Famous 20th Century American Football Players

Find out more about the greatest 20th Century American Football Players, including Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, O. J. Simpson, Cam Newton and Aaron Rodgers.

This ranking is based on an algorithm that combines various factors, including the votes of our users and search trends on the internet.

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 1 Peyton Manning

Peyton Manning.
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Famous As: American Football Quarterback
Birthdate: March 24, 1976
Sun Sign: Aries
Birthplace: New Orleans, Louisiana

American football quarterback Peyton Manning played 14 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts and four with the Denver Broncos, winning a Super Bowl with each, thus becoming the only person to achieve the feat. Also known as “The Sheriff,” the talented player has NFL records for passing yards and touchdowns.

 2 Brett Favre

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Birthdate: October 10, 1969
Sun Sign: Libra
Birthplace: Gulfport, Mississippi

Brett Favre is a former American football player who spent the majority of his National Football League career with the Green Bay Packers. Apart from being a retired player with several achievements and records under his belt, Favre is also a philanthropist; in 1996, he set up the Brett Favre Fourward Foundation, which has donated over $2 million to charities.

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 3 Terry Bradshaw

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Famous As: Former NFL Star & TV Analyst
Birthdate: September 2, 1948
Sun Sign: Virgo
Birthplace: Shreveport
Drafted by Pittsburgh Steelers in 1970, Terry Bradshaw went on to become a dominant NFL quarterback and led the Steelers to four Super Bowl championships. His career halted after an injury, but Bradshaw soon established himself as a prominent television football analyst for Fox NFL Sunday. Later, he ventured into acting, writing and music.

 4 Joe Montana

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Famous As: American Football Player
Birthdate: June 11, 1956
Sun Sign: Gemini
Birthplace: New Eagle
Former NFL quarterback Joe Montana, nicknamed Joe Cool, mostly played for the San Francisco 49ers, winning four Super Bowls with them. ESPN’s 25th Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century, Montana was the first player to be Super Bowl MVP thrice and was part of the Pro Bowl eight times.

 5 Jerry Rice

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Famous As: Former NFL Star
Birthdate: October 13, 1962
Sun Sign: Libra
Birthplace: Starkville

Jerry Rice is a former American footballer. He played primarily for the San Francisco 49ers of the National Football League. Thanks to his several records and accomplishments, Rice is considered one of the greatest players and the greatest wide receiver in the history of NFL. In 1999, The Sporting News ranked him second on its Football's 100 Greatest Players list.

 6 Walter Payton

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Famous As: American Football Player
Birthdate: July 25, 1954
Sun Sign: Leo
Birthplace: Columbia, Mississippi
Died: November 1, 1999
NFL running back Walter Payton, nicknamed "Sweetness,” played for the Chicago Bears for 13 seasons, winning titles such as the Super Bowl. He was named the NFL MVP in 1977 and was a nine-time Pro Bowl. Before dying of bile duct cancer, he became an advocate for organ donations. 

 7 Terrell Owens

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Famous As: American Footballer
Birthdate: December 7, 1973
Sun Sign: Sagittarius
Birthplace: Alexander City

Terrell Owens is a former American football player who played for popular teams like San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles, and Dallas Cowboys of the National Football League (NFL) in a career spanning 16 years. Considered one of the greatest American footballers of his generation, Terrell Owens was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2018.

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 8 Jim Thorpe

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Famous As: Athlete
Birthdate: May 28, 1888
Sun Sign: Gemini
Birthplace: Pottawatomie County, Oklahoma
Died: March 28, 1953

Jim Thorpe was an American athlete who was counted among the most versatile athletes of the modern era. Jim Thorpe won two gold medals at the 1912 Olympics and became the first Native American to give the United States an Olympic gold. He also played American football, professional baseball, and basketball. He was memorialized in the 1951 film Jim Thorpe – All-American.

 9 Dan Marino

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Famous As: American football player
Birthdate: September 15, 1961
Sun Sign: Virgo
Birthplace: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Quarterback Dan Marino had a successful stint with the Miami Dolphins, leading them to 10 playoffs and the Super Bowl XIX. However, he never won a title. Named to Pro Bowl nine times, he was also the 1984 NFL MVP and part of the 2019 NFL 100 All-Time Team.

