The 5 Toughest Guys I’ve Ever Faced

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Dwight Freeney, Defensive End / NFL - The Players' Tribune

Before I get into my list, I just want to say that it always bugs me when I hear about parents who limit their kids to playing only one sport. Specializing, they call it. I don’t believe in all that — at least not at a young age. Let the kids play whatever they want. Let them become athletes.

I didn’t even start playing football until high school.

Actually … I tried to play football when I was in like the fifth grade, but I didn’t last more than a week or two. I was a big kid, so the coaches put me on the offensive line, and I hated it. I didn’t want to be in the trenches, pushing dudes around. I wanted to be out catching passes, or on defense, where I could hit people. You know, the fun stuff.

So I quit football and went and played soccer.

That’s where I get my footwork from — the soccer field. I get my hand-eye coordination from playing baseball my whole life. Shoot, even the move on the football field I’m most known for — my spin move — originated on the basketball court. I used to play power forward in high school, and when I would get the ball in the post, I would do a drop step and spin around the defender to the basket. It was my go-to move.

I got called a lot for traveling, but I also got a lot of buckets.

I developed almost every skill that makes me a great pass rusher by playing another sport. And without those skills, I would never have made it to the NFL, let alone play for 15 years.

I actually looked back on my life and my career a lot during this off-season. When you’ve been in the league as long as I have, it’s only natural. The closer you get to the end, the more you reflect. I’m not ready to call it a career just yet. I’m ready to make at least one more run, with the right team. But it’s always fun to look back on the memories, both the good and the bad.

And the dudes on this list gave me some bad memories. These are the guys who gave me fits over the years. So I’m glad I developed all those skills playing other sports when I was a kid — because to go up against these guys, I needed every little advantage I could get.


Steve McNair
Imagine Aaron Rodgers, but in a running back’s body.

That was Steve McNair.

When Steve would scramble, he wasn’t looking to run, like maybe Michael Vick would. He would scramble to buy himself time to find a receiver downfield. And as a passer, he was even more dangerous outside the pocket. He had this crazy ability to throw the ball accurately on the run, and he could throw it a freaking mile.

Kind of like Aaron Rodgers.

The difference is that hitting Steve McNair felt like hitting a sack of bricks. He didn’t go down easy. He wanted to be the one who delivered the blow.

How many times have you seen a quarterback put his body on the line like this?

 

That’s how Steve played. And he might not look that big on film … but at 6′ 2″ and 230 pounds or whatever, he was about as big as some of the dudes who were trying to tackle him.

He was as dangerous a dual-threat guy as I’ve ever seen. If you didn’t attack him, he’d beat you with his arm. But if you pinned your ears back and went right at him, he had the escapability and athleticism to make you miss and then either extend the play or break off a huge run.

 

I think Steve is one of the most underrated quarterbacks in history. I mean, I played against Peyton Manning in practice every day for years and I had a front-row seat to watch him work on Sundays, so I know as well as anybody that he’s an all-time great quarterback. But he was also throwing the ball to future Hall of Famers in Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. You can’t deny that he had weapons to work with.

Who did Steve McNair have? Derrick Mason had a couple of Pro Bowl seasons, and Frank Wycheck had a few at tight end, too. But aside from them, Steve wasn’t working with much in the passing game.

But he still took that team to within inches of winning a Super Bowl.

Because Air McNair didn’t need a lot of weapons.

He was the weapon.


Jonathan Ogden
I didn’t know before I started writing this, but Jonathan Ogden mentioned me in his piece about the five toughest guys he’s ever blocked, and I gotta say, that’s an honor coming from a player of his caliber.

But I’m not including him here to return the favor.

I’m including him because he was a freaking mountain.

Jonathan had a biological cheat code, man. Nobody should be allowed to be as big as he was. At 6′ 9″ and 340 pounds, he was literally a mountain of a man. And you’d think that with a guy that big, somebody smaller and faster like me could get low on a speed rush, beat him to the edge and then turn the corner on him.

But with Jonathan, the corner never came. He was so long and had such quick feet that it felt like he was everywhere. You just couldn’t get around him.

