The niftiest pigskin nicknames
Cold, Hard Football Facts for May 05, 2008
The Cold, Hard Football Facts crew holds a warm place in its otherwise lifeless, barren moonscape of a heart for the nifty sports nickname.
Stars of the football field live on in legend and lore with names like The King, Iron Mike and The Horse. They're tough, manly nicknames the CHFF crew admires as we trudge through our sad lives with aliases like Quasimodo, Prison Bitch and the Town Rummy.
Of course, some nicknames stand out from the pigskin pack. And, sadly, nicknaming has also become something of a lost art. Back in the day, nicknames were a tool writers used to paint pictures for fans who saw the games unfold only in print. Today, television has stolen some of this literary romanticism. Still, it's always an interesting and eminently debatable topic. So, here as we enter the dreaded gridiron doldrums over the next two-and-a-half months – sorry, not in the mood to break down spring minicamps – we enter the realm of pigskin minutiae and trivia with a look at our favorite football nicknames.
This is not a comprehensive list of great nicknames, or a list of the greatest players with the coolest nom de pigskin plume. Instead, it's just a list of nicknames that we find especially fitting and descriptive. If we had feelings, we'd really dig them.
20. "Broadway" Joe Namath
The great irony of Namath's famous nickname is that, before landing with the Jets, he had all the urban sophistication of a Merle Haggard concert. Namath grew up in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, a shit little river town in the steel country of Western PA. Then he played his college ball in the metropolis of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Most Manhattan "sophisticates" would chew off their own gonads before lowering themselves to visit a town like Tuscaloosa (we cite the Reese Witherspoon classic, "Sweet Home Alabama," as evidence). Yet Namath became the trendy, fur-wearing face of the glitzy, "new age" AFL of the late 1960s, centered around the bright lights of Gotham's Great White Way. And, well, Broadway Joe fits perfectly and simply rolls of the tongue – even when he's drooling over sideline reporters on national television. "The Bowery" Joe would be ostracized as a public nuisance. "Broadway" Joe is a charming drunk.
19. "The King" Hugh McElhenny
How do you argue with a name like The King? A few simple letters that say it all: you've reached the top. To many red-blooded Americans, it's sacrilege to refer to anyone but Elvis himself as The King. But McElhenny, the Hall of Fame star of the 1950s, sported the name first. He was a dazzling open-field ballcarrier, back when white guys could still run, and such a talent that the Rams actually attempted to sign him right out of high school. He earned his regal soubriquet with his spectacular play as a rookie in San Francisco. As you've probably whispered to yourself after rock-star sex with some mega-hot babe back in college, it's good to be the King.
The Redskins of the early 1980s were blessed with an abundance of talent and nicknames. In fact, they were probably the last great team of nicknames. We couldn't pick just one, so we settle on two of our favorites. Washington's offensive line, a massive group that we can still name today tackle to tackle – Jacoby, Grimm, Bostic, May, Starke – powered one of the most devastating offenses in history. They led the 1982 Redskins to a Super Bowl championship and followed that performance with a then-record 541 points scored in 1983. They were known simply as the Hogs. And there isn't a coach, fan or analyst at any level of football today that doesn't call its offensive line the Hogs. Hell, we even offer two Hog Indices. But it all started with Joe Bugel's porcine pigskin crew in D.C. Hauling the payload behind the Hogs was John Riggins, one of the last great fullback-style ballcarriers in the history of the game, a player of such speed and strength he was known as The Diesel. Whenever we watch tapes of Riggins running off tackle, with the diesel horns blowing up in the stands, we feel it move.
17. "Bear" Bryant
Arguably the greatest coach in football history, Paul William Bryant was a winner with three different schools, before turning Alabama into one of the great pigskin powerhouses of all time. His legend in the South is perhaps without peer and he was even a fashion trendsetter – his houndstooth cap, for example, is the official headwear of the Cold, Hard Football Facts crew, narrowly edging out the yarmulke. To top it all off, he had a nickname that perfectly evoked his gravelly voice, jowly visage, old-school toughness and his legacy as one of the great winners in sports: Mess with the Bear and you're going to get mauled.
16. George "The Gipper" Gipp
On its own, The Gipper doesn't do a lot for you. It's like calling your buddy Dan Sullivan "Sully." But The Gipper earns beaucoup bonus points for its cultural impact. Not only did The Gipper inspire the most famous pep talk in sports history (and countless pop-culture spoofs), it also helped launch a presidential legacy. Actor Ronald Regan played the tragic football hero in the 1940 movie, "Knute Rockne All American," and frequently discussed his role while playing leader of the free world. Nobody would go out there to win just one for the aloof "Prime Time." But you'd lay it all on the line for the chummy "Gipper."
15. "The Fearsome Foursome"
Not only is the "Fearsome Foursome" of the L.A. Rams alliterative and descriptive of its power, it spawned its own cottage industry of spin-off nicknames – kind of like the Happy Days of the football world. One of its defensive ends was Deacon Jones – but folks forget the Hall of Famer's real name was David Jones. Determined to stand out from the pack of Caribbean pirates and midget British pop stars, Deacon fit the bill much better. Jones also coined a term every football fan knows today: when he took down a quarterback, he called it a "sack." The term stuck like herpes. The Fearsome Foursome also included Roosevelt "Rosey" Grier – who played on the Giants defensive line of the late 1950s when the term "Fearsome Foursome" was allegedly first used by the New York press. The Fearsome Foursome remains a defensive line – and a defensive line's nickname – without peer.
