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Legends: The Best Players, Games, and Teams in Football

Legends: The Best Players, Games, and Teams in Football

by Howard Bryant


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From Lombardi's Packers through Brady and the Patriots, here is the ultimate look at the greatest sporting event in America — the Super Bowl — through its greatest quarterbacks, coaches, and highlight-reel plays.

In the second book of the LEGENDS series, ESPN's Howard Bryant delivers THE gridiron guide to the most exciting event in sports: the Super Bowl!

In this day and age, the gridiron reigns supreme. Football is America's most popular sport and the NFL's star players are instant celebrities with die-hard fans who live and die with each win or loss. And our collective obsession with the game begins when we're just kids and culminates each year on what has become the equivalent of a national holiday—Super Bowl Sunday.

Recounting momentous stories of football's past and present, and accompanied by iconic photos, Top Ten Lists to chew on and debate, and a Top 40-style Timeline of Key Moments, this comprehensive collection details twenty of the greatest Super Bowls in NFL history—and expands on their relevance within the larger scope of dynasties, giants of the coaching world, and marquee players making history. From the upsets to the blowouts to the nail-biting finishes, this is the perfect book for young fans eager to kick off their football schooling.

“With the LEGENDS series, Howard Bryant brings to life the best that sports has to offer—the heroes, the bitter rivalries, the moments that every sports-loving kid should know.”—Mike Lupica, #1 bestselling author of Travel Team, Heat, and Fantasy League

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780147512567
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 08/02/2016
Series: Legends: Best Players, Games, & Teams
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 108,800
Product dimensions: 5.13(w) x 7.75(h) x 0.86(d)
Lexile: 1080L (what's this?)
Age Range: 8 - 12 Years

About the Author

Howard Bryant ( is a multi-award-winning author; sports journalist; and radio and television personality. He is the author of Legends: The Best Players, Games, and Teams in Baseball; Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in BostonThe Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron; and Juicing the Game. The only two-time winner of the prestigious Casey Award for baseball writing, Howard is also a senior writer for and ESPN The Magazine, appears frequently on ESPN's "The Sports Reporters" and on ESPN Radio, and is a regular contributor to NPR's Weekend Edition. Follow @hbryant42

Read an Excerpt

This might come as a total shock, but when I was a kid, my favorite thing about playing football was . . . fear.

In a lot of ways, I loved being afraid. My friends and I used to play football, or when we had too many kids for that, a game called “pig pile,” where one person carried the football and all the other players chased and tried to tackle him. When he was finally brought to the ground, he would toss the ball up in the air and some other brave soul would pick it up and run for as long as possible before he was tackled.

When I was the one being chased, every second was filled with the fear of being taken down hard to the ground.

But here’s the part that made being afraid fun. Are you ready? It was laughing at the fear!

I know that might seem odd, so let me explain: We all know the goal of football is to score touchdowns and prevent the other team from scoring. Defenses love trying to intimidate offenses. I played running back, wide receiver, and even quarterback sometimes. I remember how big some of the other kids were. I remember how they would stand on the other side of the line and try to scare me.

You are a dead man if you touch that ball. I’m gonna squash you like a bug . . .

The quarterback would hand me the ball and I would see the defense race toward me, charging and snarling. Here they came, trying to make good on their promises to indeed squash me like a bug, and the fear would kick in.

So I ran.

And I dodged.

And I spun.

And I realized that I was fast! I would score a touchdown and the guys who told me I was a dead man would get mad because not only was I very much alive, but my team was winning and theirs was losing!

So yeah, big kids were stronger than me, but I was faster. Even so, sometimes I got hit, and they would smile and talk trash while I was down (Who’s smiling now?), but I always got up. What started as an exercise in fear turned into a little game of me betting that I could be faster than everyone. And, when necessary, proving I could take a hit and still get back up.

These were the challenges of football. Speed against strength. Fear against courage. I loved it all. And it was just as much fun to watch on TV as it was to play, for so many reasons.

I loved the NFL uniforms, particularly the helmets. I grew up in Boston and the original Patriots logo was the hardest logo in sports to draw. Believe me—I tried a lot.

