Sometimes hustle gets a bad rap. Some fans have convinced themselves that it's not cool to try hard, or give max effort, and if that wasn't strange enough, "fake hustle" try-hards give those who actually do leave it all on the line a bad rap. Despite that, some of the most iconic plays in sports history are examples of fantastic hustle, and a few of them weren't just examples of great effort but also were instrumental in helping deliver championships. Let's take a look at some of the greatest hustle plays in sports history. (Also, this could have been an entire piece full of nothing but NFL chase downs, so we only included the best.)
Hustle plays are both inspiring on one end (the person hustling) and deeply humorous on the other (the person showboating, thus allowing the hustle to matter). Steelers tight end McDonald is the inspiring end of this play from Week 3 of the 2017 NFL season, and Bears defensive back Marcus Cooper plays the role of skinnier Leon Lett impersonator. The Bears won in overtime, but Cooper’s over-the-top showboating cost them a touchdown (they did get a field goal because of a penalty) and probably didn’t go over too well in weekly film study.
Here we have Anthony, long considered one of the NBA’s most one-dimensional players by his detractors, doing his best Bill Russell impersonation with a block, followed by a valiant effort to save the ball that took out some of his teammates, coaches and Knicks fans. Unlike Russell, however, Anthony was unable to keep the ball in play, but his hustle deserves praise.
I have a special place in my heart for punters and kickers who, against all odds, tackle a return man in the open field. Carolina’s Jason Baker made one of the all-time plays against one of the all-time great returners in NFL history. Seattle’s Leon Washington appeared destined for the end zone on a punt return against the Panthers on Dec. 5, 2010. He sprinted past Baker, who gave chase but was still a few yards behind. Baker managed to dive and make a shoestring tackle that brought the NFL’s career leader in kick return touchdowns down at the 1-yard line. I won’t even dock Washington for celebrating a little early. He barely broke stride and was still motoring when Baker managed to trip him up.
You might know former Cowboys offensive lineman Larry Allen as a freakishly strong human being who once bench-pressed 700 pounds. I prefer to think of him as some sort of terrifying physical freak who was capable of that kind of strength coupled with, apparently, incredible speed. Seriously, look at how large that man is. Now imagine you’ve made him mad. Yeah, no thanks. I can’t even fault Saints linebacker Darion Conner here. He was giving it his all; a 325-pound man just decided to defy the laws of physics on a random December night in 1994.
This is just a run-of-the-mill NBA game. The Washington Wizards are about to win on their home court, comfortably ahead with 40 seconds to play. That’s what makes John Wall’s all-out effort to save a loose ball from going out of bounds both admirable and borderline insane. Wall’s effort takes him about as far into the stands as you’ll ever see a player go, and for sheer visual impressiveness, it is one of the most incredible hustle plays in recent NBA history.
One could hardly blame Lett for wanting to bask in his moment of glory. The Cowboys were up, 52-17, in Super Bowl XXVII, merely waiting for the final gun to cement their win over the Buffalo Bills. That’s when Lett picked up a fumble and started rumbling toward the goal line to put an exclamation point on the title. Lett started showboating around the 15-yard line, which would have been fine, except that Beebe was in a dead sprint and chased him all the way down, knocking the ball through the end zone for a touchback. Sorry, Leon!
All-out hustle on a play is one thing; hustling and making a heads-up play is even more impressive. Therefore, while you might (like your humble author) not be the biggest Jeter fan, he deserves full marks for his flip to nab Oakland’s Jeremy Giambi in the 2001 American League Division Series. Oakland was up 2-0 in the series and trying to finish the Yankees, but they were down 1-0 in the seventh inning when Terrence Long ripped a double into the right field corner. Giambi was on first base and tried to score, and it appeared he would after the throw from right missed the cutoff man. Jeter ranging all the way over from shortstop, had other ideas.
Pittsburgh and Cincinnati’s Week 8 clash in 1997 will go down as one of the many forgettable games of the average NFL season. Still, despite it being a comfortable 26-10 win for the Steelers, it did feature an extraordinary hustle play from Lake, who chased down Cincinnati’s Carl Pickens and turned what looked like it could have been a touchdown into a touchback, punching the ball out of his hands and through the back of the end zone.
This play is called the “Goal of the Century.” Seems about right. And running through an entire country’s defenses at the World Cup is not just a skill play; it’s definitely a matter of hustle too.
