With the 2001 NFL season starting next week, ESPN Classic presents two days of SportsCentury profiles of the game's greatest players. Here's Sunday's schedule:
All times Eastern
Lawrence Taylor has been called a lot of things. The best defensive player in NFL history. L.T. Reckless. Superman. Taylor's motto seemed to be live fast, perhaps die young, and leave a trail of battered quarterbacks in your wake. He was technically listed as an outside linebacker, but he was more like a force of nature. After being unleashed on the NFL in 1981, Taylor's unparalleled will and wildness spurred the New York Giants to two Super Bowl titles and himself into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
|Lawrence Taylor registered 20.5 sacks and was the NFL MVP in 1986.|
Notre Dame thought Johnny Unitas was too small. The Pittsburgh Steelers thought he wasn't intelligent enough. The Baltimore Colts got it right. Unitas, 6 feet and a mere 145 pounds in high school, became a nowhere-to-somewhere story, a backup who kept getting opportunities to succeed at every level. Give me a chance, the crew-cut quarterback would say, and I'll show you. He went from semi-pro dirt fields to stardom in the NFL.
For his first five seasons in the NFL, Deion Sanders played for the Atlanta Falcons, who dressed in black and white. Sanders is the only man to have played in a Super Bowl and a World Series. In 1996 with the Dallas Cowboys he became the first regular starter on offense and defense in 34 years. Off the field, his value comes in being "Prime Time." A prominent pitchman for Nike and Visa, he cashes in on a flamboyant, jewelry-laden persona that is not limited to the playing field.
|"Sweetness" described Walter Payton on and off the field.|
It doesn't have the same ring to it as 755, but football fans might argue 16,726 should be just as significant as baseball's most hallowed career record. That 16,726 is the number that quantifies "Sweetness." It's the career record for most yards rushing in the NFL. For Walter Payton, 16,726 yards not only signify the 9½ miles he ran for in 13 seasons, they also represent durability from a running back who enjoyed the physical contact of ducking his head and plowing into a defender just to get that extra yard.
There always seemed to be something magical about Joe Namath, a rebel at a time when the country appreciated one. He was cocky, but in a likable way. The image of the swinging bachelor as much as his rocket-like arm helped make him the most glorified football player of his time. He was Broadway Joe, the guy who guaranteed a Super Bowl victory for a three-touchdown underdog New York Jets team -- and then delivered. He was a charismatic presence who became a larger-than-life figure. At 21, he was a star. At 25, he was a legend. His road roommate said it was like traveling with a Beatle.
|Joe Namath led the Jets to a 16-7 upset win over the Colts in Super Bowl III.|
He had legs made for a football field, a face made for television and a nice-guy persona. It all translated into spectacular careers in two different arenas -- football and broadcasting -- for Frank Gifford. As a Hall-of-Fame player and Monday Night Football announcer, the spotlight shined on Gifford for almost a half-century. After starring at Southern Cal, he was the offensive centerpiece of New York Giants teams of the 1950s and early 1960s, which advanced to five NFL title games with the triple-threat back.
He knew only one speed -- hell-bent -- a zealous pace that brought him athletic records, fame, injury and fast criticism. Jim McMahon digested football and life with similar fervor, the two often battling each other. The quarterback loved bars and night life, leaving residue that sometimes led to the field the next day. He blew up at coaches, ignored play calls, screamed in the huddle. He was brash and flamboyant, his headbands, exotic haircuts and dark sunglasses stoking a rebel-without-pause image.
The numbers never told John Elway's story. They built him up at times, flogged him at others. His overall statistics were impressive, but his true measure as a player ran straight to his heart. The Denver Broncos star found ways to win. Strangely, it took two championships at the end of his career to certify his stature, to soften the mark of three Super Bowl losses. After 16 seasons, Elway retired as the winningest starting quarterback in NFL history with a 148-82-1 record.
|John Elway went out on top when he was selected MVP of Super Bowl XXXIII.|