The game of football is not designed for gentle souls. Off the field, maybe, but between the lines, controlled aggression is key. A serving of arrogance and feistiness helps, but some players go beyond the bounds of acceptable conduct even for a game premised on physically beating people. Some of these players are less combustible than others but make up for it in sheer nastiness and a willingness to injure an opponent. ‘Tis the season for training camp fights, so here we go. (Note that these players were selected for a 3-4 defense. Go here for the offense edition.)
Lyle Alzado -- Defensive end (1971-85)
In 1985, L.A. Times writer Mark Heisler dubbed the late Alzado “the poet laureate of rage” and noted the Raiders lineman’s favorite on-field taunt: "I'll kill you and everything you love!" The Broncos, Browns and Raiders lineman was also known as "Darth Raider" and "Three Mile Lyle” (referring to the nuclear meltdown) for his propensity to explode. Some of Alzado’s rage was fueled by steroids, which he admitted taking. "There's a fury in me” Alzado once said. “From the streets. From where I grew up ... I'm a violent person, and I'm playing a violent game." In a game against the Jets in 1983, Alzado inspired the “Lyle Alzado Rule” after ripping off Jets tackle Chris Ward’s helmet and chucking it at him. The rule prohibits the use of a helmet as a weapon.
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Albert Haynesworth -- Defensive tackle (2002-11)
The 6-foot-6, 350-pounder and $100 million Redskins megabust had the talent for a much better career, which was low-lighted by two plays: (1) the time he literally laid on the ground in the middle of a play… to rest, or something; and (2) the incident in 2006 when he stomped on head of helmetless Cowboys center Andre Gurode, then stomped on him again, opening a gash on his forehead that required 30 stitches to sew up. When he got flagged for that, he ripped off his helmet and threw it, resulting in his ejection.
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Ndamukong Suh -- Defensive end (2010-present)
(Yes he’s primarily a tackle, but capable of playing end in a 3-4 defense.) Suh has committed enough dirty acts in the league -- such as stomping, kicking and throwing forearm shivers -- that there’s enough material for a “brief history” and top-10 lists about his dirtiest plays. He hasn’t owned up to the dirty play, either, once offering this explanation for why he stepped down on Aaron Rodgers' (injured) calf at Lambeau Field: His feet were numb and cold he couldn’t tell the difference between Rodgers’ leg and the ground. Vontaze Burfict (we’ll get to him) will need to RKO an opponent in order to unseat Suh as the league’s dirtiest.
Getty ImagesMike Ehrmann
James Harrison -- Outside linebacker (2002-15)
Harrison has said that he tries to hurt (but not injure people), which would be perfectly fine in his line of work if he didn’t flout the rulebook and commit so many illegal hits. The highly effective but oft-penalized and oft-fined (totaling $150,000 since 2002) linebacker has brutalized offensive players with clean hits but too many headshots, including an avoidable helmet-to-helmet blast on Colt McCoy in 2011 that gave the quarterback a concussion. In a 2012 ESPN poll asking “Who is the most violent, dangerous player in the NFL?” Harrison won in a landslide with 67.5 percent of the vote. If Harrison ever retires he definitely has a career in the WWE in front of him, as evidenced by his bodyslam of Vince Young in 2010 and a drunk fan who ran onto the field in Cleveland in 2005.
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Bill Romanowski -- Inside linebacker (1988-2003)
The list of the Romanowski’s injurious outbursts is too long to recount in the space allotted here, so let’s just mention these three incidents in which the volatile linebacker went after another player: (1) In 1997, Romanowski lost control and spit in the face of 49ers wide receiver J.J. Stokes on Monday Night Football; (2) in 1995, he kicked Cardinals fullback Larry Centers in the head; (3) in 2003, he ripped off tight end Marcus Williams’ helmet during practice and punched him in the eye. The blow shattered Williams' eye socket and forced him to retire from football. Two years later, a jury ordered Romanowski to pay Williams $340,000 for medical expenses and lost wages.