The Cavaliers and Warriors were tied at 89 with under two minutes to play in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals when Golden State started a two-on-one fast break with Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala. Iguodala took a pass, ducked under J.R. Smith and looked to have an uncontested go-ahead layup when James appeared out of nowhere, pinned the ball on the backboard and sent the Cavs the other way. Cleveland ended up winning the game; you might have heard that the Warriors blew a 3-1 series lead.
Eric Dickerson is on the short list of greatest all-time running backs, and when he broke into the clear in a 1986 wild-card matchup with Washington, there was every reason to believe that the Rams had a touchdown. Darrell Green, perhaps the fastest man in NFL history, not only ran down Dickerson despite starting several yards behind him, but he also did so before Dickerson even made it to the 10-yard line. Even Pat Summerall, doing play-by-play, seemed shocked at Green’s closing speed.
Oregon’s Pepiot (second from the right here, in happier times) thought he had a win in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 2015 Pepsi Team Invitational. Let this be a lesson, kids: Don’t try to pump up the crowd to cheer your victory before you’ve actually crossed the finish line. As impressive as Washington’s Meron Simon’s hustle is, his ability to keep from laughing at Pepiot is even more astonishing.
Another example of an all-time great play that involves plenty of effort and hustle, Marshawn Lynch’s touchdown run against the Saints in the 2010 NFC wild-card game is a study in determination. Lynch broke at least five New Orleans tackle attempts, stiff-armed Tracy Porter into another dimension and then, nearly out of gas, managed to flop into the end zone. Lynch’s touchdown gave Seattle a 41-30 lead, provided the knockout shot against the defending Super Bowl champions and caused a small earthquake – really.
The Pistons were up on the Pacers, 69-67, with less than 30 seconds to go in Game 2 of their 2004 Eastern Conference Finals series, when, after a scramble, Reggie Miller got the ball on a fast break, appearing to have a clear lane for a game-tying layup. Tayshaun Prince had other ideas, somehow blocking Miller’s attempt and then careening into the crowd. Detroit won the game, the series and eventually, an NBA championship.
The 2005 divisional round matchup between the Broncos and the Patriots is noteworthy for being Tom Brady’s first career postseason defeat. The pivotal play of that game — a 100-yard interception return by Champ Bailey — is notable for the fact that Bailey’s return did not result in a touchdown. New England tight end Benjamin Watson ran him down from across the field and knocked him out at the 1-yard line. The Broncos punched it in on the next play, which gave them a 17-6 lead late in the third quarter, en route to a 27-13 victory, but the wide angle of Watson’s starting point when Bailey — one of the fastest players in the league — began his runback reveals just how incredible the effort was.
The score was tied 3-3 in Game 7 of the 1946 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Red Sox. St. Louis’ Enos Slaughter was on first base with two outs in the eighth inning when his manager, Eddie Dyer, called for a hit-and-run. Slaughter took off on the pitch, which was lined to left field for a single. Slaughter easily took third base, but instead of stopping there, he decided to make a break for home. Shortstop Johnny Pesky’s throw was late and up the line, and Slaughter scored the series-winning run from first base, on what was nothing more than a common single.
Here we have the rare “double hustle” moment from the same two players in the same quarter of the same game, on Nov. 1, 2015. The participants: Atlanta’s Julio Jones and Tampa Bay’s Kwon Alexander. Whose hustle play do you like more? Alexander’s play actually counted, but was Jones running him down on a penalty-nullified interception more impressive? You be the judge.
Duke and North Carolina met in 2001 with both teams ranked in the top five. The Blue Devils held a 50-47 advantage when Forte made a clean steal and looked poised to cruise in for a breakaway dunk to cut the lead to one with just under 17 minutes left in the game. Instead, Battier flew in to block the dunk, sparking a 6-0 Duke run and delivering one of the iconic plays of a fantastic collegiate career.
Some of the greatest plays in sports history, ones that are immortalized for their excellence, are also examples of great hustle. Hearst’s game-winning, 96-yard touchdown run in a 1998 clash with the Jets is a great example. Hearst breaks multiple tackles along the way, and, exhausted, manages to drag the final New York defender into the end zone. Bonus hustle points to Terrell Owens, who sprinted down the field to run interference and made the last 25 or so yards possible.
With apologies to the “Goal of the Century,” (more on that in a bit), Messi’s work here represents one of the most absurd, unfair goals in soccer history. A masterwork of skill, speed and, of course, hustle.
