The NFL season is about to start (whatever that may look like). That means we'll get reacquainted with some of the games best players - and nicknames (Gronk, Matty Ice). It's also the perfect time to give a nod to the great nicknames in the history of the game. Including at least one still in action.
Here we go (listed in alphabetical order).
The two-way (linebacker/center) star is one of the great Philadelphia Eagles of all time. In terms of how he earned one of sports' greatest nicknames, it reportedly was not because of those vicious hits the Hall of Famer laid on opposing ball carriers. Rather, legend states that Bednarik got the nickname because of his second job as a concrete salesman. Either way, it's still a classic.
Bettis ran for 13,662 yards during his 13-year NFL career, mostly with the Pittsburgh Steelers. At a bruising 255 pounds, Bettis gained most of his yards by simply running over defenders, and often carrying them along with as he tried to churn out more distance. Thus, the nickname. Which in some variation, according to Bettis, originated while he was at Notre Dame.
The legendary Bears coach has one of the better nicknames in pro football history. The Hall-of-Fame tight end and Super Bowl-winning coach earned the name from growing up near Pittsburgh, a city known for its steel mills and factories. It also helped that Ditka played the game hard and tough, also the way he treated his players as a coach.
Arguably the best nickname in all of football - pro, college, prep, Pop Warner. The University of Illinois and Chicago Bears star got his famous nickname from a Chicago sportswriter. Grange's ability to blow by defenders, leaving them reaching for or tackling air in his wake was something not seen from any other player during the early and mid 1920s.
A 10-time Pro Bowler and four-time Super Bowl champion, Greene was one of the fiercest defenders in NFL history with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Legend suggests that Greene earned the nickname as one of nation's most dominant collegiate defensive players while playing for the "Mean Green" at North Texas (then known as North Texas State). Though Greene's dominance continued into the NFL, he reportedly never really liked it.
It's never really smart to give yourself a nickname, though that's apparently how Henderson got his. His brash personality on and off the field played into the name, but more so for how he lived fast and free outside the game. Drug issues played a part in the linebacker's time with the Dallas Cowboys ending after five seasons in the late 1970s. Henderson was eventually able to get clean and turn his life around.
Word has it that Heyward earned his nickname as a young boy. According to reports, Heyward had a pool cue broken over his head and hardly flinched. The story and nickname translated well into Heyward's playing days where he made a habit of putting his head down while running at and often over opposing defenders. He was one of the game's premier running backs in the late 1980s and into the '90s.
Hirsch caught 343 passes for nearly 6,300 yards while playing his entire nine-year NFL career with the Los Angeles Rams (1949-'57). Hirsch earned his unique nickname for the way his legs flailed every which way while running with the football. He scored 53 NFL touchdowns, so he may have looked crazy while he ran, but the Hall of Famer was obviously effective.
Johnson was a three-time Pro Bowler during the 1970s and the '80s, playing for the Houston Oilers and Atlanta. Apparently, Johnson dyed his shoes white on a dare while in high school and the name stuck throughout his pro career. Johnson, who recorded 337 receptions and 4,211 receiving yards, was also known for his leg-wiggling touchdown dance celebration.
One of the great receivers in NFL history (731 receptions, 11,619 yards, 83 touchdowns), Johnson played all nine of his seasons with Detroit. That's where he earned one of the great nicknames in all of sports. Due to his size (6-foot-5, 237 pounds) and large hands, apparently replicant of the famed, towering Transformers character, the nickname caught stuck.
We know the longtime Cincinnati receiver is one of the true characters of the game. He really took that notion to the extreme with his name. What originally started as a nod to Hispanic Heritage Month during the 2006 season, Johnson had "Ocho Cinco" on the back of his game jersey to play off his No. 85. Johnson ended up legally changing his last name to Ochocinco, which caused further controversy. He eventually went back to Johnson in 2012.
The man who is often credited with the coming up with the term "sack." A Hall of Famer and member of the Los Angeles Rams' famed "Fearsome Foursome" defensive line, Jones unofficially totaled 173 1/2 sacks (the statistic was not recognized until 1982) during his career. As for the nickname, Jones actually came up with it on his own because there were too many people named David Jones in the world - and he wanted to stand out.
At 6-foot-9, it's probably easy to figure out how this star Dallas Cowboys defensive end got his nickname. Actually, if we go by what legend has, Jones got the name in college when the football pants he put on weren't long enough on him. It's said a teammate commented that he was "too tall to play football." That wasn't the case, since Jones recorded more than 100 sacks (unofficial) and was named to three Pro Bowls.