He was the best offensive tackle I ever faced. He had every skill you’d need to be a great pass blocker. But you give a guy all those tools, and then you give him the kind of size advantage he had, and it’s just … unfair.


Michael Vick
You couldn’t prepare for Michael Vick. You could watch film, but his speed and athleticism just didn’t translate. You had to experience it for yourself, in real life — which was something nobody wanted to do because Vick was the kind of guy who made Pro Bowl–caliber players look average. He made guys like me, who are considered to be pretty fast, look slow. Nobody had the ability to make dudes look silly on the football field like Michael Vick.

I remember when I was at Syracuse back in 2000 and Virginia Tech came into the Carrier Dome. Going into that game, our defensive mentality was basically, How do we stop a guy who’s unstoppable?

The answer was — and this is gonna sound really obvious, but — don’t let him out of the pocket. You couldn’t lose contain against Michael Vick, or he’d make you pay.

We sacked Vick eight times in that game, and I had 4.5 sacks myself, which I think is still a school record.

But I want you to look at two of those sacks:

 

 

On those sacks, where’s Vick?

He’s inside the pocket, at the top of his drop. All 4.5 of my sacks that day came while Vick was still in the pocket.

But it doesn’t matter how many times you sack him, because if you let him out of the pocket even once he’ll make you pay. Our eight sacks in that game amounted to 60 yards in losses for Virginia Tech. Basically, to use a baseball analogy, we were hitting a bunch of singles.

But Vick was a home run hitter.

And late in the fourth quarter, Vick got 55 of those yards back and basically put the game away with one big touchdown run.

 

You see what happened there?

We lost contain. It may have been a designed run, but at the end of the day, we gave him a seam, he took it, and then he did what he does best and just outran every other human on the field.

That sealed the win for them — and that’s what it was like to play against Michael Vick. You could dominate basically the entire game, but at the end of the day, all he needed was one play to wipe out everything you had done and make you remember who the best athlete on the field was.

Freaking deadly, man.


Tom Brady
I have to put Tom Brady on here because … well, you can’t not put Tom Brady on here.

Tom is the most disciplined quarterback I’ve ever played against. He’s always cool. You can’t shake him. You can’t rattle him. He also gets rid of the ball very quickly, and it’s frustrating because even when you do everything right — you fire off the ball and beat your man and get to the quarterback — most times, the ball is gone before you even get there because he’s making his reads and being decisive. His internal clock is uncanny.

He also has incredible pocket presence. He’s not the most athletic or mobile quarterback, but he has great footwork, and he has that sixth sense that the best quarterbacks have where he can keep his eyes downfield and go through his progressions while feeling how the pocket is moving or breaking down around him. And he knows how to move up in the pocket at just the right time, or take a side step to buy him an extra split second to beat the pressure.

Tom just knows how to keep himself out of trouble better than any quarterback I’ve ever seen.

That’s what makes him Tom Brady.


Maurice Jones-Drew
This guy … man. He was like a little bowling ball. He packed a serious punch because he had such a low center of gravity and his legs were so strong. Even if you got in position and put a good hit on him, it didn’t mean he was going down. He was always a threat to break a big run because once he got rolling, he was tough to stop.

I don’t know what was more difficult … bringing him to the ground, or just finding him.

MJD was so small in stature that sometimes, you couldn’t even see him in the backfield behind the massive offensive linemen. So when you played against him, you had to be tremendously gap disciplined. You couldn’t guess. Because most of the time, you’d be looking around for him, and then by the time you finally found him … he’d be running past you.

And on top of that, he was fast, and he was very agile. He could make you miss. There were a bunch of times where he actually made me look silly in the backfield.

I remember one time when I made an inside move on the tackle I was playing against and I got through into the backfield. It was just me and MJD. I was in perfect position, ready to make the tackle for a loss.

And he literally just made me whiff.

 

He really could do it all.

And I don’t think he ever got enough credit. He was on a Jaguars team that lost a lot of games. I think he only made the playoffs once in his whole career. And even if you’re a great player like he was, I think that when you’re playing in a small market like Jacksonville and your team is not winning, then you’re not going to get the notoriety you should.

But he was easily one of the toughest running backs I ever had to tackle.

I think if MJD had played somewhere else, he would have been a household name.

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