Top 12 Hardest Hitters In NFL History

By Matthew McGoldrick
June 06, 2012 6:14 am
18,879 Views 12 Comments
The Hardest hitter in NFL history
I love the NFL, but let’s face it: the league is a world apart from its gritty ancestry comprised of toothless tough guys and players who were employed simply because of their blatant disregard for their own bodies. These players stood out in a time where these hits were celebrated, not fined. They were the toughest, meanest, baddest SOB’s that ever set foot on a field. They serve as a stark reminder to how downright violent the game used to be. These guys would have a hard time earning a living in today’s league simply because of their fierce style of play.
This post is not meant to be a referendum on player safety and where you feel the league should go, but one thing is for certain: they sure don’t make ‘em like they used to.

12. Richie (Tombstone) Jackson (DE) 1966 Oakland, 1967-1971 Denver, 1972 Cleveland, 1972 Denver ;
Another proponent of the “head slap”, Rich Jackson was rumored to have cracked a helmet of a Green Bay Packer after using his signature move. A pretty tough guy in his own right, Lyle Alzado dubbed him the toughest man he’d ever met. Factor that in with a well-deserved nickname of “Tombstone” and you’ve got yourself a guy who would have some trouble staying out of trouble in the league today. 

11. Steve Atwater (S) 1989-1998 Denver Broncos, 1999 N.Y. Jets
This one pained me to have to list, but the list wouldn’t be worth squat if it didn’t include Atwater. While he is most remembered for his hit on my personal football hero, Christian “The Nigerian Nightmare” Okoye, the truth is that it wasn’t even one of his best. The fact that it stood the test of time had more to do with Okoye being almost invincible and Atwater being the first guy to really pop him. Aside from that bad childhood memory, Atwater was a beast. He roamed the safety position and had the ability to strike fear on anyone stupid enough to come across the middle against him. He didn’t care if he clotheslined you or strangled you, but you would know who brought you down after it was done.  
10. Ronnie Lott (S) 1981-1990 San Francisco 49ers, 1991-1992 Los Angeles Raiders, 1993-1994 N.Y. Jets
Lott was one of the best safeties to ever play the game. He was also frequently carefree and downright negligent when it came to tackling with concern for his own safety. He would completely sacrifice his own body if it meant putting a crushing hit on the ballcarrier. He threw his shoulder ad head with wanton abandon into the fray. Besides, a dude that cut off a dangling part of his pinkie finger so he could go back into the game is surely someone who would make Roger Goodell cringe when considering his so-called quest for player safety.
9. Hardy Brown (LB) 1950 Baltimore Colts & Washington Redskins, 1951-1955 San Francisco 49ers, 1956 Chicago Cardinals, 1960 Denver Broncos (AFL)
You may not know a lot about a guy who played in the 1950’s, but this is a guy worth knowing about. He had a patented “flipper” move where he would thrust his shoulder into the guy at the last second and literally knock him back like it was a wrecking ball. He played in a time where the equipment provided less protection than you’d have by putting on a heavy sweater, yet he seemed to relish the raw contact. Take a look at some of the limited game film and you will see why he would wind up on the league’s radar after merely a single hit.
8. Deacon Jones (DE) 1961-1971 Los Angeles Rams, 1972-1973 San Diego Chargers, 1974 Washington Redskins ; credited with inventing the head slap
The man who essentially created the concept of “sacking the quarterback” from the defensive end position had a knack for punishing those in his way. Whether it was the offensive lineman charged with blocking him, or the poor unsuspecting QBs that were his final targets, they knew where he was at all times. Still, this large, fast, man would ferociously slap linemen in the head to get by them. He famously said, “Anytime you go upside a man's head they may have a tendency to blink they eyes or close they eyes. And that's all I needed”.  
Dick Butkus (LB) 1965-1973, Chicago Bears
Running into Dick Butkus was like running into a brick wall, only that wall happened to be moving towards you and had a bad attitude. Butkus is widely regarded as one of the best linebackers of all-time, and not coincidentally, one of the most feared. He punished anyone who got in his way and seemed incapable of trying to make a tackle without punishing the ballcarrier. He is a true tough guy that stands out in an era of tough guys. Unfortunately he’d be a fish out of water in today’s game and would likely be labeled “dirty” just for his hard, clean, aggressive play.


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Previous Comments (12)

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3 years ago
Really, No LT? Joe Theismann would disagree.
3 years ago

I'm not saying LT wasn't a big hitter, but the guys on the list were certifiable. LT was as well, but for different reasons then wanting to kill someone on a football field.
3 years ago
Hey Matthew...Great list and the video to go with it. I also agree with you, LT could hit but didn't live for contact like these guys. I also like that you picked up guys from a number of different eras.

I will nominate one that you might want to consider next time, Doug Plank, safety for the Bears in the late 70's and early 80's. Receivers had "alligator arms" when they knew he was in the area. Buddy Ryan loved him so much he named his famous defense after Plank's number, 46.
3 years ago

Tom - excellent reference on Plank. He's on my "personal" list of hardest hitters. Anytime a guy completely leaves his feet to launch himself as a projectile at another player, he's ok by me!
Good video of him hear for readers not familiar with him:
Thanks for the read and comment!
3 years ago
What about Bob Sanders from the Colts?5"8 215,of dynamite!
3 years ago

Bob's a tough dude but he managed to play in the modern day league (when he was not hurt himself) when these other guys would have a hard time with the styles they played with.
3 years ago

Great list, personally I would have listed Butkus higher than 7th place. He was without a doubt the most feared MLBer during his time, more so than Mike Curtis (IMO). Great read and great names that brought memories of the old days.
3 years ago

Thanks for the comment Michael! Butkus was the one I had the most trouble ranking...he was very feared, and was by all acounts a much better all around player then some of those in front of him. I decided to rank him 7 because some of those other guys (Cecil, Curtis) would not have been the type of players they were without being such violent hitters. Butkus was a great hitter but also a great player on top of that.
That's the rationale anyway but it's certainly debatable!
3 years ago
Great Article!! That is what the peoplen love, big hits. Im sure you can see that from the views..I grew up watching atwater from the broncos (my team)..sorry man I know you're a chiefs fan but we can still be friends
3 years ago

Haha - thanks LaMonte and yes I will overlook your affiliation! I'm afraid to say that even as a Chiefs' fan I loved watching Atwater. Gotta love the old school hitters!
3 years ago
Question: How did you have more than one video with your article? My setup only lets me choose one so far.
3 years ago

I had the same issue but put in all the links to each which were imbedded in the article.

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