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Published: Sept. 24, 2013 at 02:23 p.m.
Updated: Sept. 25, 2013 at 02:14 a.m.

NFL's all-time toughest players

Given that he lost his fingertip on Sunday, there’s no doubting the toughness of Arizona Cardinals safety Rashad Johnson. But he is not alone. The annals of pro football are filled with tales of toughness and determination and those stories have become the stuff of legends. Neil Reynolds, author of “The Pain Gang: Pro Football’s Fifty Toughest Players”, tells the stories of men who truly can claim to be among the toughest players in NFL history.

16 Photos Total

  • Honorable Mentions 16

    Honorable Mentions

    Peyton Manning -- Overcame four career-threatening neck surgeries to return to Pro Bowl form with the Denver Broncos.

    John Lynch -- A throwback who could have played in any era. Lynch played safety but he hit like a linebacker and loved to run over people.

    Tedy Bruschi -- Anyone who fights back from a stroke to win a Super Bowl -- as Bruschi did with the Patriots -- deserves to make a tough-guy list. He was also a pretty good linebacker!

    Rodney Harrison -- A street fighter in the secondary who enjoyed tremendous success toward the end of his NFL career. And he made a tackle during Super Bowl XXXVIII with a broken arm.

  • Brett Favre, QB - Packers, Jets, Vikings 1991-2010 15

    David Stluka

    Brett Favre, QB - Packers, Jets, Vikings 1991-2010

    There are few players who can claim to have been as tough and durable as No. 4, who started a record 321 consecutive games during his great career. Favre overcame a multitude of injuries throughout his playing days, mainly due to the fact he couldn't bear to sit on the bench. "I love to play the game," Favre told me. "I get paid to prepare but I play the games for free -- those are the best." (AP Photo/David Stluka)

  • Rocky Bleier, RB - Steelers 1968-1980 14

    Uncredited

    Rocky Bleier, RB - Steelers 1968-1980

    Badly wounded while serving with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, this rugged, overachieving running back defied the odds to win four Super Bowls with the Steelers. Bleier had part of his right foot blown off by a grenade and also injured his left leg, yet somehow he found the will to fight back to full fitness and play 11 seasons in the NFL. "I could have thrown in the towel," Bleier admitted. "But I decided I wasn't going to give up easily."

  • Jim Brown, RB - Browns 1957-1965 13

    Ferd Kaufman

    Jim Brown, RB - Browns 1957-1965

    Jim Brown was not only an electrifying runner who is often called the greatest in NFL history, he was also tough, rugged and virtually impossible to bring down. With the moves of a halfback and the size and power of a fullback, Brown was a handful for the very best defenders in the game, as Hall of Fame linebacker Sam Huff admitted: "He was known in pro football as 'The Big Man.' You would hit him and he would thank you. He was the greatest." (AP Photo)

  • Adrian Peterson, RB - Vikings 2007-current 12

    Scott Boehm

    Adrian Peterson, RB - Vikings 2007-current

    We know "All Day" is blessed with a Hall of Fame mix of speed, power and moves, but it has also been proven that he is determined and tough. On Dec. 24, 2011, Peterson shredded his left knee, and pundits began writing off his 2012 campaign. All he did was work his way back into shape and produce a season for the ages, rushing for 2,097 yards. "There were times when I had to brainwash myself because I was in so much pain," Peterson revealed. "I was able to show people that when you remain resilient and dedicated you can accomplish anything." (AP Photo/Scott Boehm)

  • Walter Payton, RB - Bears 11

    Al GOLUB

    Walter Payton, RB - Bears

    Check out any highlight reel and you will see the late, great Walter Payton running with the kind of athletic grace that few have been able to match in NFL history. But Payton also was a tough, physical runner who took a beating on some pretty poor Bears teams. He took the fight to the opposition on every single down. With a fearsome stiff-arm and thighs strengthened by running up and down a 65-yard sandbank near his Mississippi home, Payton was a classic "finish your run" kind of player. (AP Photo/Al Golub)

  • Anquan Boldin, WR - Cardinals, Ravens, 49ers 2003-current 10

    Kevin Terrell

    Anquan Boldin, WR - Cardinals, Ravens, 49ers 2003-current

    He might not be the fastest player on the field, but Anquan Boldin is one of the most physical. His quarterbacks rarely shy away from throwing him the football, even when he's covered. Boldin uses his body as well as any receiver in the game and is tough as old leather. After a brutal hit from then-Jets safety Eric Smith in 2008, Boldin was left with an injury that required seven metal plates and 40 screws in his face. He missed just two games. "I will always play hard-nosed and all-out," Boldin insisted. (AP Photo/Kevin Terrell)

  • Hines Ward, WR - Steelers 1998-2011 9

    Tom E. Puskar

    Hines Ward, WR - Steelers 1998-2011

    The natural order of life in the NFL should be that wide receivers worry about defenders punishing them with big hits. That was never the case for Hines Ward, who took the fight to the defense throughout a career that saw him catch 1,000 passes and win two Super Bowls with the Steelers. Often accused of playing on the edge of the rules, Ward was comfortable working over the middle and was a devastating blocker on running plays. (AP Photo/Tom E. Puskar)

