Published: August 24, 2013
The best part of sports? Talking about them. Arguing about them. Making your point and then listening to an utterly different point.
Is Jim Brown the greatest NFL player of all time? I think so. You might not.
Is John Elway the greatest quarterback ever? I say yes. I expect to hear from several Gazette readers who say no.
That's the fun of sports. This is my list of the top 20 NFL players of all time. You might admire this list. You might despise it.
It's great either way. Let's start the discussion.
1. JIM BROWN, Browns running back
Jim Brown gained 12,312 rushing yards, scored 126 touchdowns, averaged 5.2 yards per carry and 104 yards per game and he did all this before his 30th birthday. Then, in one of the more shocking developments in NFL history, he decided he wanted to star in a movie with Raquel Welch more than he wanted to face the sinister defenders of the NFL. (This is an understandable wish.) He retired, walking away from the game in his prime.
When you talk about ifs in sports, one of most fascinating to consider is what Brown might have accomplished if he played until his health ran out. I believe he would have busted the 20,000 yard barrier and reigned forever as the Michael Jordan of professional football
Rick Barry, a resident of Colorado Springs for more than 25 years, is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and an intense sports fan. He's a Brown admirer.
"He was sick," Barry said, using sick as a compliment. "He was so far ahead of his time, so powerful, so fast. People don't understand how great he was."
That's true. No one blended Brown's size - he weighed 232 pounds - with his punishing power and speed.
2. JERRY RICE
49ers, Raiders, Seahawks wide receiver
How talented was Jerry Rice? How impossible to cover?
This talented and this impossible:
Rice, in his prime, could have made an all-pro quarterback out of scatter-armed Tim Tebow.
Rice, from Mississippi Valley State, caught more than 80 passes in 11 of his 20 seasons, and delivered a 92-catch season for the Raiders when he was 40 years old.
Former Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry spent his career leading teams of overachievers. Rice, in his eyes, ranks as football's ultimate overachiever.
"He came from a little ol' school and realized he had to outwork everyone," DeBerry said. "He sought perfection, and that's how he became so great."
3. JOHN ELWAY
For years, I joined most of the sports nation in condemning John Elway for his role in those horrific Super Bowl losses.
But those three trips to The Ultimate Game were, in reality, Elway's finest hour. He carried flawed Broncos teams to AFC titles. On those three trips, Elway was surrounded by utterly average running backs and receivers.
When Elway finally was granted a worthy sidekick in running back Terrell Davis, two titles rapidly followed.
Elway might not be the finest quarterback in football history. He is the finest football player/quarterback. What I mean is this: Dan Marino was a matchless quarterback, able to collect astounding statistics. Marino, who never won a Super Bowl, was not a matchless football player. He was one-dimensional. Granted, it was a spectacular dimension, but Marino did not escape the pocket and muscle to a crucial first down. Elway could run, pass and lead.
4. JOE MONTANA 49ers, Chiefs quarterback
Air Force fans got a glimpse - an excruciatingly painful glimpse - of Joe Montana's magic in 1975. Montana arrived at Falcon Stadium with his heavily favored Notre Dame teammates, but the Fighting Irish fell behind by 20 points, 30-10, in the fourth quarter.
You guessed it. Montana led the Irish on a 21-point rally and Notre Dame marched out of Colorado Springs with a 31-30 victory.
Montana fans might ask how he can be placed behind Elway on this list. Here's how: Elway led the Broncos to five Super Bowls, and they haven't returned since he retired in 1999. The 49ers, under Steve Young's direction, won the Super Bowl two years after Montana migrated to Kansas City.
5. WALTER PAYTON
Bears running back
Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith, one of the top 30 NFL players, broke Walter Payton's career rushing record. Just before Smith passed Payton, he summarized his style.
"When you think of Walter, you think of him powering into the defense, moving people back." Smith said. "You think of him eroding a defense. He did it the hard way. That's the mark of a runner with heart."
Eroding a defense. What a dead-on description of Payton's work.
6. JOHNNY UNITAS
Colts, Chargers quarterback
Here is a delicious slice of football history: Johnny Unitas spent the 1955 season playing for $6 per game for the Bloomfield Rams, a semipro team in Pittsburgh. Unitas took refuge with the Rams after the brainiacs who ran the Pittsburgh Steelers cut him before the season.
Two seasons later, Unitas was the NFL's Most Valuable Player, and by the end of the decade he led the Baltimore Colts to the NFL title.
7. DICK BUTKUS
Bears middle linebacker
A few facts about Dick Butkus, the greatest middle linebacker in NFL history and one of the NFL's heartwarming hometown tales. He grew up in Chicago and became one of the Chicago Bears all-time greats:
1. His high school coach at Chicago Vocational refused to allow Butkus to engage in all-out hitting with his teammates. This coach, a wise man, worried about the safety of Butkus' teammates
2. Chicago is America's ultimate south-north city. In other words, residents on the southside are skeptical of everything concerning the northside. Butkus, a southsider through and through, grew up disliking the Bears, who played on the northside at Wrigley Field. He cheered for the Chicago Cardinals who played on the southside at Comiskey Field. (The Cardinals departed Chicago in 1960 to move to St. Louis and have since moved to Arizona.)
3. Butkus boasts extraordinarily wide shoulders. When he stood in the center of the Bears defense, it looked as if he covered half the field.
4. Colorado College coach Scott Owens grew up in Madison, Wis., as an obsessed Packers fan. He could not, though, ever shake his admiration for Butkus. "He was mean and tough and strong," Owens said. "He was a little bit scary."
5. Butkus ranks as the No. 1 tough guy in NFL history, but he's also a tender family man. He celebrates his 50th anniversary this year with his wife Helen.
