In the beginning, the roaring, soaring 1920s, the National Football League was widely viewed as a freakish circus act.
Not so long ago, many of the league's players -- earning schoolteacher wages -- were forced to take second jobs in the offseason. In those days, scoring a touchdown was celebration enough. There were no luxury suites, no game-day tweets, no diva wide receivers. When you tore your anterior cruciate ligament, you were done.
Today, instant gratification has left us softer as a society. Still, among the league's 1,800 players, there are a few genuine, grizzled throwbacks. Like those vintage jerseys, they are anachronisms, reminders of a time when the game was brutal and pure and demanded an old-world fortitude.
What if a stellar panel of 20 Hall of Fame players -- echoing Shoeless Joe Jackson and his all-star colleagues walking out of that cornfield in Iowa -- was gathered to choose a team of 20 tough, talented peers from the pool of current players? Who would they invite to their party?
Starting today, in a multiplatform project two months in the making, crafted by the folks at ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com, you will find out.
We present our NFL Any Era Team, 20 players who would have thrived in the years before television helped make football a secular religion and the nation's favorite pastime. To get you in the proper mood for Super Bowl XLVI, we'll roll out four players each day, in reverse order, culminating Friday.
Is your favorite player in that select group? Does he have the right stuff?
Be warned, these searingly subjective choices may lead to spirited discussions around the watercooler.
No one was feistier as a player than Larry Csonka. He was a bruising fullback and central component of the Miami Dolphins' 17-0 season of 1972, but he probably would have been happier wearing a leather helmet. Listen to him rave about one of our Any Era Team members:
"He sticks his nose in there and knocks himself cold to make a play. The man is fun to watch. He is from the old school."
If you look closely enough, you can see the sweeping history of the NFL across Jim Brown's broad, noble face. Contrary to what you might think, the three-time league MVP would accept some of today's players in his locker room.
"I would take him and mold him and create a Frankenstein monster," Brown said of one in particular. "You want guys who will mix it up, but you don't want stupidity. You are looking for monsters who are going to bring it."
Not too many guys like that.
And this isn't Roy from the Bronx calling into sports talk radio -- our panel is formidable. We have six Super Bowl MVPs: Csonka, Joe Namath, Lynn Swann, Marcus Allen, Jerry Rice and Steve Young. Guys who played before Super Bowls were even played, such as Sonny Jurgensen and "Iron" Mike Ditka. Youngsters, too: Mike Singletary, Warren Moon and Darrell Green were also part of the process.
Go ahead and argue with them.
Our Any Era Team players all exhibit a timeless temperament. They all have a game that would have played well in the 1930s. There are, predictably, four linebackers, but quarterbacks lead the roster with five spots. Could one of them be a certain run-first, throw-second signal-caller from the Rocky Mountains? The guy whose name suddenly is being used as a verb?
The Steelers, who seem to play in black and white, lead all teams with four selections. Of course they do. The Ravens have three. The Vikings landed two players on the Any Era Team, one fewer than the number of wins they had this past season. The Packers have two.
John Clayton is a Hall of Famer, too; he received the Bob McCann Award from the Hall for distinguished NFL reporting. Here, he describes our Any Era No. 1 player:
"He has the type of style and intensity that works in any era. He has an old-school appreciation for the game and its physical nature. He understands football is a game of collisions and contact."
Style. Intensity. Collisions and contact. Let the games begin. Don't you dare miss a word -- or we'll send Jim Brown and Larry Csonka looking for you.
Seriously, we will.
Greg Garber covers the NFL for ESPN.com.