While we believe Hall of Fame football players to be the best at their craft, many of their careers hardly started out in a glamorous fashion. They took a long and arduous journey to reach the highest plateau in Pro Football. Many even battled for roster spots long into their football tenure, fighting to beat out younger players who might appear to have more upside. In other words, they battled constantly for their right to play the sport they loved.
Listed here are legends who helped build the NFL into its present behemoth state. Their impact on the game is unquestionably important and critical, but how many of us either realize or appreciate their level of play? How many of us re watch footage of Andre Reed or Norm Van Brocklin, both drafted in the fourth round in 1987 and 1949, respectively. Their lives and careers are now encapsulated in NFL Film documentaries, a program that preserves the memories of legends that will live forever.
If anything, this article not only recognizes some of the greats to play the game, but also exists as reminder that we should all appreciate where our game, the NFL, came from.
10. John Madden, T
Drafted in the 21st round by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1958.
Younger generations may only know John Madden for his NFL in-game broadcasting and Madden Football video games. But older generations will remember when Madden paced the side lines as the Raiders’ head coach and lead the team to a 12-1-1 record and an AFL Western Divisional Title during his first season with the team. He coached the Raiders for 10 years and posted an overall record of 103-32-7, as well one Super Bowl win and seven division championships.
Prior to coaching, Madden played college football and briefly played in the NFL before suffering a career-ending injury. He first began coaching the Raiders’ linebackers and soon, at the age of 32, became the team’s head coach. At the time, he was the youngest head coach to head an NFL team.
In the 1980s Madden also helped usher in a new era of sports gaming called John Madden Football. “If it wasn’t 11 on 11, it isn’t real football,” Madden famously declared when developers proposed to make a football game with 14 total players on a screen at once. In the game’s early days, John Madden Football faced heavy competition from both itself and rival platforms. While trying to one-up other games like Joe Montana Football, it also had to face its own digital limitations—slow processing systems.
In any case, we all know how the John Madden Football story turned out. Eventually the game, now called “Madden,” took over as the predominant platform for football games, and continues to have a choke hold on the football gaming market.
9. Dick LeBeau, CB
Drafted in the 5th round by the Cleveland Browns in 1959.
Dick LeBeau overcame the odds as both a player and a coach. In 2010, the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced LeBeau as a member of its class. He also became the architect for the Steelers’ potent “zone blitz” scheme and has worked with the organization in some capacity for over 12 years.
Originally, the Browns selected LeBeau in the fifth round of the 1959 draft, but released him during their rookie training camp. He signed on with Detroit and after his rookie season, played in every game with Detroit until his second to last season in 1971. In a 185-game span, LeBeau picked off 62 passes for 762 yards and three touchdowns. This ranked third all-time upon his retiring in 1972.
Following his time with the Lions, LeBeau entered the coaching ranks and would later coach for the Steelers. He had an immediate impact on Pittsburgh’s defense. Under LeBeau’s defensive genius, the Steelers have won six division titles, four AFC Championships and two Super Bowls.
8. Steve Largent, WR
Drafted in the 4th round by the Houston Oilers in 1976
Not only was Largent drafted late, but the team that drafted him traded him immediately before the regular season to the Seahawks for an eighth-round pick. Not that the diminutive 5’11,’’ 187 pound receiver needed any more motivation to make a game-day roster. He made the Oilers pay for their mistake when he recorded 54 receptions during his rookie season, which stood for third best in the NFC.
Largent, the man, may have been even better than Largent, the player. During one interview, now posted on the Seahawks’ web site, Largent replied that one of his proudest moments in football was how he stayed with Seattle throughout his entire career. “It gave me a special connection with the city and the people and the team that you just don’t find very often with professional athletes today,” said Largent.
In 1989, Largent retired as the league’s all-time leader in touchdown catches (100), receptions (819), and receiving yard (13,089). While receiver Jerry Rice has long surpassed those records, they still stand as a testament to Largent’s will to succeed,no matter where he was chosen in the draft.
7. Bart Starr, QB
Drafted in the 17th round by the Green Bay Packer in 1956
Obviously, in today’s NFL, Starr would have never been drafted. In fact, as a 17th rounder, NFL executives may have never viewed him as a viable rookie free agent.Yet, that is why, as the old-saying goes, the “draft runs deep.” Early in his career, Starr’s future in the NFL was in doubt. That is until Vince Lombardi took over as the Packers’ head coach and helped save the quarterback’s career.