Most of all, I loved the competition, the way the Steelers, Dolphins, Raiders, Vikings, and Cowboys ruled the game and always seemed to end up having to beat each other to get to the Super Bowl. My childhood team, the Patriots, could never beat those other guys, but I rooted for them just the same.

I rooted for players because I loved how they moved, how the really fast guys would just break away from defenders after a long reception, reach the end zone, and dance in celebration. The Dallas Cowboys became my adoptive team because I loved the great quarterback Roger Staubach and running back Tony Dorsett. Later, I couldn’t help but admire the historic San Francisco 49ers dynasty of the 1980s, the way their innovative offense and always-cool quarterback Joe Montana seemed unstoppable whenever a game was on the line.

The game has continued to change over the years. When I was a kid, I used to come home from playing football with my shirt ripped and my clothing covered in dirt and grass stains. My friends and I played tackle with no helmets, and even if you banged heads with another kid, people just told us to “shake it off.” Today we know that the players are so strong that getting hit and tackled that many times hurts not just the body but the brain. There is no such thing as a minor injury to the brain. Because we understand more about these injury risks, because the game is potentially so dangerous, many parents no longer let their kids play football the way I used to. So while I still enjoy watching the game on TV, more than anything these days I hope that the skilled people playing it remain safe.

Other shifts in attitude have taken place, as well. Some of the sport’s traditions are no longer acceptable in today’s society. For example, even though “Redskins” is still the nickname of the Washington football team, I do not use that word in this book because I consider it to be offensive to all people of Native American descent, as well as demeaning to the people using the term. Throughout the book, therefore, I refer to the team as “Washington.”

This is a book not only of football legends—but of the legend of pro football. It is this country’s most popular sport. While the game has been played since the late 1800s, for the sake of this book we begin when two rival leagues, the National Football League and the American Football League, became one in 1970. The only exception to this rule can be found in the Timeline of Football’s Key Moments at the end of the book, which includes older events that were too important to leave out. Above all else, though, this book is a tribute to the Super Bowl, which began as a little-watched championship between the two leagues in 1967, only to evolve into the most popular sporting event in America. And it continues to evolve—2016 marks the first Super Bowl that will be numbered with Arabic numerals (i.e. “Super Bowl 50”) instead of Roman numerals (“Super Bowl L”), which have been in use since the first Super Bowl.

Through the lens of the Super Bowl, this book is about the rise of dynasties and the fall of giants. If the book had been written thirty years ago, for instance, the Miami Dolphins would’ve been a really big part of it and the Patriots wouldn’t have been mentioned at all, because back then Miami was so good . . . and the Patriots? The Patriots were gum on the bottom of your shoe, stepped on by everyone.

Times change, and now the Patriots are one of the great franchises in history. Miami, meanwhile, hasn’t been to a Super Bowl since 1984 and hasn’t won one since 1973.

In the NFL, it’s all about the Super Bowl.




There was nothing super about Super Bowl I. The biggest game of the year wasn’t even called the Super Bowl at first. That would come later. Before there was the National Football League as we know it today, two leagues coexisted, sometimes in the same city, and they didn’t like each other. The first was the National Football League, founded in 1920 and—save for a brief rival league called the AAFC in the 1940s that created the Baltimore Colts, San Francisco 49ers, and Cleveland Browns—they went unchallenged as the only professional football league in America for forty years.

The second was the American Football League, founded in 1960 as a challenger to the NFL. It brought the sport to cities like Boston, Kansas City, Denver, and Houston that did not have pro football teams in the National Football League.

Football off the field in the 1960s was dominated by the AFL-NFL rivalry. The NFL laughed at the new league, because surely it was inferior to the great teams of the NFL. But over the next few years, the AFL gained credibility and popularity, and soon enough, the heads of the two leagues began to discuss the idea of a merger.

