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Being a bully on the football field isn’t quite the same as being a dirty player. There are similarities. Both stretch the bounds of what the rules allow. A dirty player will take handfuls of jersey, inconspicuous kicks or punches when they believe they can get away with it.
The difference is a bully doesn’t worry about where the boundaries of the rules end. They do their business in the open, saying this could happen to you if you enter into my neighborhood, even if it isn’t always within the rules. The intimidation factor, in some cases, fills in for lack of talent. They can also be as dangerous to their teammates as they are to their opponents.
With that in mind here are 10 of the biggest bullies in NFL history.
Richie Incognito, Guard; St. Louis Rams 2006-2009, Buffalo Bills 2009, Miami Dolphins 2010-2013
No matter how the incident between Incognito and Jonathan Martin is resolved there is no doubt that he’s earned his reputation for being undisciplined and emotionally out of control.
Publically, Incognito’s troubles began in 2002, his freshman season at Nebraska. He instigated fights with teammates and spat at opponents. He caused one teammate to walk off the field when he plowed his back during practice.
His conviction for misdemeanor assault and two suspensions from the football team led him to transfer to Oregon in 2004. They let him go before he attended his first practice.
He was picked in the third round of the 2005 NFL Draft by the Rams and brought his personal baggage with him to St. Louis. In his four seasons with the Rams he was flagged for seven personal fouls, more than any other player in the league during that time. The final two, a pair of head-butting penalties, sealed his release from the Rams in 2009.
That same year, in a poll of 99 players by The Sporting News he was voted the NFL’s dirtiest player.
Now the issue is whether Incognito will be able to continue his NFL career. It’s not only the matter of whether he will be cleared to play but whether any team is willing to take on his personality as the price for his genuine talent.
Brandon Meriweather, Safety; New England Patriots 2007-2010, Chicago Bears 2011, Washington Redskins 2012-2013
Meriweather’s logo could be too helmets crashing together over a yellow flag. When he’s on the field opposing receivers know their world can explode at any time if Mariweather is in the neighborhood.
He’s on his third team in his seventh season because the positives he brings to the field don’t make up for the loss of yardage his personal fouls bring.
Now receivers will have to watch out for their knees. After a one game suspension earlier this season Meriweather announced that, “I guess I’ve just got to take people’s knees out. I'd hate to end a guy's career over a rule, but I guess it's better (for something to happen to) other people than me getting suspended for longer.”
One trademark of a bully, it’s never them. It’s everyone else who creates the issues.
James Harrison, Linebacker; Pittsburgh Steelers 2002-2012, Cincinnati Bengals 2013
In 2012, an ESPN poll asked NFL Players who was the most violent and dangerous in the league, Harrison was the overwhelming winner with 67.5 percent of the vote.
Harrison struggled to establish himself in the NFL but when he arrived he made sure everyone knew it, particularly commissioner Roger Goodell.
In 2010 Harrison was fined a total of $125,000 in 2010, $75,000 of that for a hit against the Browns’ Mohamed Massaquoi. He gave an encore of that hit in 2011 when a violent helmet to facemask hit on Browns quarterback Colt McCoy.
The sad part about Harrison’s incidents is he has never taken any accountability for any of the hits he’s been flagged for. He’s never made an illegal hit, it’s the referees and Goodell who are the problem.
George Trafton, Center; Chicago Staleys/Bears 1920-1921, 1923-1932
George Trafton was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1964. He is widely credited as being the first center in NFL history to snap the ball with one hand. He also wasn’t afraid to take on anyone, on or off the field. As Red Grange once described him he was, “the toughest, meanest, most ornery critter alive.”
One writer noted that Trafton was strongly disliked in every city in the NFL except Green Bay and Rock Island. In those two places, “He was hated.”
In one 1920 game against Rock Island he knocked out four players in the space of 12 plays while fans yelled threats at him from the stands. He also hit a Rock Island halfback, knocking him against a nearby fence, breaking his leg.
The second the game was over he sprinted past the Bears’ bench, grabbed a sweatshirt to hide his uniform and dashed for the exit. Trafton jumped into a cab but leapt out when rocks came crashing through the windows and raced away on foot.
The next time the Bears played in Rock Island George Halas let him carry the $7,000 game share back to Chicago. He said, “I knew that if trouble came Trafton would be running for his life. I would only be running for the $7,000.
Jack Tatum, Safety; Oakland Raiders 1971-1979, Houston Oilers 1980
Any player who could bear the nickname “The Assassin” with pride cannot be ignored when compiling a list of NFL bullies. While a majority of his signature hits would be illegal in today’s NFL they were within the rules in Tatum’s day which makes him less a dirty player and more a scary one. His reputation as one of the hardest hitters in the NFL had every receiver cutting across the middle of the field looking over their shoulder.
The first of Tatum’s signature incidents came in Super Bowl XI against the Minnesota Vikings. Sammy White caught a ball coming across the middle when Tatum collided head-to-head with him, sending his helmet flying five yards away.
The hit Tatum was most vilified for came in a 1978 preseason game against the New England Patriots. As wide receiver Darryl Stingley leapt to catch a pass Tatum drilled him. Stingley landed with two broken vertebrae and was paralyzed for the rest of his life.
