7. Earl “Curly” Lambeau, Green Bay Packers
When your name is etched into the side of the most iconic venue in NFL history and one of the most iconic sports venues in America you know you’re quite the icon. Not only did Lambeau co-found the Green Bay Packers, he was a player and the first head coach in franchise history. He’s in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and he led the Packers to six World Championships in his time in Green Bay.
Lambeau is a name from the early days of the NFL that still holds a massive amount of weight today. People in the Midwest that don’t follow football still know the name Lambeau and could probably attach it to the Packers. That’s the power of a true icon — transcending the game into culture generations later.
6. George “Papa Bear” Halas, Chicago Bears
The NFL may not have survived without the “Papa Bear” behind it as he was instrumental in the forming and growth of the league. For that alone he deserves to be remembered, but he did so much more than that. He led the Bears to six World Championships as a coach and two more as just an Owner. He is, obviously, one of the most respected coaches in the history of the game.
The NFC Champions are annually awarded the “George Halas Trophy” which is named in his honor and every NFC team that reaches the Super Bowl hoists that trophy — talk about being an iconic name. His initials are also sewn onto the Bears’ uniforms so he can never be forgotten. No one can deny that he is one of the true icons in division history. The NFL wouldn’t be the league that it is today, perhaps not even a league, without Halas’ influence. The “Monsters of the Midway” were born from Halas’ relentlessness alone.
5. Barry Sanders, Detroit Lions
The Detroit Lions’ most iconic player in franchise history is undoubtedly Barry Sanders. He dominated the league for 10 consecutive seasons, being named to a Pro Bowl in each season, and he is remembered as being the most consistent star running back in league history. Sanders’ knack for break off amazing, shifty runs is the stuff of legend. Perhaps none will ever have his combination of balance and vision again.
In metro-Detroit his name still holds legendary status and probably always will. Even today it’s not uncommon for there to be hundreds of No. 20 jerseys at Lions’ games — he’s still that popular. Part of his iconic status was born of his incredibly humble demeanor. He never celebration a touchdown with a self-serving act, he simply handed the ball to the ref. Sanders never made claims of being the best in the game, despite that being true, and he seemingly decided against breaking the NFL’s all-time rushing record.
The way Sanders walked away from the game at age 31 is a huge part of his legend. He could have easily become the NFL’s all-time leading rusher and set the record so high it might stand forever. Instead, he quietly walked away and for that his legend has only grown. So much mystery surrounds him and his decision.
4. Walter Payton, Chicago Bears
The player known as “Sweetness” is one of the most iconic players in NFL history. He was such a loved player because of his intense, never-quite running style paired with the grace in which he ran. His legend grew as he became the 1977 AP MVP, a Super Bowl champion, and then the NFL’s all-time leading rusher (16,726 yards).
He also died young at age 45 in 1999, which elevated his already impressive iconic stature. “Sweetness” will never be forgotten in Chicago and NFL fans will, likely, remember him until the end of time. Payton never ran out of bounds and he wasn’t afraid of contact; often times it seemed as though he wanted to deliver the hit. His aggressive play led to an impressive total of 125 career touchdowns.
Payton was a largely misunderstood athlete and most people didn’t know much about his personal life, but he is remembered as a kind-hearted person and teammate. His status as an icon is forever in place as the Walter Payton Award and the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award are annually given out in his honor. Few players in league history have ever been so fondly remembered by fans all around the country.
3. Brett Favre, Green Bay Packers (and Minnesota Vikings…)
Brett Favre is one of the most pop-culture integrated athletes in American history. His name is referenced in numerous films and it even comes about in common conversation today, despite the fact that he’s been retired for over four years. He was, at times, a polarizing figure, but also one of the most adored players in division history. Favre was known an “Iron Man” for his incredible 297 consecutive starts as well as being known for his yearly ‘will he, won’t he’ retirement sagas.
Part of his iconic stature is the fact that he is the NFL’s only three three consecutive AP MVP winner. He dominated the league in the mid-1990s and has a Super Bowl ring to show for it. He was also famous for playing with visible emotions, which made him a truly relatable and lovable player to root for. He played through tragedy and overcame addiction, which only further grew his legend. Although he is equally remembered for his sense of humor and the pure joy in which he played the game with.
Favre ended his career with the Minnesota Vikings, including a magical (yuck) 2009 season, which definitely enhances his legacy within the NFC North. He has been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and his No. 4 jersey has been retired at Lambeau Field. The next two years will only bring more attention to his iconic status, although he’s done just fine staying in the spotlight after retirement. He’s one of the few football players that everyone, including non-sports, fan has definitely heard of and often times have an opinion of — because he is a true icon.
2. Mike Ditka, Chicago Bears
What Ditka has become after his time in the NFL is equally as impressive as what he did while he was a part of the league. He puts his name on anything, you’ve seen him on commercials and billboards, but he’s also a well-respected NFL analyst on ESPN. Even so, he should be known for what he accomplished on the field and on the sidelines. However, many associate him with his many angry rants, sarcasm and hilarious press conferences.
Ditka helped revolutionize the tight end position and was known as the fiercest competitor of his time. He was an offensive threat that was invited to five Pro Bowls in his six years in Chicago. As a rookie he caught 12 touchdown passes and posted 1,076 receiving yards. Although most people remember Ditka from his days coaching Chicago in the 1980s. Not to mention that Bears’ sweater he wore — talk about iconic.
Ditka was the ruthless dictator leading the Super Bowl champion 1985 Bears; one of the most famous teams in NFL history. He was a two-time AP Coach of the Year winner and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, so there is no shortage of accolades surrounding him. Ditka is one of the first people that many think of when the picture the quintessential NFL personality. He is an old-school football mind that has adjusted with the times, plus he’s hilarious. He reached iconic status as a player, a coach, and an analyst. Yeah, that’s pretty iconic.
When it comes to icons there is perhaps only one bigger one in NFL history.
1. Vince Lombardi, Green Bay Packers
There is nothing more iconic than having the Super Bowl trophy, which every champion has lifted up in pure joy in front of millions of fans, named in your honor. The Vince Lombardi trophy is the goal of every NFL team every season — now that’s as iconic as it gets. Lombardi is often referred to as the greatest coach in the history of the league and he is famous for his 1960s dynasty which won five World Championships in a seven year span.
You’ve heard his iconic voice, “What we want is to get a seal here, and seal here and run this play in the alley,” and “What the hell is going on out there?” Perhaps you’re a fan of his inspirational quotes including, “Perfection is not attainable. But if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence,” or “The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather in a lack of will.” He has so many iconic quotes that it is tough to just choose a few, but his words will live on forever in football and in American culture.
Pro Football Hall of Fame players like Bart Starr, Jim Taylor, Ray Nitschke, Willie Davis, Herb Adderley and others didn’t make this list–despite being icons in the 1960s–because they fell under Lombardi’s umbrella of mythological fame. Only Paul Hornung grew a large enough legacy, because of his questionable actions off of the field, to peak out from underneath Lombardi’s shadow as an icon. Lombardi is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and was the 1959 AP NFL Coach of the Year.
Sometimes he would patrol the sidelines in his iconic overcoat and hat and other times in a dark suit. Lombardi always looked the part and he will be the gold standard of NFL coaches until the league is no more. Remember, it took a true icon to so eloquently say, “Winners never quit and quitters never win.”