Pete Rozelle (1926–1996) served as commissioner of the National Football League from 1960 to 1989, overseeing the league's rise from relatively humble origins to the peak of the sports-business universe.
In the course of Rozelle's long tenure at the League office, the NFL grew from a comparatively small-time operation into the wealthiest and most powerful economic force in American sports. In 1961, Rozelle implemented revenue sharing and negotiated the NFL's first league-wide television contract. The two moves combined to guarantee profitability to virtually every NFL team since.
In 1966, Rozelle shepherded the league through a tricky merger with its former rival, the American Football League, creating the Super Bowl in the process. By the time Rozelle retired in 1989, pro football had become by far the most popular and lucrative sport in America.
Vince Lombardi (1913–1970) was one of the NFL's most successful and admired coaches of all time. Lombardi led his Green Bay Packers to five NFL championships between 1961 and 1968, including wins in the first two Super Bowls ever played.
Lombardi is well known in American popular culture for saying, "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing."
In 1958, one year before hiring Lombardi, the Packers had won just a single game, and many feared that the franchise—located in a small Wisconsin city and the last throwback to the NFL's origins as a small-town Midwestern league—might not survive much longer. But Lombardi, whose coaching philosophy emphasized grueling training, intense competition, and absolute dedication, quickly righted the ship. In his first season in charge, the Packers improved to 7–5. In his second season, they reached the NFL Championship but lost to the Philadelphia Eagles. In his third season, they won the first of their five championships.
Lombardi retired after winning the second of his back-to-back Super Bowls in 1968 and, upon his death in 1970, the league renamed its championship trophy the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Fritz Pollard (1894–1986) was an early African-American football star. After being named to the collegiate All-American Team while playing at Brown University in 1916, Pollard moved to Ohio and became the best player on the Akron Pros, one of the original NFL franchises.
In the NFL's very first season in 1920, the lighting-fast Pollard led the Pros to an undefeated record and the league's first championship. The next season, Pollard added coaching duties to his resume (even while continuing to play every down as a player amidst an entirely white team), becoming the NFL's first Black head coach.
Pollard played eight seasons in the NFL, earning posthumous induction into the League's Hall of Fame in 2005.
Woody Strode (1914–1995) was a star football player at UCLA in the late 1930s. Along with former UCLA teammate Kenny Washington, Strode became the first African American to play in the modern NFL after signing with the Los Angeles Rams in 1946. After retiring from football, Strode went on to a very successful second career as a Hollywood actor, starring in such films as Spartacus (1960), The Professionals (1966), and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).
Strode played only a single season in the NFL, suffering from a lack of playing time and constant racial abuse, both verbal and physical, from opponents and teammates alike. After the 1946 season, he left the NFL to play in the Canadian Football League, then briefly found work as a professional wrestler before launching his film career.
Though today Strode is hailed as a sports pioneer for his role in desegregating the NFL, the player himself didn't remember his NFL experience fondly. "If I have to integrate heaven," Strode told a reporter in 1971, "I don't want to go."
Jackie Robinson (1919–1972) became the first African American to break baseball's color line when he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
Though primarily remembered today as a civil rights pioneer, Robinson was also a phenomenal ballplayer. In his ten-year major league career, he won both Rookie of the Year and National League MVP awards and appeared in six World Series. In 1962, he won first-ballot induction into baseball's Hall of Fame and in 1997, every team in Major League Baseball retired his jersey number, 42.
Before making baseball history with the Dodgers, Robinson excelled at a number of other sports. In the late 1930s, he won an unprecedented four varsity letters at UCLA. Many observers said Robinson's best sport was actually not baseball but football, where his speed and elusiveness made him a potent offensive weapon. In 1939, Robinson led the nation in rushing yards per carry. In 1941, he ran circles around the Chicago Bears in an exhibition game pitting collegiate all-stars against the NFL champs.
