Soft across the middle

"They're not the toughest bunch anymore."

That wasn't exactly the response we were looking for when we asked 20 members of the NFL Hall of Fame to nominate five current players to our inaugural ESPN Any Era Team, a squad of men deemed tough enough to have played in any era. But a variation of this response was offered up several times -- in this instance by Warren Moon, 55, whose career in the CFL and NFL touched four decades -- and always in a conversation about wide receivers.

"Today, they protect the guys," said Marcus Allen, 51, who spent 16 seasons as a running back for the Raiders and Chiefs. "The rules have been bent toward protecting wide receivers. Running backs and defensive players aren't in that category of protection."

True to his assessment of the current game, Allen named only defensive players and one running back -- the Vikings' Adrian Peterson -- to his list of nominees, reiterating multiple times that he couldn't bring himself to list a wide receiver among the toughest men in today's NFL. Sonny Jurgensen, who quarterbacked the Eagles and Redskins from 1957 to 1974, said he couldn't imagine a receiver on a current roster facing the terrorizing linebackers of his day, so he, too, submitted a receiver-less list.

"Receivers today get bumped one time and then go flying across the middle," Jurgensen, 77, said. "If they played in my day, [Ray] Nitschke would have knocked their heads off. I remember playing the Steelers toward the end of my career, and either Jack Lambert or Jack Hamm would cut down my tight end at the line of scrimmage. Receivers were always getting cut down at the line or knocked to the ground downfield. There was so much grabbing. It was a chicken fight.

"They didn't have it easy like the guys do nowadays."

Only one wideout managed to crack the final team of 20 -- Hines Ward of the Steelers at No. 8. Anquan Boldin of the Ravens and Wes Welker of the Patriots made honorable mention. These men made the list, their nominators reasoned, because they continue to play the game with the kind of toughness that defined earlier eras, despite a rulebook skewed more and more toward protecting the "defenseless receiver."

Sure, rules no longer allow for head-hunting, bumping downfield or clipping receivers at the line. But those rules don't protect Ward when he's the guy making the hit. Or Welker when he's blocking downfield. Or Boldin when he chooses to play despite suffering a broken jaw, as he did in 2008. And that kind of play rings truest to the spirit of the game for the men we spoke to for this project.

"Hines Ward is famous for his crack-back blocks," said Dwight Stephenson, who played center for the Dolphins in the 1980s and voted Ward his No. 1 selection to this list. "He broke the jaw of Cincinnati rookie Keith Rivers in 2008. He was a Super Bowl MVP, was once voted the smartest offensive player in the NFL and is considered the best blocking receiver in the game."

When past players speak of Welker, their admiration has as much to do with his position as an outlier within the sport as it does with how he plays the position.

"He's one of the smallest wide receivers who has ever played the game," says Rayfield Wright, who played his entire 13-year career as an offensive tackle for the Dallas Cowboys. "He is tough and he doesn't mind the contact. You don't see Welker dropping too many passes, and to be his size and play a game that's as physical as it is, he has to have a huge heart."

The toughness Wright is referring to is the less-easy-to-define mental type, something Hall of Famers from Allen to Jim Brown pinpointed as the true defining trait. At 5-9 and 185 pounds, Welker has the special kind of toughness it takes to plow toward your goals while every coach, scout and parent tells you you're too small to make it.

"Toughness is misunderstood," Brown said. "Individuals who are truly tough have the heart to hang in there and give up a certain part of himself that other people are afraid to give up."

Even if it means sometimes taking a hit in the process.


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