 10 Barry Sanders

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Famous As: American football running back
Birthdate: July 16, 1968
Sun Sign: Cancer
Birthplace: Wichita

Barry Sanders is a former professional American footballer who spent all his playing years with the Detroit Lions of NFL. Widely considered one of the greatest running backs in the history of National Football League, Barry Sanders has been made an inductee to Kansas Sports Hall of Fame, Michigan Sports Hall of Fame, and the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame.

 11 Emmitt Smith

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Famous As: NFL Star
Birthdate: May 15, 1969
Sun Sign: Taurus
Birthplace: Pensacola

Emmitt Smith is a former American footballer who helped the Dallas Cowboys of the National Football League win three Super Bowl championships between 1993 and 1996. He remains NFL's all-time leading rusher and is the only running back to win a Super Bowl. A humanitarian, Smith is credited with founding a nonprofit organization called the Pat & Emmitt Smith Charities.

 12 Lawrence Taylor

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Famous As: Actor, American football player
Birthdate: February 4, 1959
Sun Sign: Aquarius
Birthplace: Williamsburg

 13 Adrian Peterson

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Famous As: American Football Player
Birthdate: March 21, 1985
Sun Sign: Aries
Birthplace: Palestine, Texas, United States

Adrian Peterson is an American football player. Widely regarded as one of the greatest running backs in the history of the National Football League (NFL), Peterson became the third-fastest player in NFL history to reach 10,000 rushing yards in 2013. He is currently playing for the Detroit Lions.

 14 Bart Starr

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Famous As: Entrepreneur, American football player, Journalist
Birthdate: January 9, 1934
Sun Sign: Capricorn
Birthplace: Montgomery

 15 Johnny Unitas

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Famous As: American Football Player
Birthdate: May 7, 1933
Sun Sign: Taurus
Birthplace: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States
Died: September 11, 2002

Johnny Unitas was an American football player who played as a quarterback in the National Football League (NFL). A three-time NFL champion and three-time NFL Most Valuable Player, Unitas is widely regarded as one of the greatest players in the history of the NFL. In 1979, Johnny Unitas was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

 16 Bo Jackson

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Famous As: Former Baseball & Football Player
Birthdate: November 30, 1962
Sun Sign: Sagittarius
Birthplace: Bessemer, Alabama, U.S.

Former professional baseball and football player Bo Jackson has the distinction of being the only professional athlete in history to be named an All-Star in both the sports. Considered one of the greatest athletes of all time, he pursued his other interests following his retirement from sports in the 1990s. He has acted in a few TV shows, playing minor characters.

 17 Sean Taylor

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Famous As: American football player
Birthdate: April 1, 1983
Sun Sign: Aries
Birthplace: Florida City, Florida, United States
Died: November 27, 2007

 18 Michael Oher

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Famous As: American Football Player
Birthdate: May 28, 1986
Sun Sign: Gemini
Birthplace: Memphis

Former American football player, Michael Oher had been associated with the Baltimore Ravens for the major part of his career. He also played for the Tennessee Titans and Carolina Panthers for a while. He had a very tough childhood and sought solace in playing sports. After years of struggle, he finally emerged as a successful sportsman.

 19 Vince Lombardi

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Famous As: American football player
Birthdate: June 11, 1913
Sun Sign: Gemini
Birthplace: Brooklyn
Died: September 3, 1970

Football coach, Vince Lombardi, is best known for being the head coach of the Green Bay Packers during the 1960s. Beginning his career as a high school coach, he eventually started coaching  National Football League (NFL) teams. As a head coach in the NFL, he never had a losing season. He died of cancer in 1970.

 20 Frank Gifford

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Famous As: American Football Player
Birthdate: August 16, 1930
Sun Sign: Leo
Birthplace: Santa Monica
Died: August 9, 2015
American football player Frank Gifford is remembered for his 12-year stint with the NFL team New York Giants. The NFL MVP-winning footballer was named to eight Pro Bowls. Following his retirement, he gained fame as a sportscaster on shows such as ABC's Monday Night Football and also won two Emmys.

