Wednesday, July 05, 2017

NFL Nostalgia: Ranking the Best Athletes in NFL History

By Mike Tanier

June 30, 2017

We are here to celebrate athleticism in all of its forms: speed, strength, agility, precision, leaping, throwing, kicking, lifting, grappling, punching, dribbling and driving.

Versatility is the name of the game for this NFL countdown. These players didn't just run a fast 40-yard dash at the scouting combine or score a bunch of touchdowns. They excelled not just in football, but in other athletic endeavors as well.

To make the countdown, an individual had to be a great pro football player—no moonlighting Renaldo Nehemiah-type track superstars allowed. Being a multifaceted football player who could fill multiple roles or positions certainly helped. But nearly every player on this list also demonstrated greatness at some other sport, whether in the NCAA basketball tournament, the Olympics or on a pitch in Australia.

The football players on this countdown ran with Carl Lewis, homered off Nolan Ryan and fought everyone from Muhammad Ali to Andre the Giant. There are hurdlers, weightlifters and bobsledders. These athletes have been to the Olympics and the World Series. They've forced other sports to change their rules to stop them, and some even had towns named after them.

It takes a great athlete to star in the NFL. But it takes a truly special athlete to make this countdown.

22. Robert Smith: Running Back, Sprinter

Robert Smith's football career almost ended before it truly began in 1991.

Smith was UPI's No. 1 football recruit in the nation in 1990. He rushed for 2,322 yards and 31 touchdowns in his senior year of high school while winning the 100-meter dash and finishing second in the 200- and 400-meter events in the Ohio high school state track and field championship. Smith chose to attend Ohio State, which is where the trouble began.

After Smith enjoyed a stellar freshman season, his commitment to academics—he was pursuing a pre-med degree—rankled some of his coaches. Smith later said he felt like he was "bullied" out of the program. He switched over to track and field and spent a year away from the Buckeyes football program.

Fortunately for Ohio State and the NFL, Smith patched things up with the program, opening the door for him to return to football. The Vikings selected Smith with the 21st overall pick in the 1993 draft, and after a few injury-marred early seasons, he exploded for four straight 1,000-plus-yard campaigns, joining Randy Moss and Cris Carter to fuel Dennis Green's unstoppable Vikings offense of the late 1990s.

Smith was one of the NFL's fastest players in his prime. He was also one of the league's smartest and most disciplined players. Athleticism without brains or discipline can make someone a playground hero. But athleticism with those virtues—plus the courage to stand up to those who want you to compromise—leads to countdowns like this one.

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