They came to an agreement in 1966, keeping their regular season schedules separate for four years, but bound together by a championship game—a face-off between the AFL champion and NFL champion. The championship game would be called the “AFL-NFL World Championship Game,” and the inaugural game was played in Los Angeles, on January 15, 1967, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The Green Bay Packers were the dominant team in the NFL during the 1960s. There were other strong teams, such as the Cleveland Browns, led by the great running back Jim Brown, and the Baltimore Colts, led by legendary quarterback Johnny Unitas, but the Packers always seemed to end the season on top.

The leader of the pack was the legendary coach Vince Lombardi, who relied on his outstanding play-caller, hall-of-fame quarterback Bart Starr. Max McGee, a terrific receiver, was Starr’s go-to wideout. In the backfield, Green Bay had not one, but two great running backs: the physical fullback Jim Taylor and the versatile halfback Paul Hornung.

Defensively, the Packers were just as stacked, with a dangerous defensive line led by Forrest Gregg, a fearsome middle linebacker in Ray Nitschke, and an unforgiving secondary that featured cornerback Herb Adderley and safety Willie Wood.

The Packers had won the NFL championship in 1961, 1962, and 1965, and they entered the first year of the Super Bowl as heavy favorites to represent the National Football League.

Today, as you know, NFL teams throw the football a lot. Peyton Manning drops back to pass and has three, four, and sometimes five receivers to look for. Tom Brady will drop back into the “shotgun” formation, 5 yards behind the center, to get a better look at the defense and buy some time before they reach him.

In the 1960s, Lombardi’s Packers were a power running team that mixed in some passing elements. The 1966 team was nearly last in the league in passing attempts, which upset Starr, who wanted to throw the ball—as all quarterbacks do. They were famous for the “Packer Sweep,” during which Starr would snap the ball and the offensive line would block to the left while Taylor or Hornung or their newest back, Elijah Pitts, ran behind. The skilled line would create a human wall for the running backs, engulfing the defense in a show of sheer power. By the fourth quarter, with defenses beat up and tired from an afternoon of being pounded by the Packers line, Lombardi, a relentless foe, would continue to run the ball, leaving defenses gasping for air and eventually surrendering large chunks of yardage. It was a strategy that worked time and time again.

NFL seasons were fourteen games long in these days, not sixteen, like we have today. The Packers went 12-2 in 1966, including one dominant stretch in which they crushed the Bears (17–0), the Falcons (56–3) and the Lions (31–7)—a combined score of 104–10!

The year of the first Championship Game, the Packers played Dallas in the NFL title game. The Cowboys were founded in 1960 and in a very short time, under the guidance of another legendary coach, Tom Landry, made a fast rise to prominence. Landry was a defensive coach. He and Lombardi had coached together in the 1950s with the New York Giants. Landry had been the defensive coordinator, and Lombardi the offensive coach, but Landry’s Cowboys were a high-scoring, high-offense team, scoring 30 points or more in half of their games—and twice reaching 50! They had a flamboyant quarterback in “Dandy” Don Meredith, and perhaps the fastest man in football, wide receiver “Bullet” Bob Hayes, who was so fast, he was once a sprinter in the Olympics.

So it was the ground-and-pound attack of Lombardi and the defending champion Packers against the high-flying attack of Landry’s upstart Cowboys. The genius of Lombardi, though, wasn’t just his passion to win, but his ability to find weaknesses in an opponent and beat them at their own game. So when the Packers played the Cowboys in the title game, they didn’t rely on running the football, like they usually did. Instead, they changed up their strategy, passing the ball the way Dallas had all season. Starr, so often frustrated that Lombardi never seemed to let him throw the ball, threw 4 touchdowns.

The Packers ended up beating the Cowboys 34–27. At 13-2, they were headed to the first-ever Super Bowl. Their opponents? The AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs.

Coincidentally, the Chiefs began life in Dallas as the Dallas Texans. They had won the AFL title in 1962 and then moved to Kansas City. Their quarterback, Len Dawson, had been a career backup in the NFL when he jumped leagues and joined the Texans in 1962, giving him a second chance to be a pro starter. In the AFL, Dawson showed he was an accurate passer and team leader. He was arguably the best quarterback in the AFL, which was proof to some that he only needed to be given a chance to succeed. To others, though, Dawson being the best quarterback only showed that the AFL was a weak league. Naturally, in Super Bowl I, Dawson had something to prove.

