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The Ten Best Running Backs Ever to Grace Planet Earth

Updated on July 1, 2016

Gale Sayers

Awesome. Breath-taking. Poetry in motion. Record six touchdowns in a single game; record 22 rookie-year touchdowns. Most gifted and awe-inspiring runner with the football anyone has ever seen with human eyes. Suffered a devastating knee injury which retired runners of his time (backs return in less than a calendar year thanks to modern medicine/surgical acumen), yet Sayers rehabbed his injuries and reinvented himself as a grind-it-out work-horse back. (Movie Brian’s Song memorialized Sayers’ comeback and relationship with fullback Brian Piccolo, who died of cancer.)

Jim Brown

Superman. Widely regarded as the most dominant football player in history (best lacrosse player to boot). Rose slowly and plodded back to the huddle after every single carry so that no one knew when he was slowed by injury. Stayed after-hours to sneak in trainer's room so even teammates would never witness his bodily-armor chinked. Retired at the height of his powers after only nine incredible seasons (role in Dirty Dozen, plus a bit of spite).

Walter Payton

Sweetness: Football player. Could block, catch, even throw when called upon. Relentless runner. Fought for every single yard, and with super-human abilities when near the goal line. Heart. Walter Payton Award is awarded annually to the player exhibiting best community outreach.

Barry Sanders

Ungraspability. Sayers clone with durability. Most exciting one-yard runs in history. Set NCAA record book aflame (once Thurman Thomas departed for the NFL). Retired in his prime like Jimmy Brown, foregoing within-reach rushing record.

OJ Simpson


Red Grange

The first great back. When Grange roamed the gridiron, the college game was the cat’s pajamas - no one cared a lick about professional football. The Galloping Ghost was such a transcendent star at the University of Illinois that he barnstormed the country after his college career before finally bringing credibility, and a much-needed spotlight, to professional football and the Chicago Bears.

Marshall Faulk

Evolutionary apex. Among the elite runners in league history and a Pro Bowl-level wide receiver in one magnificent package.

Marcus Allen

Like Payton before, Allen deserves the best compliment of all: football player. Graceful runner. Nose for the end zone. Selfless: switched to fullback when a guy named Bo came to Los Angeles.

Eric Dickerson

Speed/size combo with durability. Upright, one-cut runner. Batman of running backs (eye goggles, shoulder roll, elbow pads, forearm sleeves…).

Bo Jackson

Did someone say speed/size combo? Football was but an off-season hobby for this fabled behemoth of yore. Bo Jackson belongs on the Mount Rushmore of Athletes of the Twentieth Century, perhaps human history. Chuck Norris in cleats. Dos Equis’ Interesting Man in shoulder pads. Mythical figure who was, like Sayers, a fleeting star whose feats of excellence must’ve been seen to be believed.

Honorable Mentions: LaDainian Tomlinson, Adrian Peterson, Emmitt Smith, Tony Dorsett, Earl Campbell, Marion Motley, Doak Walker, Hugh McElhenny, Roger Craig, Herschel Walker


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