14. "Iron" Mike Ditka
Before Ditka was ruining NFL franchises or playing "pundit" in the ESPN studio, he was a legendary tough guy who remains one of the great tight ends in the history of the game. His nickname is beautiful in its rugged simplicity. In eight short letters, "Iron Mike" announces to the world: "I'm one bad-ass mo-fo."
13. Dick "Night Train" Lane
The nickname Night Train has it all: speed, power and a dark, intimidating image of inevitable industrial might. Maybe you can't see him in the dark, but you can feel him coming. Dick Lane is J-A-G (Just Another Guy) with a pedestrian name to match: an unheralded, undrafted free agent. Night Train is a legend, setting an NFL record with 14 interceptions in his rookie year of 1952, while launching an utterly unexpected Hall of Fame career and chugging into Canton behind one powerful image.
12. "Mean" Joe Greene
Greene was the dominant force at the front of one of the most feared defenses in history. His nickname is a thing of roguish beauty: It's simple. It rhymes. It describes Greene's onfield persona perfectly. And there's no way to misinterpret the temperament of Mean Joe Greene. Plus, it's a little tougher than the nickname our own Frankie C. earned during his days in the high school chess club: Frank the Fairy.
11. John "Hog" Hannah
Beyond the fact that the Hall of Famer was dubbed the best offensive lineman of all time in a Sports Illustrated cover story, Hannah possessed a nickname of world-class simplicity and unerring accuracy. "Hog" connotes images of a roly-poly ball of pink fleshy meat rolling around in the mud, snorting, grunting and spitting. If you can think of a better description of an offensive lineman, let us know.
10. "The Ice Bowl"
Few games in history are so memorable that they spawn a nickname that the entire football world instantly recognizes. The Ice Bowl might be the only one. We'd tell you about the game. But if you're visiting a site with a name like "Cold, Hard Football Facts," we assume you have a certain base of football knowledge that includes the 1967 NFL championship game. The Ice Bowl itself featured some legendary nicknames, like "Bullet" Bob Hayes and "Dandy" Don Meredith. It also spawned another instantly recognizable nickname: NFL Films described the game, in its own inimitable style, as being played on "the Frozen Tundra" of Lambeau Field. To this day, every football fan knows that the Frozen Tundra could refer to only one arena. The Ice Bowl, meanwhile, refers to a singular game in pro football history.
9. Alan "The Horse" Ameche
The Horse was an Italian immigrant born Lino Dante Ameche. But no matter where you come from, "The Horse" pretty much says it all: You are a stud. Ameche won the 1954 Heisman Trophy at Wisconsin and, with the Colts, NFL Rookie of the Year honors in 1955. He made the NFL's All-Decade Team for the 1950s. In his greatest claim to fame, he scored the winning touchdown in overtime in "the Greatest Game Ever Played," the 1958 NFL championship game. We don't care if you have Lenny Moore in the backfield, Raymond Berry at wideout and Johnny U. calling the signals: if you need to punch it in for the sport's first overtime touchdown, you ride "The Horse" into the history books.
8. "The Seven Blocks of Granite"
If you followed the game in the 1930s, you probably knew every member of the Seven Blocks of Granite. It was the offensive line at national powerhouse Fordham of the Bronx, back when the college game was the only football that mattered: it ruled New York City and its voracious sports press. The center of the "Seven Blocks of Granite," Alex Wojciechowicz, went on to a Hall of Fame playing career in the NFL. One of its guards, meanwhile, pieced together a fairly decent NFL coaching career: his name was Vince Lombardi (pictured here). Since 1972, the Lombardi Award has gone to college football's best lineman or linebacker. In tribute to its namesake's college career, the award is nothing more than a chunky block of granite. That's cool.
7. "The Lonely End" Bill Carpenter
The need to spread defenses down the field vertically was evident as early as 1913, when Gus Dorais and Knute Rockne of upstart Notre Dame used the forward pass to shock mighty power Army. The need to spread defenses horizontally – now a staple of offensive theory at all levels – was a revolutionary concept in college football in 1958 when Army coach Earl "Red" Blaik told end Bill Carpenter to spend his days standing out beyond the hashmarks, along the sidelines, rarely even joining the offensive huddle. He just stood out there, all by his lonesome, such a distinctive singular figure on the otherwise crowded football field that he was dubbed The Lonely End. But the trick worked brilliantly. Carpenter drew off corners and safeties who otherwise would have crowded the box in the era of war-of-attrition football, and opened so many holes in opposing defenses that Army halfback Pete Dawkins swept his way to the 1958 Heisman Trophy. The sad, somber nickname stands in sharp contrast to the powerful impact The Lonely End had on the Army offense.