The Chiefs running back, Mike Garrett, a Heisman Trophy–winning star during his time at the University of Southern California, had said no to an invitation to join the NFL, boldly choosing to play in the AFL instead. Together with Dawson and talented wide receiver Otis Taylor, the Chiefs were an offensive machine. They averaged more than 30 points per game, and their 448 total points were 90 points more than Buffalo’s, the next closest team. The Chiefs could score on the ground or in the air, but it was the arm of Dawson that powered them.

They went through the regular season untroubled, and faced Buffalo in the AFL title game. The Bills sacked Dawson 9 times, yet the Chiefs still crushed them 31–7, making them the first AFL representatives in the inaugural Super Bowl.

The announced crowd at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was 61,946, which wasn’t even a sellout. Today, Katy Perry or Beyoncé headline the halftime show. For this game, the University of Michigan and University of Arizona marching bands provided the entertainment.

Today, a thirty-second television commercial costs nearly $2.5 million. In 1967, the cost was $42,000. The game was televised on both NBC and CBS. Today, cable and broadcast channels pay billions of dollars to take turns televising the event.

After a tightly-fought first quarter at 7–7, the Packers took a 14–10 lead before halftime and never looked back. The Chiefs wouldn’t score again for the rest of the game. As much as the AFL desperately wanted to win, to show the NFL that they belonged on the same field as the NFL’s best, the Packers overwhelmed them, 35–10.

Green Bay would continue to be the dominant team next season, again representing the NFL in the second AFL-NFL World Championship Game. Super Bowl II was barely more competitive than the first one, as the Packers destroyed the Oakland Raiders 33–14 and solidified themselves as the team of the 1960s with five championships, and Lombardi as one of the great coaches of all time. The dynasty would end there, however, as the Packers would not reach another championship for nearly thirty years. Lombardi’s Packers, though, never fully faded into memory. They were so great, and Lombardi’s influence so powerful, that the trophy would later be renamed the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The championship trophy retains that name to this day.

The game was a dud, but it had a new nickname, the kind that stuck: The AFL-NFL World Championship was dead. The Super Bowl was born.


More than any other sport, football is where coaching makes the biggest difference. The great coaches in football are as iconic as the players. Here is a list of the greatest coaches in the Super Bowl era.




There’s nothing worse in the world than being around those kids who act like they’re better than you. Maybe they’re more popular, or just think they are. Or maybe you’re the new kid, and new kids never catch a break. The new kid has to prove he belongs.

That’s how the coaches and players of the American Football League felt in 1968. Even though the decision to merge with the NFL had been made three years earlier, even though both sides had agreed that, beginning in 1970, the two leagues would become one, the old established NFL still treated the AFL as if they were second-class citizens. The NFL had the famous teams, like the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, Baltimore Colts, and New York Giants. They had teams that were in the big cities like Cleveland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The NFL had been around since 1920, forty years longer than the AFL.

Most importantly, when the two leagues did agree to merge and play a “Super Bowl” of the AFL champion against the NFL champion, the first two Super Bowls were wipeouts. The powerhouse Green Bay Packers just crushed the AFL not once, but twice. And if the Packers could cream the AFL’s best teams so easily, maybe the league really was inferior.

To the popular teams of the NFL, the new kids in the AFL weren’t worth their time.

But then, one day, on January 12, 1969, in Miami, all of the talk went away. Actually, the conversation simply changed. In a big-time way.

Joe Namath—the quarterback of the Jets, the AFL champions headed to their first Super Bowl—made a guarantee: The New York Jets would win the game. It was a bold move for one of the new kids on the block. Some would say “absurd” is a better word than “bold.”

Namath was a young star quarterback out of the University of Alabama, where he had played for the legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. Namath was brash. He loved to brag about how talented he was, but he backed it up, because he really was fantastic. He not only had a super-strong arm, he would release the ball very quickly, before the defensive line could hit him and before the defensive backs could adjust to defend the routes of the receivers they were covering.

