An icon, in NFL standards, is a player or coach that transcended the game; a person that became a part of NFL folk-lore and popular culture. The names of NFL icons are known by non-football fans and usually either loved or hated by fans of the league. Typically, an icon has a certain level of mystique or mystery about them. It always seems like there is something new to learn about an icon — there’s always at least one story that hasn’t yet been told.
That said, this list is full of legendary names that have ample stories following them around.
The NFC North is, perhaps, the most historic division in NFL history. All four teams have been in the league since 1960 and the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers first battled on November 27, 1921. That is a lot of time to pull icons from, but after some careful consideration this list was comprised.
These 15 icons aren’t necessarily the 15 greatest players or coaches in NFC North history, but simply the most nationally recognizable–in some ways mythical–names in division history. There are two current NFL players on this all-time list of icons.
The NFC North is the most geographically homogeneous division in professional sports. The Packers play in Wisconsin and each of the other three team’s home states border the Dairy State. Thus, the division represents an entire region (the Great Lakes region), which is extremely culturally tight-knit. This relative ‘closeness’ gives the opportunity legends and icons to grow over time. The reputations of football icons from these four states will likely live forever — at least in the region.
Honorable Mentions: Adrian Peterson, Brian Urlacher, Calvin Johnson, Bronco Nagurski, Red Grange, Dick “Night Train” Lane, Gale Sayers, Alan Page and Bart Starr.
Alright, ready to take a closer look at the biggest icons in NFC North history?
15. Alex Karras, Detroit Lions
Alex Karras was a four-time Pro Bowl selection for the Detroit Lions and is a member of the 1960s All-Decade Team. He was a star in college and in the NFL and was one of the best defensive tackles of his era. He recovered 16 tackles in his career and intercepted four passes as well.
However, Karras was an icon for more than just his play on the field. He was a famous professional wrestler and an actor, too. He acted in film and on television and wrote multiple books and was published in the Detroit Free Press. Clearly Karras was an accomplished man and he became larger than simply the game of football. However, he was caught gambling with another icon on this list and was suspended for the 1963 season. That controversy added to his iconic status.
14. Jim McMahon, Chicago Bears
Jim McMahon was the quarterback of the Super Bowl Champion 1985 Chicago Bears squad and was known for wearing a marquee white headband (which he was at one point fined for wearing). Many considered him a rebel at the quarterback position and in his first public function with the Bears he walked into the room holding a beer — that pretty much sums him up.
He was the edgy face of the “Monsters of the Midway” in the mid-1980s and was named to the Pro Bowl in 1985. So he was known for his talent in his playing days, just not as much as he was known for his antics. McMahon was an athletic quarterback that was known for his ability to roll out. He certainly isn’t one of the best quarterbacks in NFC North history, but he is one of the most memorable.
13. Mike Singletary, Chicago Bears
Singletary, with his signature piercing (and arguably crazy) eyes, definitely deserves to be included with the best icons in the NFC North’s history. He is one of the most intense players to ever suit up in NFL history. It is unquestionable that he was the beating-heart of the most famous defense of all-time, the 1985 Bears. He was a star in college (two-time All American) and an even bigger star in the pros. He was selected to 10 Pro Bowls, was named First Team All-Pro eight times and twice the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year.
The Super Bowl victory of the ’85 Bears launched Singletary’s legend to new heights. Few have ever played the linebacker position with as much success as Singletary. But he wasn’t just a player in the NFL. His career continued with many coaching jobs at the highest level. Who can forget when he pulled his pants down at halftime while head coach of the San Francisco 49ers? Iconic indeed.
12. Randy Moss, Minnesota Vikings
The way that Randy Moss burst onto the NFL scene in his rookie season was incredible (1,313 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns), but he didn’t stop there. He developed into one of the league’s true superstars and while simultaneously developing a reputation as a diva that was prone to act immaturely. Although his actions helped build his iconic reputation — for better or worse. He went to five Pro Bowls in just seven years with the Vikings and led the NFL in touchdown receptions three times in that same span.
Moss was always a player that people held strong opinions of while he was in Minnesota. Is he a good teammate? Is he a locker room cancer? People would ask these questions often, but there was no denying his huge impact on the field. He is remembered also for his ‘mooning’ of Lambeau Field in a playoff game against the Packers and other similar actions. Moss often gave interesting quotes, but he’ll be remembered in the division for quite some time.
11. Paul Hornung, Green Bay Packers
Known as the “Golden Boy” Paul Hornung came to Green Bay as a superstar. He was a Heisman Trophy winner at Notre Dame as he dominated the college game. In the pros he won the AP MVP award and helped Green Bay win four World Championships. He is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he is remembered equally for his dashing looks and his Hollywood lifestyle. He was also famous for being in numerous commercials like the above ad.
Hornung was known for scoring just as much the night before the game as did on the field on game day — if you catch my drift. There is an infamous story about him staying out drinking all night with teammate Max McGee in Los Angeles before Super Bowl I; a story confirmed by Packers’ legend Bart Starr. He’s an icon in many ways. Hornung was also busted for gambling with Lions’ great Alex Karras.
10. Bud Grant, Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings’ greatest coach in franchise history was Bud Grant. He led the franchise to four Super Bowl appearances, but unfortunately no victories. He did lead Minnesota to one NFL championship though. Grant is remembered for wearing his purple Vikings hat and a consistent scowl. He’s truly an icon in Minnesota to this day.
His .621 winning percentage is quite impressive and he only coached one team in the NFL — the Vikings. His iconic stature is derived from his impressively long 18-year professional coaching career all with one team. After retirement he became a spokesperson for environmental reform for the preservation of wetlands wildlife. He will forever be remembered as the godfather of professional football in Minnesota.
9. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
The two-time AP MVP winning quarterback of the Green Bay Packers is, arguably, the most popular player in the NFL right now. Players like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have gotten more attention over their careers, but Rodgers is poised to be a true icon for at least another five years at least in the NFL. He has won one Super Bowl championship in 2010 where he earned his infamous “championship belt” — the celebration made famous by the State Farm commercials now known as the “Discount Double Check”.
Rodgers is known for his subtle cockiness and his willingness to act in commercials. He also famously dated actress Olivia Munn and is currently dating Danica Patrick — and that doesn’t hurt his iconic status whatsoever. As he continues to dominate the NFC North for the next few years he will only have a chance to move up higher on this list.
8. Dick Butkus, Chicago Bears
If you asked 10 NFL historians which defensive player in the history of the game was most feared the majority would list Dick Butkus as that player. Sure, Deacon Jones or Reggie White might get a vote, but for the most part it’s commonly known that Butkus is the true defensive terror in NFL history.
He played the game angry, but he played it with a high level of skill as well. Butkus was an eight-time Pro Bowl selection (in nine career seasons) and named First-Team All-Pro five times as well. His No. 51 jersey has been retired in Chicago and he is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was known as a fast big-hitting linebacker, but he had great hands as well. Butkus retired with 22 career interceptions in just nine NFL seasons. Names don’t get much more legendary than his in NFL history.
Only the most iconic names in NFC North History remain.