T.O.-He must be on this list although I realize he may be a controversial pick. Terrell Owens (a.k.a. T.O.) engineered one of the most entertaining two days of media coverage in NFL history when several years ago he held out for more money when a member of the Philadelphia Eagles. Can anyone forgot the mid-day surrealism when the TV helicopters flew over his house, gaggles of reporters stuck microphones in his grill, and he did his sit-ups on his concrete front driveway? Instead of working out with the team, he showed he remained dedicated by working out on his own as his lawyer, Drew Rosenhaus, played chicken with Eagles management to squeeze a few more million out of them for his client and himself. Even T.O. seemed to realize the driveway scene was absurd yet he played it out with dedication and without cracking up too much. His life had become Barnum and Bailey's Circus so he enjoyed his moment in the center ring. The cherry on the top of this ice cream occurred when Rosenhaus held a press conference pleading T.O.'s case as T.O. stood in the background chuckling. A serious lawyer making seemingly serious comments and accusations and his client finding the whole thing amusing. Vintage T.O. moment. Then, once the contract dispute cooled and he was ready to join the team for its first game, he unleashed this: "Get your popcorn ready" (to watch him play). Yes he was egomaniacal but with a curious yet worldly understanding of his nutty behavior. He was the Mike Tyson of football in some ways.
Fred Biletnikoff-No one wore more stick-em on his hands in the history of football except for his teammate, Lester Hayes. But Lester's not on my list so let's focus on Fred. As a wide receiver, Freddy lathered his forearms and hands up and down and it worked. I can't think of a more sure-handed wide receiver in football history than this 1970s Oakland Raiders player. What made him more intriguing was he couldn't run all that fast. Common sense told you that while he may be able to catch everything thrown to him that wouldn't matter because he wasn't fleet-footed enough to get separation from receivers. But Freddie found a way. He was like Larry Bird. No one could figure out how such a slow guy could be such a great wide receiver. Likewise, Larry had lead feet also but no one was ever able to stop him from doing whatever he wanted on the basketball court. The clincher that solidifies Fred's selection to this elite list was his long, stringy blonde hair flowing out the back of his helmet. Being on a California-based team, I found myself fantasizing at ages 10 and 11 that Fred doubled as s surfer boy. How could anyone be cooler than a long haired surfer from the West Coast who was also a fantastic wide receiver? He gets on this list without any hesitation.
Jack Youngblood. He wasn't a great player but pretty good as a lineman for the Los Angeles Rams in the 1970s. But his last name makes him an automatic for this list. I know you're going to say there have been guys in football with cooler names. The following leap to mind: Steve Atwater, Mel Blount, Julius Caesar Watts (R-Oklahoma), David Overstreet, Boyd Dowler, Emerson Boozer, and Johnny Football. But Youngblood has an unbeatable sound measured on the Cool Meter. Football is about shedding blood. It's about getting hurt, going to hospitals to see doctors, stopping the bleeding. Jack Youngblood's name epitomized the game's essence, its very real dark side.
Jon Gruden. His selection doesn't need much elaboration. His face might as well be a football. His voice reminds me of shoulder-pad-on-shoulder-pad collisions. You got me?
Art Monk. During the 1980s and 90s, this guy went about his business en route to the Hall of Fame as a wide receiver with more silence and humility than any football player I can think of. A multiple-time All Pro receiver for the Redskins, he was notorious for playing great and never said anything haughty about himself. In fact, he said very little at all during his incredibly productive career. Often guys who don't say much are timid on the field, but this guy caught countless passes over the middle, took innumerable hard hits from defensive backs. One tough dude. And yet he didn't ask for nor want adulation. Never did he do a touchdown dance despite scoring so many. You could find a more talented and admirable football player than Art Monk.
Marcus Dupree. By now many of you know the story of this high school super phenom. For starters-and let's not even bother debating this--he became the greatest running back in the history of American high school football statistically and every other way. Recently his life story got featured on and ESPN 30 for 30. In that documentary people who saw him run in high school spoke about his performances in a way that could only be described as an athletic genius do his thing. Never before, and never since, has a high school running back taken over the country with his astounding talent the way Marcus did. It's undeniable. It was crazy. And it was beautiful, even a little scary how tremendous he was. He went on to be stupendous in his freshmen year at the University of Oklahoma. His coach there, Barry Switzer, said he knew a few nanoseconds after Marcus arrived on the field he was the best athlete on the team, one gushing with All Americans. Forget about it, everybody. Dunk this one with me. This guy has to be on my all-time favorite list and should be on everyone else's. A monumentally prodigious natural talent the likes of which we will never see again. It's out duty to revere and immortalize him in this fashion. Police would arrest all of us if we left him off my list.
