Listen, we all know concussions are a clear and present danger. But the last thing we want to see is the toughest athletes on the planet treated like toddlers. So instead of condemning them, let’s all celebrate the gridiron maniacs who bring the pain to everyone.
1. Ray Lewis, LB, Ravens
Photo by Larry French / Getty Images
Entering his 17th season, the Ravens’ 250 pounds of face-painted fury has publicly called bullshit on league hit rules, and when asked what’s going through his mind before the snap, he explained, “If somebody’s getting ready to touch that ball, they gotta get dealt with.” We soiled ourselves just reading that.
By the numbers: 13, number of Pro Bowl selections (one more and he ties the all-time record)
2. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Lions
Sure, he may be dirty (don’t tell him we said that) and he seems like a jerk (don’t tell him that, either), but there’s a reason Suh has won the Outland Trophy, the Lombardi Award, the AP College Player of the Year, and the NFL Rookie of the Year: The dude’s as good as he is nasty. No balls—pigskin or human—are safe around Suh. (You can tell him we said that.)
By the numbers: 9, number of personal fouls Suh accumulated in his first two seasons, the most in the league
3. James Harrison, LB, Steelers
Undrafted out of college, the undersize Harrison has spent his career putting the fear of God into opponents he’s about to mow down. (We especially enjoyed it when he called out, “Hey, 16, I’m coming to kill you!” right before he demolished Matt Casell with a teeth-rattling sack a few seasons back.) Harrison delights in posing for photos with his guns and has referred to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell as a “crook” and a “puppet.” Just the kind of cuddly attitude you’d expect from the youngest in a family of 14 kids.
By the numbers: $125,000, amount Harrison was fined in 2010, a record
4. Steve Smith, WR, Panthers
The 5'9", 185-pound Smith is like one of those scrappy dogs who have no fear about sinking their teeth into a Rottweiler. He fought back from a broken leg in ’04 to win the receiving “triple crown” the following year, but it’s the fact that he will fight bigger players (such as the Saints’ 204-pound Malcolm Jenkins and former teammate Ken Lucas) that makes us think he’s certifiably insane.
By the numbers: 10,278, career receiving yards, the most in Panthers history
5. Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jaguars
Goliath trapped in David’s body, the 5'7" NFL rushing champ hasn’t let his size keep him from dominating the league, just like he didn’t let something like a pesky torn meniscus keep him off the field in 2010. If there’s a hole, he’ll find it. If there isn’t, he’ll make it.
By the numbers: 1,606 rushing yards in 2011 to lead the league
6. Clay Matthews, LB, Packers & 7. Troy Polamalu, S, Steelers
Photo by Jeff Hanisch / US PRESSWIRE
Matthews and Polamalu play different positions in different conferences, but the Packers sack master and the Steelers ball hawk are the NFL’s twin Samsons: long-locked assassins who roam the field offering unwelcome hugs to opponents and smushing their faces into the turf for good measure.
By the numbers: 3, generations of Matthews to play in the NFL; $1 million, the insurance policy on Polamalu’s hair
8. Joe Thomas, OT, Browns
The Browns’ 6'6", 312-pound perennial All-Pro is an avid outdoorsman who hosts a hunting show in Ohio. So whether you’re a big elk or an opposing LB, you don’t want to see Joe standing in front of you. And he will be: Dude hasn’t missed a game since joining the league.
By the numbers: 5, consecutive Pro Bowls to start his career
9. Brian Urlacher, LB, Bears
If there’s any position in football that truly embodies toughness, it’s middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears, and Urlacher carries on the throw-back, smashmouth legacy of such Monsters of the Midway as Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary. You may have forgotten about his 25 tackles in a single game against Arizona in 2006. We’re guessing the majority of the guys he hit have—they may have forgotten their own names, too.
By the numbers: 1,294, career tackles, a Bears record
10. Rob Gronkowski, TE, Pats
Photo by Jim Davis / Getty Images
His porn-star pals, Tebow teasing, and party-hearty attitude make us want to hang out with him. His freakish 6'6", 265-pound physique makes us fear him. And his playing the Super Bowl with an ankle injury that would have had any normal person in traction makes us wonder if he is the love child of He-Man and a dire wolf.
