There have been many, many great, terrible, inspiring, despicable, and interesting players, coaches, and staff in the century-long history of the National Football League. There are 346 people enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame alone, and those are only the ones who have broken records or changed how the game of football is played. Over 25,000 players have taken the field in the league's 100+ year history, and many of them have playing careers and life stories that are even more fascinating than those in the Hall. Since those stories have to be spun into entertaining television week in and week out, many of these players' public careers and personas are full of tropes.
Because of the sheer number of names once listed here, the page had to be divided into multiple subpages:
- National Football League Quarterbacks: The league's Spotlight-Stealing Squad of passers and signal callers.
- NFL Offensive Players: Running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, and offensive linemen.
- NFL Defensive and Special Teams Players: Defensive linemen, linebackers, defensive backs, kickers, punters, return specialists, and gunners.
- National Football League Non-Player Figures: Coaches, commissioners, broadcasters, owners, and other key figures whose greatest contributions to the NFL came while not wearing pads.
- National Football League Notorious Figures: For those better known for controversy (cheating, criminal behavior) or for on-field or front-office disappointment (draft busts or generally poor performance).
The names of players and coaches who were part of the NFL but are better known for their college accomplishments can be found on the Collegiate American Football page.
But before you explore any of those pages...
No list of great football players can be complete without Jim Thorpe, or Wa-Tho-Huk in his native Sac and Fox language. He was an athlete who defies categorization and thus requires his own category. He was known in his lifetime as "the greatest athlete in the world", a title given to him by the King of Sweden for his landslide victories in the 1912 Olympic decathlon and pentathlon (doing so after having his shoes stolen and having to compete in mismatched shoes he found in the trash). He lived up to the name and might just be the most versatile athlete in history; despite his Olympic success and fame in track and field, his participation in the sport was limited due to the many other sports which he played.note In his life, he competed in major league baseball, professional basketball, and even won an intercollegiate ballroom dancing competition. However, after playing for Pop Warner's famed team at Carlisle Indian School, football became his greatest love. His participation boosted the sport's popularity immensely, and he was the biggest draw in professional football for several years after he started playing in 1913. He simultaneously coached (at a time when teams were coached by players) and played both back (before quarterback and running back were separate entities and players were separated into offensive and defensive units) and kicker/punter (once sealing a championship game by kicking a wind-assisted 95-yard punt). He led the Canton Bulldogs to three Ohio League championships and made them one of the first financially stable teams in the country. This brought 13 other teams to meet in Canton in 1920 and form the American Professional Football Association, which eventually became the NFL. Thorpe was appointed the league's president in its first year (though this was largely just a title, as he spent most of that year playing for the Bulldogs). He lost the title after that season to Joseph Carr, left the Bulldogs soon after, and began a career as a journeyman, playing and coaching for five more NFL teams (including the Oorang Indians, which were little more than a traveling circus of Native American football players sponsored by a dog kennel owner) before retiring in 1928 at age 41.
Sadly, Thorpe struggled to hold down a non-sports job; after retiring, he took whatever job was offered him, whether it be playing native chiefs in Westerns, working security, or digging ditches. By the 1950s, Thorpe was essentially penniless, having given much of his money away to his people, and he passed away from heart failure in 1953. Almost as famous as his remarkable accomplishments in life is the undignified treatment of his body in death. In exchange for a free memorial for her husband (and, allegedly, money), Jim's wife Patricia accepted a deal to have him interred in the small Pennsylvania town of Mauch Chunk, a place Thorpe had never been to. The town renamed itself "Jim Thorpe" in a transparent bid to bring in tourists and refused to permit Thorpe's son to reclaim his remains and have them returned to his homeland. Thorpe was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame as a charter member, which is only fitting—his play in Canton is the main reason the Hall was built there in the first place.