By 1967, Starr’s win-loss record had stood at 62-24-4, and the Packers had won a multitude of important victories, including the first two Super Bowl championships.
6. Shannon Sharpe, TE
Drafted in the 7th round by the Denver Broncos in 1990
No one expected the seventh-round selection out of Savannah State to become a leader on the Broncos and later a leader in catches, touchdowns and yards by a tight end. He started only 9 games during his first two seasons with the Broncos and caught a mere 29 catches for 421 yards. However, in 1993, Sharpe was named first-team All-Pro after he hauled in 81 receptions for 995 yards.
Sharpe has a number of Super Bowl rings, including back-to-back championships with the Broncos and one with the Ravens. The dominant tight end was also named to the All-Decade Team of the 1990’s.
5. George Blanda, QB/K
Drafted in the 12th round by the Chicago Bears 1949
In 1970, after Blanda took over, he led the Raiders to a 4-0-1 record as both their quarterback and kicker. However, the real kicker was that he led them at the age of 43. Blanda played for a lengthy 26 years with the Bears, Oilers and Raiders. While most players’ careers dwindle when they enter their 30’s, Blanda’s was just getting started.
Blanda did not become a full-time starter until his fifth season in the NFL. He even threatened to retire when some coaches suggested that he become a full-time kicker. When the American Football Conference emerged in 1960, Blanda found a second chance to revitalize his career and focus on playing quarterback. He went on two win 3 AFL titles. He retired at the age of 48 in 1975.
4. David “Deacon” Jones, DE
Drafted in the 14th round, 1961, Los Angeles Rams
The Rams stumbled upon the relatively unknown defensive end while scouting an opponent. In fact, what they didn’t know at the time was how they actually stumbled upon their finest and most important defensive asset. He’d be one part of their Fearsome Foursome, a defensive line, which consisted of Lamar Lundy, Rosey Grier and Merlin Olsen.
Jones played for the LA Rams from 1961 to 1971 before he left for San Diego and Washington. During his time in the league, Jones played in seven straight Pro Bowls and was also chosen as the top defensive player of the year in 1967 and 1968. That’s not too bad for a player who played only two out of three years in college.
3. Roger Staubach, QB
Drafted in the 10th round by the Dallas Cowboys in 1964
There aren’t many quarterbacks drafted in the tenth round who end up making the Hall of Fame. In fact, there is only one, Roger Staubach. More improbable was that he joined the Cowboys at the age of 27 and started for the Cowboys three years later.
For the nine years he played under center for Dallas, he won four of six NFC Championship games and two Super Bowls. He also ended his career with an 83.4 passer rating, the best mark for a quarterback at that time.
Staubuach’s quick feet and ability to make the big play, especially in the biggest of games made him a house hold name around America. At the time, what made Staubach a notch above the rest and a true representation of “America’s team” was his service in the military. After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy, Staubach spent four years on active duty, including service in Vietnam.
2. Johnny Unitas, QB
Drafted in the 9th round by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1955
The Steelers drafted Unitas in the ninth round in 1955, but cut him prior to the 1955 season. Unitas then signed with the Baltimore Colts in 1956. Even before signing with the Colts, he played semi-pro football for $6 a game. Unitas was determined.
His career with the Colts hardly started out glamorous, which is the theme for every Hall of Famer listed here. The signal callers first pass was intercepted for a touchdown, but that hardly stopped the budding quarterback. In a league dominated prominently by the run, Unitas still managed to throw for over 40,000 yards and 290 touchdowns. He also held the record for at least one touchdown pass in 47 straight consecutive games, was named to 10 Pro Bowls and was selected as the NFL Player of the Year three times.
1. Raymond Berry, WR
Drafted in the 20th round by the Baltimore Colts in 1954
Raymond Berry probably should have never played professional football. Not only was he physically limited—one leg was shorter than the other—but he only started his senior year in high school. The Colts selected Berry as a “future choice” in the twentieth round of the 1954 draft. Today, twentieth-round prospects are working the local deli, in construction, or in some sort of white-collar firm. In other words, they aren’t playing in the NFL.
Berry was determined. He did not have lightning speed. He was not the most athletic player. However, he was smart and worked on mastering the perfect route. In time, Berry and fellow Hall of Fame colleague Johnny Unitas helped lead the Baltimore Colts to two NFL Championships. Berry finished his career with 631 receptions for 9,275 yards and 68 touchdowns, a record at the time.
Berry later tried his hand at coaching and determined as always, led an undermanned New England Patriots squad to its first Super Bowl birth in 1985.