You may not recognize all the names on this list. Some belong to future Hall of Famers, but many will never appear on an All-Star ballot or a trophy. The athletes are united in this one respect—they inspire us with their tenacity and their grit, their unique talents, their willingness to say what they think and back up their words with action. Think Pete Rose, Charles Barkley, Dick Butkus. These guys are just like those legends, but they’re still bringing it.
We've broken down these heroes into 6 categories: the Self-Made Men,the Scrappers, the Loudmouths, the Grizzled Vets, the Naturally Gifted, and the Fearless. Tough comes in a lot of different shapes and sizes, but it always wins games.
THE SELF-MADE MEN
Because they earned it.
Catcher, Atlanta Braves
The tough-as-nails Texan passed up a full ride to A&M due to drug issues. Long story short, he worked for nearly four years as a valet, a
ski-lift operator, a janitor, and a golf-cart driver, only to reappear in 2010 at the University of Texas Permian Basin. A non-roster spring-training invitee in 2011, the then 25-year-old rookie went on to excel as a left fielder and a catcher while finishing the season with 22 home runs, each more mythical than the last. Bonus: Former Winter League teammates in Venezuela dubbed the 6′4″, 230-pound monster El Oso Blanco (“the White Bear”).
If you want to take the measure of a man, put his back to the wall and watch how he responds. If he has a huge heart—like, say, Jonathan Quick of the L.A. Kings or Henrik Lundqvist of the N.Y. Rangers—you’re looking at a double-overtime showdown in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals before anyone surrenders. If his name is Tim Howard and American pride is on the line, don’t be surprised to see a World Cup–record 16 saves before someone pierces his armor. That’s why people call him the Secretary of Defense.
The only man in the U.S. armed forces to complete training as a Navy SEAL, Air Force tactical air controller, and Army Ranger, Goggins loves nothing more than a challenge. After losing a few buddies to a helicopter crash in Afghanistan, he decided to raise money for the children of fallen soldiers by signing up for a 135-mile footrace through Death Valley. He finished fifth. Eight years later, he set a Guinness World Record with 4,030 pull-ups in 17 hours. The effort left him with third-degree burns on both hands.
Clay Matthews III
Linebacker, Green Bay Packers
Believe it or not, Matthews wasn’t always such a fearsome sight. Before he went to USC and transformed himself into Thor, he was a wisp of a player without a scholarship offer—even though his dad, his uncle, and his grandfather all played in the NFL. Rival QBs have been paying the price for that insult ever since, trembling in fear as Matthews comes speeding off the edge in search of retribution. No wonder it takes two or three men to stop him.
Defenseman, Chicago Blackhawks
Twice named the NHL’s top defenseman, Keith has never been one to shrink from danger. You don’t win two Olympic gold medals and two Stanley Cup rings that way. But in a 2010 playoff game, the Blackhawks’ stalwart demonstrated his true valor by taking a slap shot to the grill and returning to the ice seven minutes later, sacrificing seven teeth to the team’s Stanley Cup championship run. “It’s just missing teeth,” he said afterward. “It’s a long way from the heart.”
Up Next, The Scrappers.
Photos by Sean McCabe