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Bryan Cox -- Inside linebacker (1991-2002)
Extra security was required in 1998, when the neck roll-wearing Cox returned to Buffalo -- the site of an ugly incident in 1995, when he fought running back Carwell Gardner and then spat in the direction of Bills fans five times as he left the field. Two years earlier, Cox entered the field at Buffalo saluting the crowd with middle fingers on both hands. (He sued and settled with the NFL over this incident, alleging that a hostile crowd there spewed racial epithets at him, creating an unsafe workplace.) In a single 1993 game in Miami, Cox argued with a fan, got flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, berated a referee and threatened an NFL security official who told Cox to get into the locker room. Said Cox after that game/incident: "I was an embarrassment to the team, this organization and to my family.”
The out-of-control Bengals linebacker is suspended for the first three games of the upcoming season in connection with repeated player safety violations -- the most recent in January 2016, when he took a shot at a defenseless wide receiver, Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown. Burfict had already been fined four times in 2015 for similar safety-related violations. Burfict also made headlines for the wrong reason in 2014, when he was caught twisting the ankles of Panthers players Cam Newton and Greg Olsen.
Getty ImagesJoe Robbins
Cortland Finnegan -- Cornerback (2006-15)
Noted dirty player and cheap-shot thrower Cortland Finnegan met his match in 2010, when former Houston Texans receiver Andre Johnson took Finnegan’s bait, ripped off his helmet and landed two solid punches. The league has fined Finnegan for various other extracurricular activities, including throwing Giants wideout Steve “The Other Steve Smith” Smith to the ground by his helmet. Naturally, Finnegan has a story involving Steve Smith Sr. “[Smith Sr.] comes over to me, and tells me ‘None of that crazy stuff, Finnegan,’” he said in 2014. “I’d never played him before, so I was like, 'Yes sir. Absolutely. Nothing crazy.’ Back then, they called me crazy." You know you’re kind of crazy when Steve Smith Sr. warns you to avoid 'crazy stuff.'
Getty ImagesDoug Pensinger
Bernard Pollard -- Strong safety (2006-14)
Pollard was flagged 38 times over his nine-year career, mainly for unnecessary roughness, personal fouls and taunting. He was a loud presence and a fierce hitter (and New England Patriots assassin) but prone to fighting and extracurriculars, which caught him seven fines for a total $135,875. Pretty much what you would expect from a guy who hung the note on his locker: "Goal -- Super Bowl; Mission -- Kill!!!"
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Dashon Goldson -- Free safety (2007-15)
Like safety-mate Pollard, Goldson has collected a truly absurd amount of penalties and fines over his career: 17 career unnecessary roughness penalties (and 17 drives extended for opposing offenses), and $455,000 worth of fines in 2013 alone (that includes a missed game check as a result of a one-game suspension). The nearly half-a-million bill included a whopping $100,000 for a helmet-to-helmet hit on former Saints running back Darren Sproles that prompted Drew Brees to claim that Goldson was “going after guys' heads.” At this point, the free agent Goldson knows that his reputation precedes him, which gives him little margin for error (or transgression) on the field.
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Adam ‘Pacman’ Jones -- Cornerback (2005-present)
Jones' legal troubles and behavioral issues began long before he “made it rain” in a Las Vegas gentleman’s club in 2007, inciting a brawl that became a shooting that left a man paralyzed. After a year-long suspension in 2007 he ended up in Dallas (naturally), where he got suspended again after an altercation with his bodyguard. He got another chance in Cincinnati, where he’s cleaned up his act. "I enjoy working out, and every Sunday being an a**hole,” he said in March. “We get paid to do a job, and my job is really to be an a**hole." That’s true, to an extent. In a Wild Card game in January the Steelers brought out the worst in Jones, when he lost his composure and drew a costly unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for contacting an official while arguing with Steelers coach Joey Porter -- who should not have been on the field but certainly made the most of his appearance.