Full disclosure: I didn’t want to include this play. Jeter’s career achievements are impossible for me to legitimately appreciate, simply because I tired of so much undue praise coming his way. He is one of the best offensive shortstops ever (please ignore the fact that he had no range defensively), but he got elevated to godlike status because he spent his whole career with the Yankees. That being said, the more I watch this play, the more I appreciate the fact that Jeter was going into the crowd, whether he wanted to or not, because of how all-out his effort was. Respect. Or is it “Re2pect?”
Texas A&M hurdler Infinite Tucker has a great name, and he now has an iconic moment to match. At the 2019 SEC championships, Tucker and teammate Robert Grant were dueling at the finish of the 400-meter hurdles. Tucker appeared to have a slight lead, but he went all out to ensure a victory, diving to cross the finish line first by nine-hundredths of a second. As for an encore, Tucker had this to say: “I think I’m just going to sprint across the line from now on. It really took a toll.”
The San Francisco 49ers trailed the Minnesota Vikings, 21-17, late in an Oct. 30, 1988, game. Young, starting in place of the injured Joe Montana, had not had a great game. Still, with just under two minutes to go and facing a third-and-short, Young took off after being pressured, broke several Vikings tackles and managed to stay upright despite stumbling for the last several yards of his run, eventually diving into the end zone for the game-winning score.
The scrappy former Pirate was a folk hero during his time with the club, as his all-out style of play endeared him to Pittsburgh fans. He was particularly good reaching a base safely once caught in a rundown. Here are his two most famous efforts — enjoy them both, and really bask in how furious the Mets are about Harrison's work against them (possibly for good reason).
No real explanation is necessary, here. The event? The 4x400 meters at the 2018 NCAA championships. You already know who is going to win, but that makes the sight of it actually happening no less jaw-dropping.
There’s something mesmerizing about this particular play from Oct. 21, 2012. Jackson catches the ball in stride and takes off, and at the very top of the screen you can see a Saints defender, but they disappear as Jackson rumbles down the sideline. Then he looks, tries to speed up, and still gets caught by Jenkins, who shifted into overdrive to catch him. Jenkins' hustle did not go for naught, either. The Saints defense rose up and stopped Tampa Bay on four consecutive plays to preserve a 28-21 lead in a game they’d go on to win 35-28.
Phelps ended up winning a record eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but he wouldn't have done so without some historic heroics from Lezak, who swam the anchor leg of the 4x100 meter freestyle. Lezak trailed France’s Alain Bernard by nearly a body length to begin his leg and by half a body length with 25 meters to go. Lezak somehow overtook him at the finish to win the race by 0.08 seconds, the closest margin ever. Lezak’s split of 46.06 is still the fastest relay split of all time.
If you’d like to impress your friends with some football trivia, ask them to name the longest offensive play in NFL history that didn’t end in a touchdown. The answer is Ahmad Rashad’s (then Bobby Moore) 98-yard reception against the Los Angeles Rams in 1972. Rams cornerback Al Clark dragged down Rashad as he was nearing to the goal line, having reversed field several times after his catch. Clark’s hustle didn’t keep points off the board, as the Cardinals punched in a touchdown thereafter, but it did put this play in the history books.
This example of all-time hustle might be the best one yet, and it comes from the 2016 Irish Universities Track and Field Championships. Phil Healy, running the anchor leg for University College Cork, looked to have no chance at anything better than a possible third-place finish. Instead, after a dramatic lead change seconds earlier in the race, she stormed to the front just in time to cross the finish line first. As fun as the race is, the delirious commentary from the announce team is even better.
Clarett’s football career could charitably be described as star-crossed, and despite the fact that he never played a down in the NFL, he still authored one of the great plays in college football history in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, which was that season’s national championship game. Ohio State held a 14-7 lead over Miami early in the third quarter when Sean Taylor picked off a Craig Krenzel pass in the end zone and appeared to have a chance to run it all the way back. Not only did he not do that, but he also didn’t even maintain possession. Clarett caught him from behind and ripped the ball away, and the Buckeyes ended up kicking a pivotal field goal to push their lead to 17-7 on their way to an eventual national championship.
In 2020, Arizona Cardinals safety Budda Baker picked off Russell Wilson and seemed poised to take it to the house until D.K. Metcalf chased him down, Terminator-style. The play instantly became a meme, and will likely be shown in highlight packages from here on out.
Chris Mueller is the co-host of The PM Team with Poni & Mueller on Pittsburgh's 93.7 The Fan, Monday-Friday from 2-6 p.m. ET. Owner of a dog with a Napoleon complex, consumer of beer, cooker of chili, closet Cleveland Browns fan. On Twitter at @ChrisMuellerPGH – please laugh.