In a sport where nasty play is welcomed on both sides of the ball, it is the nasty defenders who have been the major contributors to the often criticized violence of the game. For many of these players, a nasty disposition was a major character trait of each, as well as sometimes being a great flaw.
Defensive players have always had to play with a certain tenacity that allows them to get in position to make big plays. Many of the greatest defensive players are all men who have been blessed with a combination of great size and speed, but what seems to make them all great is a nastiness that comes from within.
Dick Butkus was nasty in the way he could separate offense players from the ball. Ray Lewis was nasty when it came time to make a big play. Big John Matusak was nasty on and off the field, using it to land a few roles on the big Hollywood screen. Jack Tatum had a good career, but his nastiness can be summed up in one unfortunate play.
The following players are some of the nastiest to ever play the game. It is not all about penalties, fines and fights that contribute to the distinction of making this list. Many of these players played the game with a great intensity that some of them found hard to control. Nasty or sometimes even violent, these players could all be considered as examples for the violent nature of the NFL game.
10. Ray Lewis, LB – 6-1, 240 pounds
Ray Lewis might not be the nastiest player on this list, but something about the way he plays the game makes him fearsome to say the least. Lewis could tackle with the best and run down just about any play. His quickness to the ball evoked fear in many of his opponents. If players were not intimidated by his play, he could go face mask to face mask to anyone who had the audacity to give him any lip. He could bark as well as he could bite and made it a habit to get under his opponents’ skin.
Lewis was also a tackling machine, amassing 2,061 career tackles with 41.5 quarterback sacks and 31 interceptions. He was selected to the Pro Bowl 13 times, won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year twice and was even a Super Bowl MVP. Lewis played the game with a chip on his shoulder that made him nasty and difficult to block. It was his greatness as a player that made it hard for opponents and opposing offensive coordinators to get much sleep, also a reason why he lands on this list.
9. Ndamukong Suh, DT – 6-4, 307 pounds
He might still be a rising star, but Ndamukong Suh has had plenty of experiences to make a place for himself on this list. Kicking opponents in the groin, hands to the face or many other actions that have earned him a personal foul, are all parts of Suh’s repertoire and current game. Suh has racked up the penalties and over $216,000 in fines that lend support to his nasty reputation. He has the nastiness of a great linebacker and the mammoth size that makes him even more mean.
His accomplishments in the NFL have helped provide a little cover for his bad-boy fame. Suh does have 186 combined tackles and 27.5 sacks in four years of NFL action from his defensive tackle slot. He was the NFL’s Rookie of the Year in 2010. Since his outstanding rookie season, Suh has been to three Pro Bowls and has been a force to be reckoned with in the middle of the Detroit Lion’s defensive line. His big problem is that the 15-yard penalties and NFL fines seem to be too much of a driving force for his placement on this list.
8. Lyle Alzado, DE – 6-3, 255 pounds
Lyle Alzado was mean and intimidating to say the least. He wasn’t a huge guy, but had a nasty disposition that challenged his opponents on every play. He was so violent that he inspired the league’s rule against throwing a helmet, after he threw an opponent’s helmet wildly into the turf. Teammates who knew him, said he was a terrific man off the field, but between the white lines, Alzado was nothing short of a beast. Alzado played defensive end and even spent some time at defensive tackle, willing to fill in where his team had a need.
In an era that had some stellar defensive ends, Alzado was selected to two Pro Bowls and was voted the AFC Defensive Player of the Year in 1977. He finished his career with many quarterback sacks and a reputation of being one the the fiercest defensive ends to ever play the game. Alzado was also an amateur boxer who once even faced Muhammad Ali.
7. Bill Romanowski, LB – 6-3, 245 pounds
There might have been something wrong with Bill Romanowski that contributed to his violent nature. Rumors of steroid abuse were fueled by his actions on and off the field of play. He once kicked a player who was down on the ground twice in the head. He spit in a receivers face after being taunted during a game, threw a punch at another player’s head, hit another with the toss of a football to the groin and even crushed an opposing quarterback’s jaw following a helmet to helmet hit. Romanowski was so violent that he injured his own teammate with a punch that caused permanent damage and forced his retirement from football, leading to a famous lawsuit.
Romanowski was mean, violent and certainly pretty tough, but he could also play. He was on four Super Bowl winning teams during the course of his career and was selected to play in two Pro Bowls. He finished his career with 1,116 tackles and 39.5 quarterback sacks, but it was his nasty disposition and violent nature that still earned him more of his fame.
6. James Harrison, LB – 6-0, 275 pounds
James Harrison is one of the nastiest players who currently still plays the game. Harrison plays with a reckless abandon that has him throwing his weight around or lowering his helmet to take down opponents on any play that comes his way. He has been painted as one of the league’s villains for using his helmet to make more than his share of scary helmet to helmet plays. Harrison was fined $125,000 in one season (2010) for his brutal collisions with unsuspecting opponents.