8. LAWRENCE TAYLOR Giants linebacker
"For me, crazy as it seems, there is a real relationship between a wild, reckless abandon off the field and being that way on the field," Lawrence Taylor, 1987.
Taylor, a marauding outside linebacker, might be the most troubling athlete to ever compete on a football field. Troubling for running backs and quarterbacks, who worried about getting smacked upside the head. And troubling for fans. Taylor was - and always will be - a symbol of NFL anarchy. He rampaged right at the edge of destruction. This served him well on the field, and not so well in his life. He's long struggled to remain within the boundaries of the law.
But, my, could the man hit.
Taylor told Newsday's Steve Jacobson he loved "the kill shot."
"It's when the snot comes from the nose and he starts quivering on the ground," Taylor said. "You want to run that film again and again."
What a brutish, revolting statement. And what a summary of the proper attitude for an NFL defender.
Giants linebacker Harry Carson and Taylor were as close as brothers. But Carson made it clear he would never want his daughter to marry a man like Taylor.
"Never," Carson said. "I'd want my daughter to marry a nice guy."
9. TOM BRADY
Tom Brady will walk forever hand-in-hand - we're not talking literally here - with coach Bill Belichick. Brady, ready for his GQ cover shot, alongside Belichick, with his bad hair and gruesome hoodies. The NFL's odd couple.
Let's be clear: Belichick is the lead player in the duo. He's the irreplaceable piece of the Patriots dynasty.
Jim Brown, the NFL's greatest player, once shared with me his skepticism about Brady. He's great, Brown said.
At following instructions.
"A person like him is very rare," Brown said. "Most quarterbacks would be fighting for independence and that would never work with the New England concept. I would never talk about Brady in a singular way. He has an ability to execute instructions and execute them without obvious rebellion."
Talk about faint praise. But it also must be said that Brady also has an ability to lead his team to Super Bowls. He's traveled to five, winning three while barely losing two to the Giants.
10. PEYTON MANNING Colts, Broncos quarterback
This list is not etched in stone. Manning is in the middle of one of the NFL's all-time inspiring comeback stories. A year ago, his time as a dominating passer appeared over. Football mayhem appeared to have claimed another far-too-young victim.
Then Manning lifted the Broncos to a superlative regular season and made a siren statement. He had not been conquered.
And he might be on the verge, even as we speak, of leading the Broncos to their third Super Bowl title. He might climb even higher on this list.
Count Air Force coach Troy Calhoun as an unabashed Manning admirer.
"He's so good," Calhoun said. "He's so fun to watch. He's the best. I absolutely love watching the guy."
Fun to watch? It's OK. You can admit it. When he was playing for the Colts and dancing around behind his offensive line seconds before the snap, pointing at defenders and draining the play clock, he was irritating.
Manning is only fun to watch when he's playing for your team.
11. REGGIE WHITE
Eagles, Packers, Panthers defensive end
A terrifying pass rusher. And a sad story. White died, only 43, in 2004.
He has streets named after him in his native Chattanooga, Tenn., and Green Bay, where he lifted the Packers to a Super Bowl win. No street is named after him in Philadelphia, most likely because Eagles fans remain angry that he departed the city in 1993 to play for the Packers.
12. RONNIE LOTT, 49ers, Raiders, Jets defensive back
Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Steve Young are the glam players from the 49ers dynasty. Don't ever forget Lott, quick and vicious in the secondary.
13. "MEAN" JOE GREENE, Steelers defensive tackle
Air Force basketball coach Dave Pilipovich grew up near Pittsburgh, and he's a devoted Steelers fan. (Are there any other kind?)
A few years ago, he was sitting in his office when someone stopped by with surprising news:
Joe Greene was in the football offices. Pilipovich rushed around the corner to meet one of his heroes.
"Oh, he was unbelievable," Pilipovich said. "He told me thanks for stopping by. He was not a Hall of Famer, not a guy with all those accolades. He was just Joe Greene."
14. FORREST GREGG Packers, Cowboys offensive tackle
Vince Lombardi called Gregg the greatest player he ever coached. Gregg lived in Colorado Springs, a few hundred yards away from the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, for nearly 10 years.
15. TONY GONZALEZ
Chiefs , Falcons tight end
The most dominating tight end in football history.
16. DICK "NIGHT TRAIN" LANE
Rams, Cardinals, Lions defensive back
Back in the NFL's ancient days, defenders faced no punishment for attacking the heads of opponents. The "Night Train," who played from 1952 to 1965, was a wicked, expert head hunter.
But that's not all. As a rookie, he intercepted 14 passes. In 12 games.
17. DON HUTSON Packers wide receiver
Hutson, who played from 1935 to 1945, ranked as a revolutionary, the first great NFL receiver.
18. SAM BAUGH Redskins quarterback, defensive back and punter
NFL history's most complete player? That's easy. Baugh, who played from 1937-52, is one of the top 10 quarterbacks of all time. He also averaged 45.1 yards per punt, second-best average in NFL history, and once led the league in passing and interceptions.
19. RAY NITSCHKE
Packers middle linebacker
The muscle behind the Packers dynasty of the 1960s. Air Force athletic director Hans Mueh was raised in Wisconsin, which means he is a devout Packers fan.
"Ray Nitschke, old No. 66," Mueh said, laughing. "I've seen Ray Lewis and I've seen Dick Butkus and I've seen a lot of these guys, but I have never seen anybody like Nitschke in a Packer uniform. A wild man, a crazy man, but he was in control. He was a ferocious, ferocious football player."
20. RAY LEWIS
Ravens middle linebacker
Like him? I don't either, but he carried the Ravens to two Super Bowl titles. John Elway delivered the best exit in NFL history. Lewis came close to matching Elway's walk into the sunset. The Ravens had no business ruling the NFL last season. They did anyway, largely because they were inspired by Lewis.