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Who are the all-time toughest athletes ever

Updated on July 7, 2012
What's with the knee Derrick?  You've never even been on the cover of Madden.
What's with the knee Derrick? You've never even been on the cover of Madden.

Derrick Rose was knocked out of the playoffs with a torn ACL in the first round of the 2012-2013 NBA playoffs. One of the talking heads blamed it on the shortened season, saying that Rose was one of the toughest guys in sports. This immediately stuck me as false since he had already missed twenty-seven games due to turf toe, a pulled groin, lower back strain, a sprained ankle, and another foot injury. Now, I’m sure that anyone of those things wouldn’t stop me from picking up a basketball, but we’re talking about superhuman athletes, many of whom have accomplished superhuman feats of fortitude. To say that he was one of the toughest guys in sports was ridiculous. Here is the all-time list of professional athletes with incredible constitutions.

15. Ray Nitschke This linebacker for Green Bay from 1958 to 1972 was practicing when a tall metal tower that Vince Lombardi used to sit on toppled and landed on top of him. A bolt from it was driven a quarter inch into his helmet. Coach Lombardi was informed of the accident. He asked, “Which player?” When he was told it was Nitschke Lombardi quipped, “He’ll be fine, get back to work.” And Nitschke did. Any Bulls fan who is stinging from my Rose comments and now wants to include Michael Jordan’s flu game on this list should reread this paragraph, and realize that this is the lowest guy on the list.

14. Jake LaMotta One of the greatest boxers of all time, and focus of the movie Raging Bull. LaMotta would only be knocked down once in his entire career. He got right back up and kept fighting. By the way, this was at the end of his career. And it should also be noted that the mob wanted him to take a dive once. During the fight he wouldn’t fall to the canvass, and nearly knocked out his opponent by accident. So he literally risked his life to lose a match in a very unconvincing fashion. That’s pretty tough.

13. Sugar Ray Robinson Pound for pound the best boxer to lace up gloves. At least that’s what Muhammad Ali thought. He fought during a golden age of boxing and bested LaMotta four of six times. From October 1940 to October 1941 he fought twenty-six times and won every single match. That was an average of one fight every fifteen days. How much do you think your body heals after getting the crap kicked out of it every fifteen days for a year? That is truly amazing.

12. Kellen Winslow Sr. This tight end for the San Diego Chargers had a playoff game against the Dolphins in ’82 that’s been entitled The Epic in Miami. He had thirteen catches for 133 yards, and blocked a game winning field goal. Did I mention that he did this with a pinched nerve in his shoulder, dehydration, severe cramping, and three stiches in his lip?

11. Muhammad Ali In his first fight with Ken Norton, his jaw was broken in the eleventh round. He refused to throw in the towel, and finished out the twelve round fight. He lost, but immediately had a rematch with the man who broke his face, and beat him.

10. Mark Bavoro When playing tight end for the Giants, he broke his jaw in a game. He played through the injury for six weeks while his jaw was wired shut and he had to have all meals delivered through a straw. And no, that’s not another way of saying he went on a coke binge.

This is not Bavoro's nose candy.  It might be Lawrence Taylor's, though.
This is not Bavoro's nose candy. It might be Lawrence Taylor's, though.

9. Mel Hein Played center for the Giants from 1931 to 1945 without missing a single game. In fact, he did that without missing a play. The closest he came was when he had to call a time out to reset his recently broken nose.

8. Joe Frazier Smoking Joe broke his thumb in his semi-final victory of the ’64 Olympics. He didn’t tell anyone what happened. Then he won a gold medal days later boxing with his injured digit. In The Thrilla in Manilla, he kept boxing through both of his eyes being swollen shut, though his corner man threw in the towel against his wishes. Then he boxed with contacts in his damaged eyes in his rematch against George Forman. This makes me cringe worse than a Faces of Death Marithon.

7. Larry Csonka During a game in 1972 he thought that Ray Winston broke his back and crawled off of the field. He then “walked it off” and contributed heavily in the Dolphin’s victory, which helped assure their undefeated status. He also broke his nose ten times in games from high school, college, and the NFL. He would play though it every time, letting the blood flow like the champagne he pours every time the last NFL team blows their undefeated streak in a season.

6. Jack Youngblood The defensive end for the LA Rams fractured his left fibulia at the end of the 1979 regular season. He then played through the pain for every round of the playoffs, including the Super Bowl. Not impressive enough? He then played in the Pro Bowl the next week. Most people won’t even watch the Pro Bowl, let alone play in it with shattered limb.

Suprisingly never on a Madden cover.
Suprisingly never on a Madden cover.

5. Ronnie Lott Lott was in the secondary for the 49ers. He injured his finger during a tackle in the 1985 season and was told by doctors that he needed a bone graft. He would not be ready for the '86 season, so he had the finger amputated to the knuckle so he wouldn't miss any games. He recorded a league high ten interceptions, seventy-seven tackles, three forced fumbles, and three quarterback sacks. In other words, he traded a finger for the chance at a ring.

4. Johnny Unitis The Colts first great quarterback played through a broken nose, broken fingers, ripped arm tendons, and torn knee cartlige. He won the ’58 NFL title while playing through three broken ribs and a punctured lung. That was also the game that’s generally recognized as making the NFL a national success.

3. Kevin McHale After the forward for the Celtics won the NBA championship in 1986, he broke his foot early on in the next season. He ignored doctors and played through the pain. He did this through the regular season, and the playoffs, all the way to the NBA Finals.

2. Brett Favre During his pro career he played through a separated left shoulder, a severely sprained left ankle, coughing up blood, a right thumb sprain, right elbow tendinitis (twice), a left mid-foot sprain, a sprained left knee, a broken right thumb, a bruised left hamstring, a concussion, a sprained right hand, bone spurs, a torn right bicep, a pulled groin, a left stress fracture, and a strained right shoulder, a picture of his junk being laughed at in the press, not to mention several other awful things. He also had a concussion and some of his intestine removed after a car wreck in college. We’ll probably remember him for retiring and unretiring, but his legendary toughness should be admired as well.

1. Jim Otto An undersized center for the Raiders who never missed a single game due to injuries in his fifteen year career. During that time he had forty surgeries, 28 on his knees, as well as multiple joint replacements. He nearly died three times from complications of these surgeries, as well as having his right leg amputated in 2007. What did he say about it afterward? He wouldn’t change a thing. He once said that football should be spelled T-U-F-F. Obviously he’s a terrible speller, but he’s also the toughest athlete ever.

Painted by Jim Otto.
Painted by Jim Otto.


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    • montuckyblogs profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Helena, MT

      That would be a good addition to the list.

    • profile image

      Big Daddy B 

      6 years ago

      What, no Andre the Giant. Say what you want about professional wrestling, this man was an athlete that could beat everyone. He also played all while battling a disease that ended up killing him. The later part of his career, he showed up to events on crutches and then leave them in the locker room and perform. Not to mention the very numerous surgeries. All with a quiet dignity.


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