The Hall-of-Fame defensive back not only had nifty moves on the field, but also when it came to dancing. According to an article in The Los Angeles Times from 1952, Lane got his famous nickname from some teammates because he enjoyed dancing to the R&B hit "Night Train," by Jimmy Forrest, during training camp. On the field, Lane recorded 27 of his 68 interceptions in his first three seasons.
Like a couple of the other burly, bruising running backs on this list, Lynch gained his description for his running style. Particularly, the way his ability to batter opposing tacklers and take over games by simply over and through defenders. Lynch, who has come in and out of retirement, rushed for more than 10,000 yards and a total of 85 touchdowns - mostly with the Seattle Seahawks.
At 5-foot-9, Mathieu has had to prove his worth on the football field. Though it's not always been easy, and his attitude's been known to get in the way, Mathieu has overcome his smaller stature with some ferocious play and knack for making the big plays against bigger, often more talented, players. Thus the comparison to the feisty creature.
Namath was born in Pennsylvania and played college ball at Alabama, but he was a star made for the glitz and glamour of New York City. According the legend, Namath, good-looking and brimming with confidence, earned his popular nickname from a New York Jets' teammate after the quarterback appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in the summer of 1965.
A two-time Pro Bowler, the 6-1, 260-pound running back from Enugu, Nigeria, was a menace with the football. The way he punished would-be tacklers and rarely shied away from contact, in addition to his heritage, made for quite the appropriate nickname for one of the most popular NFL players in the late 1980s and into the '90s. In six seasons with Kansas City, Okoye rushed for 4,897 yards and 40 touchdowns
Arguably the greatest running back of all time. For years, Payton's 16,726 rushing yards were the most in NFL history. The Chicago Bears' legend apparently got his nickname on two fronts. First, because of his "sweet" moves on the field and overall athletic ability. Plus, his own personable nature that endeared him to countless fans throughout his career and life.
We know Perry's nickname came in college at Clemson. One of his friends could not squeeze into an elevator because Perry was in the way. The friend said "get out of the way, you're like a walking refrigerator" as Perry blocked out all the light inside the elevator. Life after football has not always been kind to the former Chicago Bear, but his 1985 rookie season turned him into a pop culture phenom.
The fifth and final Chicago Bears legend on this list. Sayers, who enjoyed a brief but Hall-of-Fame career (4.956 rushing yards in 68 career games) as one of the great NFL running back, was born in Wichita, Kan. He played collegiately at Kansas. His ability to seemingly easily blow by defenders and potential tackles made for a fitting nickname.
While longtime ESPN personality Chris Berman had plenty of fun with Sanders' nickname, it reportedly was born of his style and flare playing night-time, pick-up basketball games with friends. Of course, Sanders, who also went by "Neon Deion," was all about drawing attention on the field. From his look, big-play reaction and dances into in the end zone, Sanders was not only one of the game's great defensive backs and return men, but it's biggest characters, as well.
Not exactly the most political correct nickname in the NFL history. However, back in the 1970s, it seemed more colorful than anything else. The safety's moniker played off his hard-hitting style in the secondary. Often leading with his helmet and going head-to-head with an intended pass catcher. He was also involved in the infamous on-field collision with New England receiver Darryl Stingley in 1978, that left the latter paralyzed and Tatum emotionally scarred.
White, who recorded 198 sacks during this Hall-of-Fame career, got the nickname during his college days at Tennessee. In addition to being one of the nation's top defensive players, White was active in the popular Fellowship of Christian Athletes during college. He would eventually become ordained a Baptist minister, and one of the great pass rushers in NFL history.
There are many out there who probably don't know Woods' actual first name. That reportedly came from his little brother. As it's been told, he could not say Elbert, but something that sounded more like "Eeee Eeee." Out of that came "Ickey," and then an NFL career that included a stellar 1,066-yard rushing rookie season for the Super Bowl-bound Cincinnati Bengals.
Jeff Mezydlo has written about sports and entertainment online and for print for more than 25 years. He grew up in the far south suburbs of Chicago, 20 minutes from the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Ind. He’s also the proud father of 11-year-old Matthew, aka “Bobby Bruin,” mascot of St. Robert Bellarmine School in Chicago. You can follow Jeff at @jeffm401.