Packers. Atwater virtually owned the Packers that day, but most memorable was a play he made during the Pack’s final drive that nearly knocked out three players including himself. In all, Atwater played in 3 Super Bowls earning two rings, was voted to eight Pro Bowls, and was named all-pro six times. Not a member of the Hall of Fame as of this writing, Steve Atwater certainly is worthy and would definitely have my vote. Ranked #9 in the NFL Films Most Feared Tacklers episode, this clip is his segment from that program.
1981-1990 San Francisco 49ers, 1991-1992 Los Angeles Raiders, 1993-1994 N.Y. Jets
By the late 1970’s, the San Francisco 49ers had become one of the worst teams in the league, posting back-to-back 2-14 seasons in ’78 and ’79. That all changed in 1981, due in part to coach Bill Walsh’s bold decision to draft AND START not one but three rookies in the Niners’ defensive backfield. Leading the way was first round draft pick (8th overall) Ronnie Lott out of USC, who was instrumental in bringing a sorely lacking toughness to the Niner secondary. The 6 foot 203 lb. Lott entered the league as a corner and a few years later switched to safety, which gave him even more opportunities to make big plays. Lott’s game-changing hits were legendary. If I may interject a bit of personal nostalgia – as a life-long 49er fan, my favorite Ronnie Lott memory (among oh so many) is number 42 laying the wood on the Cincinnati Bengals’ previously unstoppable running-back Ickey Woods in Super Bowl XXIII. That hit turned the game’s momentum in favor of the 49ers and rendered Woods a non-factor for the rest of the day. Former Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry once said of Lott: “He’s like a middle linebacker playing safety. He’s devastating.” During his illustrious career, Lott played in 10 Pro Bowls (voted in at three different positions – cornerback, strong-safety and free-safety), was named all-pro nine-times (also at those three positions), and won four championships with the 49ers during the 1980’s. He was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000.
1971-1979 Oakland Raiders, 1980 Houston Oilers
Known as “The Assassin”, Jack Tatum is one badass mofo. “I like to believe that my best hits border on felonious assault.” he once said of his play. Selected 19th overall out of Ohio State by the Oakland Raiders in the 1971 draft, the three-time Pro Bowler’s mayhem spanned 10 seasons and left many players in his wake. Unfortunately his most infamous hit is one that occurred during a 1978 preseason game against the New England Patriots and left Pats wide-receiver Darryl Stingley a permanent quadriplegic. Tatum was also the catalyst for one of the most famous plays in NFL history. In a 1972 playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tatum delivered what should’ve been the game-ending hit on running-back Frenchy Fuqua as he was attempting to catch a desperation pass from Terry Bradshaw in the game’s waning seconds. Tatum’s perfectly timed blow knocked the ball loose, but miraculously into the hands of Steeler teammate Franco Harris, who ran it in for the winning score. It was henceforth to be known as the Immaculate Reception. Tatum did earn a Super Bowl ring with the Raiders a few years later though, and his bone-jarring hit in that game on Minnesota Vikings wide-receiver Sammy White that sent White’s helmet flying is considered by many to be the most brutal hit in Super Bowl history. This clip highlights Tatum as NFL Films #6 Most Feared Tackler.
1981-1993 N.Y. Giants
Taken second overall by the New York Giants in the 1981 NFL draft, the former Tar Heel known as “LT” made an immediate impact on the league, earning Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors that season. LT’s looming presence at linebacker struck fear in the hearts of men on the other side of the line of scrimmage. His attacking style changed the way the outside linebacker position was played. Opposing teams routinely game-planned around trying to neutralize Taylor or to avoid his part of the field, which was near impossible since his speed and quickness enabled him to cover so much ground. He came at you from everywhere. Washington Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs specifically developed the two tight-end set in effort to stop his blitzing rampages. Honors and awards accumulated during LT’s 13 year playing career include a unanimous selection as 1986 league MVP, three-time Defensive Player of the Year, 10 Pro Bowl appearances, eight-time first-team all-pro honors, and two Super Bowl rings. Enshrined into Canton in 1999, LT is considered by many to be the greatest defensive player in the history of the game.
1965-1973, Chicago Bears
“He was Moby Dick in a goldfish bowl”. That is my favorite description of the great Chicago Bears middle linebacker, as heard in the clip accompanying this entry. Opposing players often had a deer-in-the-headlights look of fear when seeing the behemoth number 51 barreling down on them. The next thing they knew, they were picking clumps of turf out of their facemask and spitting out blood. Ernie Accorsi, GM of the NY Giants once said of Butkus: “When he hit you, you stayed hit.” During his time in the league, the 6’ 3”, 245 lb. Butkus virtually rewrote the book on linebacking. A first round draft pick (3rd overall) by the Bears in 1965, the former Fighting Illini was an eight-time all-pro, and made the Pro Bowl in each of his first 8 years in the league. He averaged 120 tackles per year during those eight seasons. A master at knocking the ball loose with the ferocity of his tackles, his 25 fumble recoveries was a NFL record at the time of his retirement. Unfortunately his career was cut short due to a knee injury, but his legacy continues with college football’s prestigious Dick Butkus Award, which is given annually to the nation’s most outstanding linebacker, and is a testament to his spectacular career. Butkus was a first-ballot Hall of Famer, entering Canton in 1979.
1952-1953 Los Angeles Rams, 1954-1959 Chicago Cardinals, 1960-1965 Detroit Lions
As usual, 10 spots on a list just isn’t enough. Dick “Night Train” Lane definitely deserves a place in my Top 10, but then who do I remove to make room? It was such a dilemma to me that I’m including him as a Bonus entry so you can decide. Lane enjoyed an outstanding 14 year NFL career, but it was one that started unassumingly as an undrafted walk-on to the Los Angeles Rams’ 1952 training camp. That ultimately led to a 14 interception rookie campaign (in only 12 games!), an NFL record that still stands today. His skills weren’t limited to defending passes though. Simply put, Train was a headhunter. A deadly open-field tackler, Lane perfected the art of the clothesline maneuver and head tackling, techniques later banned by the league for safety reasons. Lane enjoyed his finest seasons as a Detroit Lion. In all, Lane was a ten-time all-pro and played in seven Pro Bowls. He entered the Hall in 1974.
Chuck Bednarik – Linebacker, 1949-1962 Philadelphia Eagles
Hardy Brown – Linebacker, 1950 Baltimore Colts & Washington Redskins, 1951-1955 San Francisco 49ers, 1956 Chicago Cardinals, 1960 Denver Broncos (AFL).
Willie Lanier – Linebacker, 1967-1977 Kansas City Chiefs (AFL and NFL)
Bruce Smith – Defensive End, 1985-1999 Buffalo Bills, 2000-2003 Washington Redskins
Reggie White – Defensive End, 1985-1992 Philadelphia Eagles, 1993-1998 Green Bay Packers, 1999 Carolina Panthers
Ray Lewis – Linebacker, 1996-present Baltimore Ravens