When he came out of college, everyone expected Namath to sign with the NFL and to become a star. The St. Louis Cardinals drafted Namath with the twelfth pick in the first round.

But then the New York Jets drafted him with the first overall pick in the AFL draft, and just to let the world know the new league was serious about having star talent, they offered Namath a record $427,000 contract! A HUGE salary for 1965!

Namath was the magnetic star the AFL needed, and he loved that the league was counting on him to be its main attraction. He would get to play in New York, the biggest city in America. He was such a character, such a reflection of the oversized personality that is New York City, that he earned the great nickname “Broadway Joe.” He wore a fur coat and frequently appeared on TV, even becoming the host of his own program, The Joe Namath Show, in 1969. Here was a quarterback born for the spotlight, on the field and off.

On the field, he became THE player to watch. In his third season, he became the first player in pro football history to throw for 4,000 yards in a season. The Jets had never enjoyed a winning season before Namath arrived, but with him at the helm, they transformed into AFL contenders.

The Jets had also two big, powerful running backs, Emerson Boozer and Matt Snell, who were central in helping the team lead the league in rushing touchdowns. Two clutch receivers, Don Maynard and George Sauer, who both went over 1,100 yards receiving in multiple seasons, rounded out the high-scoring offense.

As good as the offense was, their defense might have been even better. In their Super Bowl season, New York led the AFL in fewest total yards allowed, fewest rushing yards allowed, and fewest yards allowed per attempt. Teams had real difficulty scoring on them. They finished the regular season with a record of 11-3.

There was only one round of playoffs back then, featuring the two division winners. New York would face the powerful Oakland Raiders in the AFL title game, a rematch against one of the few teams who had beaten them, 43–32, in the regular season. It was a close game, but the Jets rode a late Namath rally to beat the Raiders 27–23.

The Jets, on the confident shoulders of Namath, had carved out a path to the Super Bowl—a path that landed them against the Baltimore Colts, one of the best, most storied teams from the NFL. The Colts would one day abandon the city of Baltimore for Indianapolis, but back in 1969, Baltimore was a team that football fans everywhere knew. They knew them by that classic helmet with the blue horseshoe, and the black football shoes they wore with their white uniforms. They knew them for the championships they won in 1957 and 1958. Not only were the Colts the famed team that beat the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL title game, the classic championship that earned the nickname “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” but they were also home to some of the best players ever to grace the league, like Raymond Berry, John Mackey, and Bubba Smith. Yet none of those greats could rival the star power of Johnny Unitas. Unitas, or Johnny U, as he was known, was arguably the greatest quarterback of his time, a ten-time Pro Bowl player and three-time Most Valuable Player Award winner. Unitas was the guy who made kids like Joe Namath want to play quarterback.

The Colts had a record of 13-1 in 1968, which was even more remarkable because they had earned it without Unitas, who had injured his arm in the team’s final preseason game. Earl Morrall, the 34-year-old veteran, stepped up and played terrific football, starting in place of the injured star. But it was the Baltimore ground attack and defense that proved to be the real difference-makers. Baltimore scored 402 total points and allowed only 144 all season. The key to the Colts’ defense was their blitz, when they would rush more defenders than the offensive line could block. The blitz was a great strategy because the defense rushed so many guys, the quarterback didn’t have time to think before getting pressured, hurried, and sacked. Sometimes the coach, Don Shula, another one of the great coaches in football history, would line up all eleven men on the line of scrimmage to make the offense think he was going to send every player after the quarterback.

But the blitz could be risky, because rushing the quarterback with a lot of players meant there would be offensive players open if the blitz didn’t reach the quarterback in time.

With Baltimore, it usually did.

The Colts won their first five games before losing 30–20 at home to Cleveland, and then went on a mad defensive tear that earned them eight straight wins to end the season. In the first seven of those matchups, no team scored more than 10 points.

They shut out the Giants 26–0.

They shut out the Cardinals 27–0.

They shut out the Falcons 44–0.