Riley Skinner. You could read 300 books about football history and not find a more unlikely success story than this guy. A few years ago he arrived as a freshman on the Wake Forest University college campus as an after-thought, third string quarterback. A few weeks into that season the two QBs ahead of him got injured and didn't play well so Skinner was given the reigns of the team, surely well before he expected. With him at the helm the season seemed sunk. My guess is he probably figured he would never play for Wake, being only six feet tall, slightly built and a below-average-at-best Division I college football player. My guess is he posted one of the slowest 40 yard dash times on the team and ranked below average on agility drills, and that would have true on most Division II and III teams. Yet this kid out of Jacksonville, Florida led that Wake team to the Atlantic Coast Conference championship and the school's first-ever berth in the Orange Bowl. It wasn't a fluke-he passed accurately throughout the season, kept cool in the pocket, and used his mind more than his physical tools to outwit defenses. I am biased for choosing Skinner among my all-time favorites because I'm a Wake alum and enjoyed a great emotional ride that Orange Bowl season culminating with a monster party at the Orange Bowl with hundreds of Wake friends from my undergraduate years. Skinner is the main reason I got to enjoy a reunion of a life-time-the best of my life-because he was a winner. No football player has brought more joy to my life.
Dan Hillegas. It's unlikely any of you has ever heard of this guy but he's still among my all-time football favorites. During two-a-day summer football practices, Dan and I would square off to do the pad-on-pad hitting drill. We held our right arms out and clasped our hands together. Standing as far apart as our arms would stretch, we then fired into each other's shoulders as hard as we could. Upon reflection, that's not quite true. Dan played linebacker and had been lifting free weights all summer preparing for that football season. I played tight end and didn't lift any weights that summer. I played basketball all summer; Dan didn't like basketball players and, for some reason, really didn't care for me even though we hadn't interacted much, if ever. So he launched his all-muscled up self into my right shoulder: crack, crack and crack again. I could feel my shoulder crumbling as if into tiny pieces of glass. Dan wouldn't stop. He liked the drill. I wanted it to end because he was much stronger and meaner than I was. He came from a different part of town than me. Why is he my favorite? Because he taught me how tough you have to be to be a real football player and how important it is to intimidate the other guy by sheer force and anger. He taught me how to think like a football player, how to prepare for the season, how to dislike anyone in your way especially basketball players. I don't like Dan now and didn't then. No doubt he feels the same way. We haven't spoken since that day and didn't that day he pounded me. I am sure he wasn't interested in a basketball player's thought about football. I even remember him saying something in a derogatory tone about me being a basketball player. Even though the dislike has been a constant and mutual from the get-go, he's on my all-time favorite list because I'm scared if I don't include him he may find me and want to do that painful and scary drill again.
Jerry Kramer. In the Ice Bowl in 1967, Kramer threw the lead block that paved the way for Bart Starr's QB sneak that won the NFC championship game for the Green Bay Packers over the Dallas Cowboys. Star got all the headlines for scoring the winning touchdown, but Kramer was the guy who had to fire off the ball and hit a defensive lineman hard to open that hole for Starr. Making that block took stones. Starr didn't take the brunt of the physical jarring on that play; Kramer did. I've always felt sorry for offensive lineman who get minimal credit for having to do the most painful and physically abusive jobs on the field while the QBs and other skill position players get to the score the touchdowns and date the head cheerleaders. Kramer epitomizes that under-publicized, under-appreciated position and I respect him for sacrificing his ego for the betterment of his team. Offensive lineman like Kramer deserve more love; I'm giving it to him now by including him on this august list.
Plaxico Burress. Definitely belongs on this list. Several years ago he caught the winning touchdown in the New York Giants Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots. He was a star receiver and everything pointed towards him having several more high performing years with the team and the Giants winning a few more Super Bowls. But Plax did something a little bit off key. You see, one night he went out in New York City with a gun in his pocket and it accidentally went off. The bullet hit his knee. Although a minor injury, Plax had injured himself in a much more serious way. It's against the law to carry an unlicensed handgun in NYC, and his was just that. Authorities made Plax spend the next two years in jail. The Giants couldn't use his services and struggled without him. For doing his part to thwart the Giants, he gets the nod to be on this top 10 list.