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Romo now among pantheon of NFL's gutsiest performers


Tony Romo’s gutsy performance Sunday was an all-timer. The amount of criticism mounted on his shoulders, the double-digit deficit, and the reality of starting 0-2 were only outdone by the fact that he had cracked ribs and a collapsed lung.

The Dallas quarterback deserves the credit he’s getting, but he’s just one in a pantheon of players who’ve played through intense pain when the stakes were high.

NFL history is chalk full of gutsy performances. Some have been season-long displays of toughness, like Steve McNair winning the 2003 co-MVP while playing through enough injuries to fill a Reader’s Digest feature on the human body. Or Dan Pastorini – the former Houston Oilers quarterback – who played down the stretch with only a flak jacket between his broken ribs and defensive linemen.

Here are a few other examples of when guts and pain tolerance were as important as talent when the stakes were high.

Jack Youngblood

Like Pastorini, Youngblood was a big name in the late '70s, and a guy who was known to play through a lot of pain. The former Rams defensive end deserves to headline this list, as what he did in 1979 has reached legendary status. Youngblood sustained a broken leg in the divisional playoffs versus the Cowboys, and played through it for two more games. The wounded All-Pro led a defense that shut out the Buccaneers in the NFC Championship, and that kept the Rams in Super Bowl XI, a much closer game than revisionist history suggests.

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Donovan McNabb

McNabb has had tough breaks in his career, but maybe none tougher than the one(s) he suffered against the Cardinals in 2002. The Eagles quarterback was sacked on the third play of the game, went to the locker room to get his ankle taped, and resumed play. After putting up 255 yards and four touchdowns worth of production, the MRI's production revealed a fibula broken in three places.

Chris Gardner/Associated Press

Bernie Kosar

Another quarterback, Bernie Kosar, had some issue with his leg in a Monday nighter in Cleveland. That is, if you consider a fractured ankle an "issue." It was Week 2 of the 1992 season, and the Browns' favorite son rallied his team from 17 points down in the fourth quarter to take the lead over Dan Marino and the Dolphins. The comeback was not to be, as Marino was ultimately too much that night. But any die-hard Brownie will tell you that Kosar sealed his status as a local sports hero by displaying some serious guts. Going 19 of 28 with two touchdowns ain't bad, either.

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Terrell Owens

So often with football players, the biggest injuries are somewhere on the leg, be it ankle, knee, calf, etc. But Owens made treatment as famous as the injury itself in 2004, when his use of a hyperbaric chamber to heal his sprained right ankle made headlines. The injury came courtesy of the patented Roy Williams horse-collar tackle. But through modern technology and something T.O. never gets credit for -- toughness -- the likely future Hall of Fame receiver was able to play in Super Bowl XXXIV two weeks before he should have been ready. Hobbled? Hardly enough. T.O. caught nine balls for 122 yards.

David Drapkin/Associated Press

Philip Rivers

Sometimes treatment has to be delayed. The "ahhh ... ^*#@ it, I'll get surgery later" technique was employed by the uber-gutsy Rivers in January of 2008. The Chargers' leader played the AFC Championship in New England with no less than a torn ACL. San Diego fell that day to the 17-0 Patriots, but not because of a lack of heart from their quarterback. Needless to say, Rivers would eventually get that surgery.

Paul Spinelli/Associated Press

Ronnie Lott

Heart was something that was never questioned when it came to Lott. The Hall of Fame defensive back brought toughness to a whole new level when he had his finger amputated in order to play in a 1985 wild-card game. The NFL's fiercest hitter nearly lost his digit when getting it caught in the shoulder pad of Cowboys fullback Timmy Newsome in a must-win season finale against Dallas. So in his mind, he had no other choice: Get the dangling part cut off, or don't play the next week. Hey, San Francisco had a Super Bowl title to defend. It was the right decision. Well, if you're Ronnie Lott.

Greg Trott/Associated Press

Larry Wilson

While Lott was the safety of the '80s, the NFL's best safetyman in the '60s and early '70s was Larry Wilson. Old No. 8 was about as good as it gets, so much so that Packers legend Jerry Kramer called Wilson "the finest football player in the NFL" in his bestseller, Instant Replay. The human kamikaze was the first defensive back to routinely employ the safety blitz to disrupt offenses. But he belongs on this list for sealing a Cardinals win over the Steelers with a fourth-quarter interception. Oh, by the way, he had to clutch the ball with casts on both hands due to a broken hand and fingers.

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Kellen Winslow

When you speak of gutsy performances, you have to take into account the situation. That's where Winslow's performance in the 1981 divisional playoffs comes into play. The all-world tight end nearly beat the Dolphins by himself, catching 13 balls for 166 yards and blocking a winning field goal attempt. He did it with a pinched nerve in his shoulder, while suffering from extreme dehydration. The latter was such an issue that he couldn't even walk off the field after the game. The picture of Winslow being helped off the field by teammates Billy Shields and Eric Sievers is nothing short of iconic.

Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Emmitt Smith

You want high stakes? How about a matchup for the division title as well as home-field advantage throughout the playoffs? That's what the Cowboys and Giants were playing for on Jan. 2, 1994. In a game that evolved into a mano-e-mano tilt between running backs Rodney Hampton and Emmitt Smith, the Dallas tailback delivered a win, and ultimately, a Hall of Fame performance.

Smith ran hard all day, but nothing hit as hard as the cold Meadowlands artificial turf after a routine tackle in the second quarter. Smith separated his shoulder and should have been done for the day. He eventually would be done, after he ran 32 times for 168 yards and caught 10 passes for 61 more, mostly with one arm. Said Cowboys safety Bill Bates, "To see him fight through the pain he had ... inspired us all."

Ron Heflin/Associated Press



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