In the NFL title game at Cleveland, against the only team that had beaten them during the regular season, they shut out the Browns 34–0. Revenge was sweet. And clearly, the NFL’s best team was headed to the Super Bowl.

What chance did the Jets, a team that had never won a playoff game before 1968, playing for a league that had gotten trounced in the first two Super Bowls, have against the awesome might of the Baltimore Colts?

None, if you believed most people. Even the oddsmakers made the Jets 19-point underdogs. 19 points! It was as though people thought the Colts would be facing a college team.

And yet, there was Namath. And his guarantee of victory.

Days before the game, Johnny Sample, the New York Jets defensive captain, received a call in his hotel room. It was Namath.

Namath told Sample, “I just said something that’s going to be all over the news tomorrow.”

“What did you say?” Sample replied.

“I guaranteed we’re gonna win the game.”

“Aw, man,” Sample said. “You didn’t say that.”

“Yeah,” Namath said. “Yeah, I did.”

He did. And football fans everywhere ate it up.

When the game started, the Colts were convinced they were going to shut Namath’s loud mouth with some big hits. But it didn’t quite work out as Baltimore expected. The Colts brought the pressure and Namath got the ball out of his hand so quickly, the Jets were able to move the ball against a defense that had been nearly impenetrable all season long. Yet the Colts’ defense still managed to keep the Jets off the scoreboard.

After a scoreless first quarter, Morrall was intercepted with the Colts driving. Namath didn’t waste a second taking advantage of the momentum shift, moving the Jets downfield, hitting Sauer on quick routes to negate the blitz. When the Jets weren’t passing, Snell ate up yards on the ground, running through the Colts’ defense like they were nothing but Swiss cheese. Snell ended up scoring the first touchdown of the game.

It would also be the Jets’ last touchdown of the game, but their defense made it count. After an interception of a Morrall pass, the Jets tacked on a field goal, and then added another to take a 13–0 lead at halftime.

The Jets added one more field goal in the third quarter, and the great Baltimore Colts, the team that had dominated so many teams all year, the team that had shut out four teams, were getting a taste of their own medicine, falling behind 16–0.

So Shula brought in an ailing Unitas, hoping the great man could mount a comeback, but it was too late. The Colts scored a touchdown with 3:32 left in the game to avoid the embarrassment of being shut out in a Super Bowl (which still hasn’t happened to this day), but the Jets had done it. They’d become the first AFL team to win the Super Bowl.

The final score was 16–7. Broadway Joe had made good on his promise.

The next year was the final one for the AFL and NFL before they merged, and in Super Bowl IV, the AFL proved that the Jets beating the Colts was not just a single stroke of luck when Kansas City played Minnesota and crushed them, 23–7.

The rivalry was over. The AFL and NFL played four Super Bowls and had split them. The old AFL teams would become part of the NFL, playing in the new American Football Conference, or AFC, but after Super Bowl IV the AFL logo would disappear forever. When it left, it left with dignity, no longer bullied or feeling inferior to the NFL.


Broadway Joe brought the championship home to New York, but his flamboyance opened the door for many after him to show a little bit more of their own personality and style, on and off the field. With style come nicknames. Here are some of the best . . .




There are years when a champion is crowned and everyone knows the best team didn’t win. In fact, it happens all the time. Most coaches tell their players, “You don’t have to be the best team. You just have to be the best team on that day.” It is a saying to remind players that when two teams step onto the field, anything is possible. On any day, anyone can win.

1972 was not one of those years. The Miami Dolphins were the best team in the NFL and they were so good, they did something no team in the NFL had done since the AFL and NFL merged and that no pro football team had done since 1948: they went undefeated.

The root of the Dolphins’ dominance was the pain of the season before, when the Dallas Cowboys embarrassed them 24–3 in Super Bowl VI. They returned the following year more determined than ever to go all the way.

How good were the 1972 Miami Dolphins? They were so good that:

They were the best offensive team in the league.


Excerpted from "Legends: The Best Players, Games, and Teams in Football"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Howard Bryant.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Young Readers Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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