Despite having trouble learning to change his ways, Harrison has been able to keep his roster spot with his play on the field. Harrison simply makes big plays. He has had 647 tackles and 66 quarterback sacks, but it might be his six interceptions and 29 forced fumbles that define him more as a player. Harrison has been selected to five Pro Bowls and was the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, but it is his dangerous play that makes him nasty on the field.
5. John Matuszak, DE – 6-7, 280 pounds
John Matuszak was the poster child for defining nasty in the 1970s. The hulking defensive end was named one of the top five all-time bad boys of the NFL, in a 2005 Sports Illustrated article. Matuszak was so mean that he even assaulted one of his own coaches, just because of a rumor that one of his teammates he was fond of was going to get traded away. He was so mean that Hollywood took notice and cast him in perfect character roles in movies like the Caveman and The Goonies. His NFL career was productive, but his presence was often more of an opponent’s concern.
Matusak didn’t put up big numbers or make it to any Pro Bowl squads, but he was able to help the Oakland Raiders win two Super Bowls. His scruffy appearance and wild actions on and off the field, always seemed to overshadow his performance. In addition to his nasty play, Matusak was known as a party animal who was no stranger to alcohol and drugs. His life came to an abrupt end in 1989, sadly, at the age of 38, following a prescription drug overdose.
4. Jack Lambert, LB – 6-4, 220 pounds
Jack Lambert was intimidating with his toothless snarl, but it was his ability to avoid blocks and get to the ball that made him more than just mean. Lambert might have been light for a linebacker, but he was never afraid to make a big hit. He was known for making plays all over the field, but it was the contact he was able to make with a ball carrier that made him one of the nastiest players of his time.
Lambert finished his career with 1,479 tackles and 28 interceptions, in addition to many sacks and tackles for loss. He was selected to 9 Pro Bowls and earned recognition as the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year (1974) and Defensive Player of the Year (1976). Lambert helped lead the Pittsburgh Steelers to four Super Bowl wins and was a major force in the 1976 squad’s NFL record for holding opponents to a season low point total of only 138. Lambert was feared equally for his hits and his stellar play.
3. Jack Tatum, S – 5-10, 200 pounds
Jack Tatum was nicknamed, “The Assassin”, for his formidable style of play. He was nasty, he was mean, and many of his hits seemed to leave lasting impressions felt well beyond the field of play. In an unfortunate incident, one of Tatum’s tackles left New England Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley paralyzed from the chest down. Tatum sent many receivers to the sidelines, starting with his first career game against the Baltimore Colts when he knocked two of the Colts tight ends, John Mackey and Tom Mitchell, out of the game.
Tatum was a terrific player who might have been better known for his hit on Stingley or his participation in the Pittsburgh Steelers “Immaculate Reception” play. Tatum hit a Steeler so hard that the ball popped up in the air and was caught by Franco Harris, leading to a 42 yard game winning touchdown with just seconds left in the game. Outside of these two historical plays, Tatum earned three trips to the Pro Bowl and finished his career with 37 interceptions. Despite any of his accomplishments, Tatum will forever be known for his violent hits and the resulting fear that he instilled in the opposition.
2. Joe Greene, DT – 6-3, 275 pounds
“Mean” Joe Greene was a legendary defensive tackle who spent his whole career playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was the pillar of Pittsburgh’s “Steel Curtain” defense of the 1970s. Greene makes this list primarily because of his ability to play the game with an edge and motor that undeniably led to his appropriate nickname. He had the size, strength and speed that was unique during his era, but it was his love for making a big hit that really added to his overall game.
Greene was certainly talented, as his ten career Pro Bowl selections can attest. He finished his career with 78.5 recorded quarterback sacks and several other bigger plays. He was so mean that he once repeatedly kicked an opposing player in the groin, while he was laying on the ground. If that wasn’t mean enough, he even challenged the tough Dick Butkus to a fight after spitting in his face. He was so well known for being mean that his appearance in a Coke commercial became famous for the brief moment of humanity he showed in the commercial by throwing his jersey to a star-struck kid.
1. Dick Butkus, LB – 6-3, 245 pounds
Dick Butkus was one of the most feared and intimidating football players of his time. He had the size that was more like the linemen of his time, but his speed and instincts made him the best linebacker of his time. Butkus built his reputation by making big plays that often included hits that separated the football from the grasp of opponent’s hands. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1970, for being recognized as “The Most Feared Man in the Game.” He played through pain and was also one of the most durable players of his time, playing despite several knee injuries throughout his career.
Butkus would have led the NFL in forced fumbles if there was such a statistic during his time, but he did have 27 fumble recoveries to set an NFL record at that time. He was selected to eight Pro Bowls and was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1969 and 1970. His play earned him a number ten rating for the NFL.com Players of All-Time. Butkus was a hitter who could play through whistles as well as he could through pain. His intensity and above average size made him a formidable foe for anyone with the mettle to stand in his way.