6. "Champaign" Tony Eason
The Illinois quarterback was a real stud, a member of the legendary quarterback class of 1983 – drafted one pick after Jim Kelly and 12 picks before a guy named Dan Marino. Eason was such a coveted commodity in college that he earned the moniker "Champaign" – the hometown of the Illini, of course, but also a simple play on the name of the high-class French bubbly. But we all know champagne is for pussies. And few nicknames proved more fitting: Eason took so many dives in the NFL that Greg Louganis wanted him to coach the 1988 U.S. Olympic team. Actually, Eason was brilliant while leading the Patriots to three straight road wins in the 1985 playoffs. But then came the Bears in Super Bowl XX, and Eason's soft reputation never recovered from the beating. Hog Hannah is still so angry about Eason's play that he bitch-slaps his former teammate everytime he makes a public appearance. In the rock-paper-scissors heirarchy of nicknames, the Hog always beats down Champaign Tony.
5. "The Steel Curtain"
Not since our wives started calling us Little Willy did a unit's nickname ever fit so perfectly in so many ways. The Steel Curtain was the dominant defense of its day and could not have played anywhere else but the Steel City. Plus, it dominated at the height of the Cold War, when the Iron Curtain was a fearful symbol of evil. The greatness of the Steel Curtain lives on today in the hearts and minds of football fans. The greatness of the Iron Curtain lives on today only in movies by Michael Moore.
4. Jack "Hacksaw" Reynolds
Really, this is one of the great under-rated nicknames in football history. Reynolds earned his moniker while playing college ball at Tennessee, where he sawed a car in half following a loss to Ole Miss. The hirsute linebacker was a defensive stalwart of the great Rams defenses of the 1970s and then with the early-stage San Francisco dynasty of the 1980s. And, as you consider his inclusion on the list, ask yourself this: would you f*ck with a guy named Hacksaw?
3. "The Catawba Claw" Frank Buckley "Bucky" Pope
The Claw was one of those comets who streak briefly across the inky night skyline of NFL history. The Cold, Hard Football Facts crew reminisced about multi-nicknamee Bucky Pope last year, while visiting North Carolina for the filming of "Leatherheads." On the way from Charlotte to our spiritual homeland of Boone, the location of Appalachian State, we crossed the Catawba River, and discussed one of the great nicknames in history. Pope was a late-round draft pick out of North Carolina's mighty Catawba College. But he had an amazing rookie season with the Rams, averaging a mind-blowing 31.4 yards per catch (25 for 786), while leading the league with 10 TD receptions. He blew out his knee the next year in exhibition play, and basically never played again. His career may have ended, but the rugged beauty of "The Catawba Claw" lives on.
Another multi-nicknamer: the University of Illinois and Chicago Bears star was born Harold. And "Red," for its part, is so common a nickname that we confuse it with vaginal warts at a Reno whorehouse. But if there's a name other than the "Galloping Ghost" that connotes fleeting, flickering images of grainy-filmed, leather-headed football, we don't know it. Grange was the dominant skill-position talent of his era – yet the only people who ever saw him play were in the stands. Everyone else saw him through old newsreels or, more likely, read of his exploits in newspapers. Red Grange shredded college football defenses like nobody before him and his ghostly gallops across the gridiron, like a Midwestern Brom Bones, created a legend so great that, by signing with the Bears in 1925, he spurred a run on pro ticket sales and is credited with saving the fledgling National Football League.
1. "The Four Horsemen" of Notre Dame
No nickname in North American sporting lore – let alone in football itself – is more visually or culturally evocative, stuck more quickly, lasted longer, or had a greater impact on the popular imagery of the game, than The Four Horsemen of Notre Dame. New York Herald Tribune sportswriter Grantland Rice was so impressed by Notre Dame's backfield during its 1924 victory over Army that he dipped into the apocalyptic Book of Revelations to describe the performance.
"Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army football team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds yesterday afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down on the bewildering panorama spread on the green plain below."
In reality, Knute Rockne's boys squeaked out a 13-7 victory that afternoon. But back in the day when touchdowns were as frequent as soccer goals, and when few fans saw the games themselves, writers took literary liberties they simply could not get away with today. Still, the Four Horsemen stuck like no other nickname before or since, thanks to Notre Dame's dominance that year and to a publicity photo taken soon after the game. The image so captured the era that in the 1990s the U.S. Postal Service turned it into a stamp to celebrate the Roaring 20s.
Amid the legend, it's easy to forget that the Four Horsemen kicked some serious ass and stand as probably the single greatest backfield in football history. Their 1924 team was a perfect 10-0 and capped the season with a Rose Bowl victory over Stanford. All four members have been enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame and all four went on to illustrious post-playing careers.
Elmer Layden served as NFL commissioner during the World War II years. Don Miller coached briefly at Georgia Tech. Harry Stuhldreher was the athletic director at the University of Wisconsin and his biography of Rockne became the basis for the movie, "Knute Rockne All American." And Jim Crowley was the head coach at Fordham and built its famous Seven Blocks of Granite. He was the coaching conduit who passed the lessons of Rockne on to Lombardi.
The Four Horsemen still gallop through gridiron history today, spurred by the niftiest nickname in football lore.
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