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.

24. Stephen Neal: Guard, Wrestling Champion

Stephen Neal pinned future Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams in a high school meet in San Diego. He also pinned future WWE champion Brock Lesnar to win an NCAA championship for Cal State Bakersfield.

Neal lettered in football, wrestling, track, swimming and tennis in high school. He chose to focus on wrestling in college, as Cal State Bakersfield didn't even have a football program.

As a wrestler, Neal compiled a 156-10 record for the Roadrunners, winning two NCAA titles and various championships and awards. The photo above was taken after he won the 1999 Wrestling World Championships in Turkey. Neal later just missed the cut for the 2000 Olympic team.

He then retired from wrestling and began trying out for NFL teams. Though Neal possessed zero college football experience, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick liked what he saw. Neal went to camp with the Patriots in 2001, and after a brief detour with the Eagles, he stuck with the Patriots practice squad. He emerged as the starting guard for the 2004 Super Bowl team and started half the season for the 16-0 2007 team.

Neal would rank much higher on this list, but shoulder injuries hampered him throughout his football career. After all, Neal is one of the greatest wrestlers in NCAA history, and he's the only person on Earth who can say he won a Super Bowl and pinned both a WWE champion (in a real match) and a Heisman Trophy winner.

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