 21 Doug Flutie

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Famous As: American football player
Birthdate: October 23, 1962
Sun Sign: Libra
Birthplace: Manchester, Maryland, United States

 22 Archie Manning

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Famous As: American football player
Birthdate: May 19, 1949
Sun Sign: Taurus
Birthplace: Drew, Mississippi, United States

 23 Howie Long

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Famous As: American football player
Birthdate: January 6, 1960
Sun Sign: Capricorn
Birthplace: Somerville, Massachusetts, United States

 24 Vince Papale

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Famous As: American Football Player
Birthdate: February 9, 1946
Sun Sign: Aquarius
Birthplace: Chester, Pennsylvania

Vince Papale is a former professional football player. During his career as a player, he played with the Philadelphia Eagles and the Philadelphia Bell. As a young boy, he played multiple sports and lettered in football, basketball, and track and field. He eventually chose to pursue football. His story is the inspiration behind the film Invincible.

 25 Mike Ditka

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Famous As: American Football Player, NFL Coach
Birthdate: October 18, 1939
Sun Sign: Libra
Birthplace: Carnegie
Mike Ditka, nicknamed “Iron Mike,” was a star footballer for the Chicago Bears, the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Dallas Cowboys. He has coached the Cowboys and has also trained the Bears to win the Super Bowl XX. He has also worked as a sports broadcaster for ESPN and NBC.  

 26 Joe Paterno

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Famous As: American Football Player
Birthdate: December 21, 1926
Sun Sign: Sagittarius
Birthplace: Brooklyn
Died: January 22, 2012

College football player, athletic director, and coach, Joe Paterno, is best remembered for being the head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions from 1966 to 2011. In his extensive coaching career, he registered 409 victories. His career ended abruptly when he was dismissed as a result of the Penn State child sex abuse scandal. He died shortly after.

 27 Ernie Davis

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Famous As: American Football Player
Birthdate: December 14, 1939
Sun Sign: Sagittarius
Birthplace: New Salem, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Died: May 18, 1963
Footballer Ernie Davis was the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy. The Syracuse University player was later drafted by the NFL team Cleveland Browns. However, he died of leukemia at 23, without playing a single professional game. His story inspired the movie The Express: The Ernie Davis Story.

 28 Tony Dungy

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Famous As: Former NFL Coach & American Football Player
Birthdate: October 6, 1955
Sun Sign: Libra
Birthplace: Jackson, Michigan

Former American football player and coach, Tony Dungy, currently works as an advisor for the professional football team, The Houston Texans. An evangelical Christian, Dungy has been an integral part of several community service organizations over the years. Also a writer, Dungy claims that his memoir Quiet Strength has touched the lives of many.

 29 Jesse Palmer

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Famous As: American football player, Sports commentator
Birthdate: October 5, 1978
Sun Sign: Libra
Birthplace: Toronto

 30 Brandon Burlsworth

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Famous As: American Football Player
Birthdate: September 20, 1976
Sun Sign: Virgo
Birthplace: Harrison, Arkansas
Died: April 28, 1999
Arkansas Razorbacks offensive lineman Brandon Burlsworth had joined the team as a walk-on and later became an All-American. He was drafted by the NFL team Indianapolis Colts in 1999 but tragically died in a car accident just 11 days later. Following his death, his Arkansas jersey was permanently retired.

 31 Josh McCown

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Famous As: American football player
Birthdate: July 4, 1979
Sun Sign: Cancer
Birthplace: Jacksonville

 32 Brian Bosworth

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Famous As: Former American Football Player
Birthdate: March 9, 1965
Sun Sign: Pisces
Birthplace: Oklahoma City

Brian Bosworth is an American actor known for playing important roles in films like Stone Cold and One Man's Justice. A former football player, Bosworth played for the Seattle Seahawks of the NFL. Renowned for making controversial comments and his flamboyant personality, Brian Bosworth discusses his internal conflict in a documentary film titled Brian and The Boz.