After his career Tatum wrote three books, They Call Me Assassin in 1980, They Still Call Me Assassin: Here We Go Again in 1989 and Final Confessions of an NFL Assassin in 1996.
Doug Atkins, Defensive End; Cleveland Browns 1953-1954, Chicago Bears 1955-1966, New Orleans Saints 1967-1969
Doug Atkins is considered a prototype for the defensive end position and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982. He was also one of the most feared players of his time. Dick Butkus, Atkins teammate for two seasons, said Atkins was the only player he was afraid of.
Today Atkins would likely be labeled as a bully but back in his playing days he was considered “colorful”. Also, quite a bit of what took place with Atkins off the field never became public.
One story that came out later was his arrivals at training camps with two .44-caliber Magnums, several derringers and a shotgun. In New Orleans he once scared a group of rookies by firing a gun into the overhang outside their window. "I needed my sleep," Atkins said. "I was old. I came in at curfew and needed to rest up. They wanted to keep that music playing so I just quieted them down."
Atkins also said, "A lot of those stories have grown. I think people just like to add to them. I didn't even always have live ammunition in those guns. A lot of times I was firing blanks."
Albert Haynesworth, Defensive Tackle; Tennessee Titans 2002-2008, Washington Redskins 2009-2010, New England Patriots 2011, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2011
Haynesworth was drafted No. 15 overall in the 2002 NFL Draft by the Titans and it didn’t take long for them to see what they were getting.
In Haynesworth’s first training camp he kicked center Justin Hartwig in the chest and had to be restrained by his teammates. That foreshadowed what was to come.
In 2006 in a game against the Cowboys Haynesworth removed center Andre Gurode's helmet and stomped down on his head. He opened up a gash on Gurode’s forehead but fortunately just missed his eye. Haynesworth was penalized 15-yards for the personal foul and when he threw his helmet on the field in disgust he was ejected from the game and the Titans were penalized another 15-yards. Haynesworth was suspended five games for that incident.
The unfortunate part of Haynesworth’s career was he was a player with a world of talent but could never control his emotions well enough to make use of it.
Ndamukong Suh, Defensive Tackle; Detroit Lions 2010-2013
Suh was the second overall pick by the Lions in the 2010 NFL Draft. The two incidents Suh is most notorious for happened in consecutive Thanksgiving Day games.
Against the Packers in 2011, early in the third quarter at the end of a third down play, Suh pushed guard Evan Dietrich-Smith’s head into the artificial turf then stomped on his right shoulder as he was pulled away. He was ejected from the game then suspended for two games by the league.
On Thanksgiving Day in 2012 against the Texans, Suh was pulled to the turf in front of Matt Schaub. As he rolled he struck out with his left foot, connecting with Schaub in “the groin”. Suh claimed the kick was inadvertent but the NFL disagreed to the tune of $30,000.
Suh has been overwhelmingly voted as the NFL’s Dirtiest Player in a poll of players by the Sporting News in both 2011 and 2012 and may have set himself as the early favorite in 2013 after a $100,000 fine for his low hit against the Vikings’ John Sullivan.
Conrad Dobler, Guard; St. Louis Cardinals 1972-1977, New Orleans Saints 1978-1979, Buffalo Bills 1980-1981
Dobler was selected by the St. Louis Cardinals in the fifth round of the 1972 NFL Draft but was waived at the end of the preseason. When he was re-signed he decided to do whatever it took to make sure he stayed.
Whatever it took became spitting in defensive lineman’s faces, head slaps, biting, eye gouging and more. If his opponent got his hands in the air Dobler would deliver punches up under his chest padding into the solar plexus. He mastered the “leg whip” for when he was on the ground and still needed to stop a defender.
Tom Banks, the center on those Cardinals’ teams, said one time he saw Dobler make a defender cry on the field.
In their July 25, 1977 issue, Sports Illustrated named Dobler the dirtiest player in pro football. When he wrote his autobiography he titled it “They Call Me Dirty”.
Dobler had many feuds with defensive tackles throughout the league but the Rams’ Merlin Olsen was able to get the last word in theirs. On his “Father Murphy” television series, during a funeral scene at a cemetery, the only name visible on the tombstones behind Olsen was “Conrad Dobler.”
Bill Romanowski, Linebacker; San Francisco 49ers 1988-1993, Philadelphia Eagles 1994-1995, Denver Broncos 1996-2001, Oakland Raiders 2002-2003
Whether deserved or not, Bill Romanowski became the NFL’s poster boy for the effects of ‘roid rage on football players. What is deserved is his reputation as a violent player who intimidated others through fear throughout his career.
Among smaller incidents, there were the two that earned Romanowski national notoriety, in a December 15, 1997 Monday Night Football Game, he spit in the face of San Francisco 49ers’ receiver J.J. Stokes. That incident, occurring on prime time television, made him the target of outrage across the nation and earned him a $75,000 fine from the NFL.
During training camp in 2003, after tight end Marcus Williams blocked Romanowski on a play in practice he grabbed Williams by the jersey, ripped his helmet off and punched him in the face, breaking Williams’ left orbital bone and chipping a tooth. Williams was awarded a total of $415,000 in a civil suit against Romanowski but never played in the NFL again.
After his playing career Romanowski made the news again when, on an October 16, 2005 episode of 60 Minutes he admitted to using steroids and human growth hormone supplied to him by BALCO’s Victor Conte.
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