Colorful football player nicknames are a big part of the game’s history. Here are ten professional football players and their unique gridiron monikers. And yes, all ten men are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio…
Harold “Red” Grange (1903-1991)/"The Galloping Ghost,” “The Wheaton Ice Man”
Big things were always in store for Red Grange, who earned 16 varsity letters in football, track, basketball and baseball during his four years at Wheaton (Illinois) High School. Grange later became a star running back for the University of Illinois and George Halas’ Chicago Bears. It was Chicago American sportswriter Warren Brown who dubbed Grange “The Galloping Ghost.” Grange was also known as “The Wheaton Ice Man,” a nickname he had acquired while working as an ice toter in his hometown.
Autographed photo: Harold "Red" Grange "The Galloping Ghost"
Dick Lane (1928-2002)/“Night Train”
Dick Lane made his National Football League debut in 1952 as a defensive back for the Los Angeles Rams, where he set a single season record of 14 interceptions, a feat which has yet to be equaled or surpassed. Lane later played for the Chicago Cardinals and the Detroit Lions. One of the fiercest defensive backs ever to play the game, Dick Lane reportedly acquired his famous nickname of “Night Train” due to his fear of flying. Rather than boarding the chartered airplane with the rest of the team, Lane would depart on the night train following Friday’s practice so he could join the squad the next day in the opposing city.
Promotional photo: Dick "Night Train" Lane
Elroy Hirsch (1923-2004)/“Crazy Legs”
Elroy Hirsch played his collegiate ball at Wisconsin and Michigan. While at the latter, Hirsch lettered in four sports for the Wolverines (football, basketball, baseball, track) during the 1943-44 school year. Picked #5 in the first round of the 1945 NFL draft, Hirsch went on to play pro ball for the Chicago Rockets and the Los Angeles Rams, earning Pro Bowl honors three times. Elroy Hirsch earned his famous nickname of “Crazy Legs” courtesy of Chicago Daily News sportswriter Francis Powers, who in 1942 described the Wisconsin running back as such: “His crazy legs were gyrating in six different directions, all at the same time; he looked like a demented duck.” Hirsch later played himself in the 1953 Hollywood sports biopic Crazy Legs.
1950 Bowman football card: Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch
Paul Hornung (1935-)/“Golden Boy”
A star running back for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Paul Hornung won the Heisman Trophy in 1956. The first selection in the 1957 NFL Draft, Hornung went on to play for the Green Bay Packers, leading the league in scoring for three straight seasons (1959-61). Hornung was known as “Golden Boy,” a nickname which took a hit in 1963 when he and Alex Karras were suspended for one year by commissioner Pete Rozelle for betting on NFL games and associating with “undesirables.”
1957 Topps football card: Paul Hornung "Golden Boy"
Joe Namath (1943-)/“Broadway Joe,” “Joe Willie”
Joe Namath played his collegiate ball for Paul “Bear” Bryant at the University of Alabama. The #1 pick in the 1965 AFL Draft, Namath went on to star for the New York Jets, guaranteeing (and subsequently delivering) victory in 1969’s Super Bowl III against the heavily-favored Baltimore Colts. The flashy Namath was the epitome of NFL bling and opulence during the 1960s and early ‘70s, more than earning his nickname “Broadway Joe,” a moniker given to him by Jets teammate Sherman Plunkett.
Autographed limited edition art: "Broadway Joe" Namath
Sammy Baugh (1914-2008)/“Slingin’ Sammy”
A star quarterback for the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs, Sammy Baugh was the #6 overall pick in the 1937 NFL Draft. Baugh would play his entire pro career with the Washington Redskins, where he threw for 21,886 yards and 187 touchdowns. One of his greatest performances came on “Sammy Baugh Day,” November 23, 1947, where he threw for 355 yards and six touchdowns against the Chicago Cardinals. “Slingin’ Sammy” more than lived up to his famous nickname.
1950 Bowman football card: "Slingin' Sammy" Baugh
Joe Greene (1946-)/“Mean Joe”
Joe Greene played his collegiate ball at North Texas State University. The #4 overall pick in the 1969 NFL Draft, Greene later became one of the defensive cornerstones in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ vaunted “Steel Curtain.” Greene played his entire career with the Steelers from 1969-81, earning ten Pro Bowl appearances and collecting four Super Bowl rings. Although the 6’4” 275-pound Greene was certainly mean on the gridiron, the defensive tackle had acquired his famous moniker by error when Steeler fans had mistakenly thought that North Texas’ defensive team nickname of “Mean Green” actually belonged to Joe Greene.
1975 Super Bowl IX photo: "Mean Joe" Greene with Pittsburgh Steeler head coach Chuck Noll
Ray Nitschke (1936-1998/“Wildman”
A linebacker and fullback for the University of Illinois, Ray Nitschke was a third round pick in the 1958 NFL Draft. One of the hardest hitters ever to play the game, Nitschke vaulted to fame as a feared middle linebacker for Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers, where he played from 1958-72. Nitschke, whose #66 jersey was retired by the Pack, was known as “Wildman,” a nickname which defined his reckless abandon style of play on the gridiron.
Autographed photo: Ray Nitschke "Wildman"
Mike Ditka (1939-)/“Iron Mike”
Mike Ditka played his collegiate ball at the University of Pittsburgh. The #5 overall pick in the 1961 NFL Draft, Ditka made his pro debut as a tight end for the Chicago Bears later that year, earning Rookie of the Year honors. As a member of the Dallas Cowboys from 1969-72, Ditka earned three Super Bowl rings. “Iron Mike” was a fitting name for the hard-charging Ditka, who became the first tight end to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
1962 Topps football card: "Iron Mike" Ditka
Chuck Bednarik (1925-)/“Concrete Charlie,” “Sixty Minute Man”
The epitome of the old-line, hard-nosed football player, Chuck Bednarik played college ball at the University of Pennsylvania. The #1 pick in the 1949 NFL Draft, Bednarik played his entire pro career with the Philadelphia Eagles from 1949-62. Bednarik started on both offense (center) and defense (linebacker), earning the nickname “Sixty Minute Man” – the length of a football game. The Pennsylvania native was also known as “Concrete Charlie,” a tribute to his durability and toughness as he missed only three games during his 13-year NFL career.
1952 Bowman large football card: Chuck Bednarik "Concrete Charlie"
Fifteen More Famous Football Player Nicknames
- Ken Stabler (1945-)/“Snake”
- Joe Montana (1956-)/“Super Bowl Joe,” “Joe Cool,” “Comeback Joe”
- Roger Staubach (1942-)/“Roger the Dodger”
- William Perry (1962-)/“The Refrigerator, “The Fridge”
- Walter Payton (1954-1999)/“Sweetness”
- Jack Tatum (1948-2010)/“The Assassin”
- Jerome Bettis (1972-)/“The Bus”
- O.J. Simpson (1947-)/“The Juice”
- Ed Jones (1951-)/“Too Tall”
- Craig Heyward (1966-2006)/“Ironhead”
- Larry Csonka (1946-) and Jim Kiick (1946-)/“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”
- Jack Reynolds (1947-)/“Hacksaw”
- Howard Cassady (1934-)/“Hopalong”
- Ted Hendricks (1947-)/“The Mad Stork”
- Art Donovan (1925-)/“The Bulldog,” “Fatso”
1976 Topps football card: Walter Payton "Sweetness"
- All images courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries, Dallas, Texas
- Top image: 1972 Topps football card: "Broadway Joe" Namath
Copyright © 2012 William J. Felchner. All rights reserved.