But the NFL, like Major League Baseball, was a whites-only league at the time, so Robinson was forced to abandon football to begin his baseball career with the Negro League's Kansas City Monarchs. Ironically, two of Robinson's UCLA teammates, Woody Strode and Kenny Washington, became the first Black players to play in the modern NFL in 1946—one year before Robinson broke baseball's color barrier.
Joe Namath (1943–), a brash young quarterback out of the University of Alabama, led his New York Jets to a stunning upset victory over the Baltimore Colts in 1969's Super Bowl III. Though Namath threw more interceptions than touchdowns over the course of his 13-year pro career, he won legendary status by leading the Jets to their only championship and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985.
Three days before Super Bowl III, Namath told a group of reporters that he guaranteed that his AFL champion Jets—who were 18-point underdogs going into the game—would defeat the NFL's Colts. Three days later, Namath did in fact lead New York to a 16–7 victory, still considered by many to be the greatest Super Bowl upset of all time.
The Jets' shocking win helped to popularize the Super Bowl itself (the first two Super Bowls had been lopsided wins by the NFL Green Bay Packers over weak AFL opposition), and Namath's "Broadway Joe" persona brought a new level of swagger and intrigue to the pro game.
Jim Brown (1936–), a Cleveland Browns running back from 1957 to 1965, is one of the greatest players in the history of the National Football League.
During his nine-year career, Brown punished opposing defenses with his unique combination of speed and power, never missing a game due to injury while becoming the first player in NFL history to rush for 10,000 yards and 100 touchdowns. Brown was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.
In 1966, Jim Brown retired unexpectedly from football at the relatively young age of 29 to pursue a full-time career as a Hollywood film actor. At the time of his retirement, Brown held the NFL's all-time records in career rushing yards, single-season rushing yards, career all-purpose yards, and career touchdowns. While most of Brown's records were later broken, he remains the only running back in NFL history to average more than 100 yards a game over the full course of his career.
Since leaving football, Brown has appeared in dozens of movies and television shows and become a civil-rights spokesman and anti-gang violence activist.
Walter Payton (1954–1999) was a star running back for the Chicago Bears through 13 seasons in the 1970s and '80s.
Payton, whose smooth running style earned him the nickname "Sweetness," surpassed Jim Brown's record to become the NFL's all-time leading rusher in 1984. Payton's own record was subsequently bested by Emmitt Smith. Payton was named NFL MVP after a dominant 1985 season in which he helped lead the Bears to their only Super Bowl victory.
Today, decades after his retirement from the game and years after his tragic death from a rare liver disease at the age of 45, Walter Payton remains one of the NFL's top players. Walter Payton was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993.
Emmitt Smith (1969–) was the star running back of the dominant Dallas teams of the 1990s, helping the Cowboys to win three Super Bowls. A Pro Bowl selection in eight of his 15 seasons, Smith retired from the game in 2004 as the holder of the NFL's all-time records for rushing yards and rushing touchdowns.
Strong, fast, and durable, Smith was one of the most consistent and reliable running backs ever to play the game. His formidable career records—18,355 yards and 164 rushing touchdowns—are unlikely to be broken anytime soon.
Jerry Rice (1962–) was the greatest wide receiver in football history, shattering every NFL receiving record over the course of his 20-year career with the San Francisco 49ers (1985–2000), Oakland Raiders (2001–2004), and Seattle Seahawks (2004).
Rice, who won three Super Bowls with the 49ers, retired from the game at the age of 42 as the NFL's all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards, all-purpose yards, and touchdowns.
A 13-time Pro Bowl selection, Rice caught three touchdown passes in the Super Bowl on two separate occasions (in the 49ers' blowout wins in 1990 and 1995) and was named Super Bowl MVP after hauling in 11 passes for 215 yards and one touchdown in the more competitive 1989 championship game, a 20–16 San Francisco victory over Cincinnati.
Brett Favre (1969–), statistically the most accomplished passer in NFL history, started every game at quarterback for the Green Bay Packers from 1992 through 2007. The only player ever to win three consecutive league MVP awards (1995–1997), Favre led the Packers to their first Super Bowl victory in three decades in 1997.