 33 Tyrod Taylor

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Famous As: American football player
Birthdate: August 3, 1989
Sun Sign: Leo
Birthplace: Hampton

 34 Al Cowlings

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Famous As: Former American Football Player
Birthdate: June 16, 1947
Sun Sign: Gemini
Birthplace: San Francisco, California

 35 Joe Theismann

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Famous As: American football player
Birthdate: September 9, 1949
Sun Sign: Virgo
Birthplace: New Brunswick, New Jersey, United States

 36 Joe Namath

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Famous As: American Football Quarterback
Birthdate: May 31, 1943
Sun Sign: Gemini
Birthplace: Beaver Falls

Joe Namath is a former football player who was named on The Sporting News' 100 Greatest Football Players list in 1999. He established himself as a sports icon and a pop culture icon after guaranteeing a victory to his team, New York Jets, over the favorites, Baltimore Colts, and then helping his team win Super Bowl III against the Colts.

 37 Rae Carruth

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Famous As: American football player
Birthdate: January 20, 1974
Sun Sign: Aquarius
Birthplace: Sacramento

 38 Gerry Bertier

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Famous As: American football player
Birthdate: August 20, 1953
Sun Sign: Leo
Birthplace: Alexandria, Virginia, United States
Died: March 20, 1981

 39 Alex Karras

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Famous As: American Football Player
Birthdate: July 15, 1935
Sun Sign: Cancer
Birthplace: Gary, Indiana
Died: October 10, 2012

Alex Karras was an American footballer, sportscaster, actor, and professional wrestler. A four-time Pro Bowl player, Karras was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and College Football Hall of Fame. In 1977, he was also inducted into the Iowa Sports Hall of Fame. As an actor, he is remembered for playing George Papadopolis in the TV series, Webster.

 40 Tom Landry

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Famous As: Former American Football Player & Coach
Birthdate: September 11, 1924
Sun Sign: Virgo
Died: February 12, 2000
American football player and two-time Superbowl-winning coach Tom Landry had successful stints with the New York Yankees and the New York Giants. He was also the longest-tenured NFL coach, working with the Dallas Cowboys for 29 seasons. He pioneered the 4–3 defense and the flex defense. 

 41 Jerome Bettis

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Famous As: Football player
Birthdate: February 16, 1972
Sun Sign: Aquarius
Birthplace: Detroit, Michigan, United States

 42 George Blanda

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Famous As: American Football Player
Birthdate: September 17, 1927
Sun Sign: Virgo
Birthplace: Youngwood, Pennsylvania
Died: September 27, 2010

Famous for the age-defying longevity of his American football career, George Blanda set several records before retiring at the age of 48. The quarterback and placekicker who played mainly for Chicago Bears, Houston Oilers and Oakland Raiders teams, retired with 943 extra points from 26 seasons. He scored a record-setting 42 interceptions thrown in a single season in 1962.

 43 Bruce Matthews

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Famous As: American football player
Birthdate: August 8, 1961
Sun Sign: Leo
Birthplace: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

 44 Kellen Moore

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Famous As: American football player
Birthdate: July 5, 1988
Sun Sign: Cancer
Birthplace: Prosser

 45 Freddie Joe Steinmark

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Famous As: Football player
Birthdate: January 27, 1949
Sun Sign: Aquarius
Birthplace: Denver, Colorado, United States
Died: June 6, 1971

 46 Blaine Gabbert

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Famous As: American football player
Birthdate: October 15, 1989
Sun Sign: Libra
Birthplace: Ballwin

 47 Mack Brown

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Famous As: American football player
Birthdate: August 27, 1951
Sun Sign: Virgo
Birthplace: Cookeville

Mack Brown is an American college football coach who is currently serving as the head coach for the North Carolina Tar Heels which represents the University of North Carolina. A former head coach for the Texas Longhorns football program, Brown is credited with reinvigorating the Texas and North Carolina football programs. He won the Paul "Bear" Bryant Award in 2006.

 48 Lyle Alzado

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Famous As: American Football Player
Birthdate: April 3, 1949
Sun Sign: Aries
Birthplace: Brooklyn, New York, United States
Died: May 14, 1992

 49 Will Muschamp

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Famous As: American football player, Sports coach
Birthdate: August 3, 1971
Sun Sign: Leo
Birthplace: Rome

 50 Brian Piccolo

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Famous As: American football player
Birthdate: October 31, 1943
Sun Sign: Scorpio
Birthplace: Pittsfield, Massachusetts, United States
Died: June 16, 1970