  • Mike Ditka, TE - Bears, Eagles, Cowboys 1961-1972 8

    Mike Ditka, TE - Bears, Eagles, Cowboys 1961-1972

    While he helped to put the tight end on the map in terms of being an explosive receiving target, Mike Ditka was also a rugged blocker and one of the NFL's tough guys who, you won't be surprised to learn, played with a relatively short fuse. Ditka could stretch a defense and make a breath-taking catch on one play and then smack the defender in the nose on the next. "He was a street-fighter," recalled Chiefs Hall of Fame linebacker Bobby Bell. "You would knock him down and he would keep coming back." (AP Photo)

  • Deacon Jones, DE - Rams, Chargers, Redskins 1961-1974 7

    Uncredited

    Deacon Jones, DE - Rams, Chargers, Redskins 1961-1974

    Growing up in a house with no running water near the Florida swampland that later became Disney World, Deacon Jones learned toughness at a young age. He displayed great mental strength to succeed in the NFL after being a relatively obscure 14th-round draft choice out of tiny Mississippi Vocational College. All he did after that was become one of the greatest ever defensive ends in NFL history. Jones was a dominant pass rusher whose head slap gave linemen nightmares. Oh, and he invented the term "sack," which we all know in today's NFL. (AP Photo/NFL Photos)

  • Jack Youngblood, DE - Rams 1971-1984 6

    NFL

    Jack Youngblood, DE - Rams 1971-1984

    Jack Youngblood proved himself to be a tough and rugged defender throughout his career. But he excelled during the Rams' run to Super Bowl XIV. Youngblood broke his leg in the opening round of the 1979 playoffs against Dallas. After instructing team doctors to "tape it up," Youngblood played against Tampa in the NFC title game and Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl. But he still was not done, as he explained: "I was crazy enough to go to the Pro Bowl. I played because that is such an honor." (AP Photo/NFL Photos)

  • Chuck Bednarik, LB - Eagles 1949-1962 5

    Chuck Bednarik, LB - Eagles 1949-1962

    Concrete Chuck was the last of pro football's 60-minute men, booking his place in the Hall of Fame after 14 hard-hitting seasons as a center and linebacker. Bednarik delivered such a forceful hit on Frank Gifford in 1960 that the New York Giants halfback and flanker missed the remainder of that year and all of the 1961 campaign. You want even more toughness? He flew 30 missions over Germany during World War II as a gunner. (AP Photo/NFL Photos)

  • Dick Butkus, LB - Bears 1965-1973 4

    NFL

    Dick Butkus, LB - Bears 1965-1973

    Even though he never appeared in a single playoff game, there is no doubting Dick Butkus' greatness or his toughness. Moody and intimidating, Butkus worked himself into a punishing frenzy every Sunday. Legendary Rams defensive end Deacon Jones said: "Dick Butkus hated everybody. I think he even hated himself. He hit with the force of hate every time he tackled you." (AP Photo/NFL Photos)

  • Jack Lambert, LB - Steelers 1974-1984 3

    Uncredited

    Jack Lambert, LB - Steelers 1974-1984

    Although he only weighed 220 pounds during his prime and would be dwarfed by the likes of Brandon Marshall and Calvin Johnson in today's NFL, Jack Lambert was easily one of the most dominant players of his generation. With his toothless snarl, the eight-time All-Pro was intimidating to look at and he backed it up with fierce hitting on the field. Steelers running back Rocky Bleier said: "With no front teeth, Jack was kind of a lunatic. He brought intensity to the field." (AP Photo)

  • Mel Blount, CB - Steelers 1970-1983 2

    NFL

    Mel Blount, CB - Steelers 1970-1983

    Every team in today's NFL is looking for that big corner who can match up to the Calvin Johnsons and Brandon Marshalls of the world. The Steelers had one during their Super Bowl dynasty in the form of the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Mel Blount. During a Hall of Fame career in which he manhandled receivers, Blount succeeded through intimidation. "Most offenses tried to stay away from Mel," Steelers coach Chuck Noll revealed. "He could just shut offenses down and change the course of a game." (AP Photo/NFL Photos)

  • Ronnie Lott, S - 49ers, Raiders, Jets - 1981-1994 1

    NFL

    Ronnie Lott, S - 49ers, Raiders, Jets - 1981-1994

    Ronnie Lott was a menacing figure who could do it all. He had the range to cover the entire field, picked off passes, hit like a linebacker and made tight ends and receivers genuinely fear working over the middle. He also was the original Rashad Johnson, losing the tip of his pinkie finger while trying to tackle Dallas' Timmy Newsome in December, 1985. Needless to say, the injury did not stop Lott suiting up for the playoffs. (AP Photo/NFL Photos)

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