Favre, a strong-armed thrower and charismatic team leader, set an incredible record for toughness and durability by starting 253 straight games at the quarterback position. Following a 2007 season in which he led the Packers to the cusp of the Super Bowl before falling to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game, an emotional Favre announced his retirement from football in March 2008. He left the game holding the NFL's all-time quarterbacking records in passing yards, touchdowns, attempts, completions, and wins.
However, just months later, Favre announced his intention to return to the game. The Packers turned on him, instead opting for Aaron Rodgers. The controversy was only resolved by Favre's August 2008 trade to the New York Jets.
Joe Montana (1956–) was one of the most successful quarterbacks in the history of the National Football League, lifting his San Francisco 49ers from a tradition of mediocrity to become the League's dominant dynasty of the 1980s. Montana led the 49ers to four Super Bowl titles, winning an unprecedented three Super Bowl MVP awards. Montana won election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000.
Over the course of his long career, Montana led his teams to come-from-behind fourth quarter victories on 31 separate occasions. His composure and clutch performance in these pressure-packed late-game situations earned him the nickname "Joe Cool."
Montana's greatest comeback came in 1990's Super Bowl XXIII, a 20–16 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. With just over three minutes left in the game, trailing by three points, Montana led his teammates out for one final drive—a drive that began in the shadow of their own end zone at the 8 yard line. Calm and collected, Montana completed eight-of-nine passes while marching the 49ers 92 yards down the field for the game-winning touchdown, which came on a picture-perfect pass to John Taylor with just 34 seconds remaining on the clock.
Steve Young (1961–) was one of the most accurate passers in the history of the National Football League, leading the potent offense of the San Francisco 49ers throughout the late 1980s and 1990s. Young, who retired from football with the highest career passer rating in NFL history, won two League MVP awards and led San Francisco to its fifth and final Super Bowl championship in 1995. Young won election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005.
Young's NFL career took quite a while to take flight. After a stellar collegiate career ended in 1982, the quarterback played for two years in the short-lived United States Football League before being drafted by the woeful Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After spending two years in the football wilderness of Tampa Bay, Young moved to San Francisco, where he found himself stuck on the depth chart behind superstar and San Francisco legend Joe Montana. Young, who could punish defenses with his running as well as with his pinpoint passing game, played well enough in Montana's frequent absences due to injury to generate a major quarterback controversy through 1988 and 1989. Montana retained the starting job, however, leading the 49ers to back-to-back championships in the 1988 and 1989 seasons.
After Montana suffered a gruesome injury in a 1991 playoff game, Young seized the starting job and never relinquished it, breaking several of Montana's passing records while leading the 49ers through most of the 1990s. Since retiring from football, Young went on to become a successful broadcaster and advertising pitchman. He has a reputation for being super nice to fans, especially kids who love football.
Terry Bradshaw (1948–) was a strong-armed quarterback who led the Pittsburgh Steelers to an unprecedented four Super Bowl championships in the late 1970s.
Erratic as a passer in his early years in the NFL—he threw nearly as many interceptions as touchdowns over the course of his career—Bradshaw became the league's most dangerous quarterback when his Steelers rose to become the NFL's dominant team after 1974. He was named the MVP of Pittsburgh's back-to-back wins in Super Bowls XIII and XIV, and won league MVP honors in 1978. He won election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989.
After leaving the playing field, Bradshaw went on to built a successful second career as a television commentator and advertising pitchman. Since 1994, he's anchored Fox NFL Sunday, frequently providing goofy comic relief to his more serious co-hosts.
Johnny Unitas (1933–2002) was perhaps the first great quarterback of the NFL's modern era.
While leading the Baltimore Colts to three championships between the late 1950s and early 1970s, Unitas became the first player ever to throw for more than 40,000 yards. A three-time League Player of the Year, Unitas set a record that may never be broken by throwing at least one touchdown pass in 47 straight games. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979.