By the numbers: 17, TDs by a tight end in 2011, a league record
11. London Fletcher, LB, Redskins
A 5'10" inside linebacker is impressive enough, but a 5'10" inside linebacker who’s basically indestructible? That’s Mr. Fletcher, the man who once called himself “the Susan Lucci of the NFL” for his lack of trips to the Pro Bowl—until last year, that is, when the 37-year-old led the league in tackles.
By the numbers: 224, consecutive games played
12. Justin Smith, DE/DT, 49ers
The man nicknamed Godzilla is a true monster, and it seems like he’s only now hitting his prime after a decade in the league. In fact, last year the 49ers anchor was both a first-team All-Pro (as DT) and a second-teamer (as DE). Not to mention he handed Mothra his ass.
By the numbers: 2, spots on last year’s All-Pro squad
13. Eli Manning, QB, Giants
Photo by Christopher Szagola / Getty Images
Bear with us on this one. By enduring the Big Apple’s glare and the Peyton comparisons, playing hurt, leading crazy comebacks, and winning two titles, Eli’s proved to be the toughest QB around. So what if he looks like a confused goober?
By the numbers: 15, number of fourth-quarter TD passes in 2011, a record
14. Jared Allen, DE, Vikings
He hunts boar, ropes steer, trains with Navy SEALs, scares the bejeezus out of opposing quarterbacks, and rocks the most glorious mullet this side of Joe Dirt. The fact that he’s an honorary member of Jackass is just gravy.
By the numbers: 22, number of sacks last year, half a sack away from the single-season record
15. Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seahawks
He’s had his troubles with the law, but we don’t want to get caught up in how many times he’s been shot at or the firearm possession charges. With Lynch it comes down to two words: beast mode!
By the numbers: 11, consecutive games with a touchdown in 2011, a Seahawks record
16. Richard Seymour, DT, Raiders
When the six-time All-Pro knocked Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger to the ground with a right cross in 2010, he was ejected immediately—and became an instant hero to anyone who’s ever shared a bathroom stall with grabby Ben.
By the numbers: $15 million, Seymour’s salary, the highest of any defensive player
17. Jim Harbaugh, Coach, 49ers
Photo by Ezra Shaw / Getty Images
The ex-QB logged 14 NFL seasons, but Harbaugh has really made his name on the sidelines…and at midfield. His overly aggressive postgame handshake nearly knocked Lions coach Jim Schwartz on his ass, and a live coach brawl came this
close to happening on national TV. Why, oh, why did cooler heads have to prevail?
By the numbers: 6-10, 49ers record before Harbaugh took over. After his first year: 13-3.
18. Kyle Vanden Bosch, DE, Lions
You’d think a 6'4", 280-pound lineman with a shaved head and goatee who talks like Randy Savage would be intimidating enough. Apparently not for Vanden Bosch, who added demonic blood-red contacts to his diabolical repertoire. He may not be the world’s greatest athlete, but fuck if he doesn’t freak us the hell out with those weird-ass peepers.
By the numbers: 163,000, Google hits for “kyle vanden bosch devil”
19. Nick Mangold, C, Jets
Whether the hands under his butt belong to Mark Sanchez or Tim Tebow, the perennial All-Pro is the immovable heart and soul of the Jets’ offense. Plus, he has an awesome beard, and when he interned for Maxim last year, he waited until 9:30 a.m. before he started drinking. We admire that kind of discipline.
By the numbers: $55 million, Mangold’s 2010 contract, making him the highest-paid center in NFL history
at the time
20. Rav Rocca, P, Redskins
Why the hell is a punter on a list of the NFL’s biggest badasses? Because said punter is the oldest rookie in NFL history, stands 6'5", weighs 265, and was a star Australian rules football player. No helmet, no problem!
By the numbers: 33, Rocca’s age as a rookie, the oldest ever