Unitas' most heralded performance came in the 1958 NFL Championship, a comeback win over the New York Giants remembered ever after as "The Greatest Game Ever Played." The game—one of the first NFL matchups broadcast to a large national television audience—was the first pro football game ever to go into overtime. The rules had only recently been changed to allow overtime games.
Unitas led a last-minute drive to a game-tying field goal to put the game into overtime, then marched the Colts 80 yards down the field for a game-winning touchdown in the extra period. The thrilling 1958 game helped to popularize the NFL into a major American sport in the 1960s.
John Elway (1960–) is the greatest player in the history of the Denver Broncos.
A strong-armed and fleet-footed quarterback who threatened defenses as both a passer and a scrambling runner, Elway led his Broncos to a record 47 fourth-quarter comeback wins over the course of his illustrious 16-year career. Elway ended his career on top, retiring in 1998 after leading Denver to back-to-back Super Bowl wins. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004.
As a young quarterback, Elway led his Broncos to the Super Bowl following the 1986, 1987, and 1989 seasons, but suffered through blowout losses each time (39–20 to the '86 Giants, 42–10 to the '87 Redskins, and a crushing 55–10 to the '89 49ers). Eight years later, Elway seized his chance for Super Bowl redemption, leading the Broncos to a 31–24 upset over the defending champion Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII, one of the greatest Super Bowls of all time.
The following year, Elway's Broncos defended their title with an easier 34–19 win over Atlanta in Super Bowl XXXIII. Elway won game MVP honors and retired from football following the game.
Troy Aikman (1966–) led the Dallas Cowboys to three Super Bowl titles in the 1990s.
After an impressive collegiate career at UCLA, Aikman became the first pick in the 1989 NFL draft. As a rookie, he started at quarterback for a woeful Dallas team that finished with an NFL-worst record of 1–15. Nevertheless, Aikman quickly improved, and the Cowboys improved with him. Aikman's fourth season ended with Dallas' first Super Bowl since the 1970s, and the Cowboys went on to win three out of four NFL championships in the mid-1990s. Aikman won election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006.
During Dallas' heyday in the mid-1990s, Troy Aikman commanded a fearsome Cowboys offense that also featured punishing running back Emmitt Smith—who would go on to become the NFL's all-time leading rusher—and explosive wide receiver Michael Irvin.
After being forced out of the NFL after suffering a series of concussions in 1999 and 2000, Aikman went on to build a successful broadcasting career as a football commentator for Fox Sports. In 2004, Aikman won an Emmy Award for his work in the broadcast booth.
Tom Brady (1977–) is widely regarded as the best quarterback playing in the National Football League in recent years.
In 2001, in just his second season in the NFL and his first as a regular starter, Brady led his New England Patriots to an upset victory over the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. Brady-led Pats teams also won Super Bowls XXXVIII and XXXIX following the 2003 and 2004 seasons. In 2007, Brady became the first quarterback in NFL history to lead his team to a perfect 16–0 regular season, but the team's—and Brady's—claims to be the best team of all time were thrown into question when New England suffered a shocking loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
In 2007, Brady set a new record for most touchdown passes thrown in a single season. In the first quarter of the first game of the 2008 season, he suffered a gruesome knee injury, forcing him to undergo season-ending surgery. But he was back in 2009 and went on to win championships in Super Bowls XLIX and LI, too.
Roger Goodell (1959–) has served as NFL Commissioner since being chosen to succeed Paul Tagliabue in 2006.
Goodell's rise to the NFL's top executive position came nearly 25 years after he first took a job with the league. In 1982, fresh out of college, he talked his way into a position as an administrative intern at NFL headquarters, slowly working his way up the league's corporate ladder from there.
The early years of Goodell's NFL reign have featured steady growth in NFL business and a sharp crackdown on off-field misconduct by the league's players, with Goodell imposing lengthy suspensions on misbehaving athletes like Michael Vick and Adam "Pacman" Jones.