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The Top Five

Move over, Moss and T.O. -- these are the real bad boys of NFL lore

Posted: Friday January 14, 2005 12:31PM; Updated: Friday January 14, 2005 1:02PM
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Duane Thomas
Duane Thomas earned the SI cover after leading Dallas to its first Super Bowl title.
Walter Iooss, Jr./SI

Whether he's ticking off his teammates and embarrassing his coaches by getting a two-second jump on that postgame shower in Washington, or creating a firestorm by feigning a full moon over Green Bay, Vikings receiver Randy Moss finds himself in the spotlight more than a swarm of summer moths at night.

Moss might be the current standard-bearer in terms of NFL bad boys, weaving his way in and out of trouble on and off the field, but he's far from the first of his kind. As long as there has been NFL players, there has been NFL players who didn't conform.

Here's our all-time top five NFL bad boys. Every one pushed the envelope in his own way, with their careers eventually becoming at least partially defined by their penchant for mischief.

1. Duane Thomas, 1970-73 -- Nicknamed "The Sphinx'' for his dark, sullen, moody personality, Thomas was in many ways very Moss-like in his time -- a supremely talented player who seemed aloof and yet inclined to make waves with his every deed or comment. The Cowboys' No. 1 draft pick in 1970 as a running back out of West Texas State, Thomas led Dallas in rushing in his first two seasons, both of which culminated in Super Bowl appearances.

While his defenders have long insisted that Thomas' silence was misunderstood and led to him unfairly being branded a malcontent, he did author two of the most memorable antiestablishment lines of his sport's era. He labeled legendary Cowboys head coach Tom Landry "Plastic Man,'' before adding, "actually, no man at all;'' and saying of Super Bowl VI, "If it's the ultimate [game], how come they're playing it again next year?''

Thomas had little staying power -- or star power. After helping the Cowboys win their first Super Bowl in the 1971 season, his problems with drug abuse contributed greatly to the shortening of his career, and he finished his four-year NFL run with a pair of nondescript seasons in Washington.

Landry once said the demise of Thomas' talents due to drug use was among his biggest disappointments. "My feeling is if Duane Thomas continued to play the way he did the couple of years he was in there, it would have been very hard for Pittsburgh to beat us [in Super Bowls X and XIII],'' Landry said. "If we had Duane and Calvin Hill, together they would have made an impact.''

2. Jack Tatum, 1971-80 -- Tatum makes this list because of one moment that stood out in his stellar 10-year career as an NFL safety: rendering Patriots receiver Daryl Stingley a paraplegic with a crushing blow to his spine in an Aug. 12, 1978 preseason game in Oakland. By that point, Tatum already was known as one of the game's most feared hitters, but his reputation for mayhem and malice grew exponentially after he leveled Stingley and then wrote a book titled They Call Me Assassin.

Much has been made of Tatum's refusal to apologize to Stingley or visit him in the hospital. The lingering memory of Tatum is that lack of remorse, which seemed to personify the darker impulses and violence that many saw inherent in the NFL. Tatum was demonized by some because he bragged in his book about his reputation for inflicting pain, thereby coldly making money off the persona that resulted from Stingley's paralysis. And of course, as a longtime Raider, Tatum was a regarded as a renegade almost automatically.

"I'm not going to beg forgiveness,'' Tatum said in a 2003 interview, as the 25th anniversary of the Stingley hit neared. "That's what people say: You never apologized. I didn't apologize for the play. That was football. I was sorry that he got hurt. Even today, people still think I'm a bad guy.''

Tatum had other signature hits in his career, like the blow that separated Vikings receiver Sammy White from his helmet in Super Bowl XI, and the jarring collision with Pittsburgh running back John "Frenchy'' Fuqua in a 1972 playoff game -- which sent the ball flying toward the waiting hands of Franco Harris, who collected it and ran for the touchdown that became the "Immaculate Reception.'' But it was the Stingley incident that forever will define Tatum's legacy.

Joe Namath
Broadaway Joe (with Ann-Margret) graced the SI cover for the seventh time on August 17, 1970

3. Joe Namath, 1965-77 -- Even before he became a beloved but ridiculously overhyped slice of American sports lore by "guaranteeing'' the Jets' Super Bowl III upset of the heavily favored Baltimore Colts, "Broadway Joe'' was celebrated for his bon vivant lifestyle and his playboy bachelor image. But it's a short trip from lovable rogue to bad-boy reputation in the media capital of the universe, and Namath traveled that path in the year after his greatest triumph on the  field.

Before the start of the Jets' training camp in 1969, Namath shockingly retired rather than sell his interest in the Manhattan night club that he co-owned: Bachelor's III. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle decreed that Namath must sell, because league security forces had information that the FBI was going to bust the club for being the hub of illegal gambling and rackets. Specifically, Rozelle told Namath that members of his ownership group included several unsavory characters believed to have ties to gambling.

Namath called a news conference and made his tearful retirement announcement, defiantly telling Rozelle and the league that it could not dictate who he did business with. Namath was roundly savaged in the press for his stance, and relented a short time later, selling his stake in the club and returning to the field in time to lead the Jets to a second consecutive AFL Eastern Division title.

Thirty-five years later, Namath's image took another hit, when he appeared on the ESPN Sunday-night game telecast and twice announced that he wanted "to kiss'' sideline reporter Suzy Kolber during a mid-game interview. Namath appeared drunk at the time, and soon thereafter entered treatment for alcohol dependency.

4. John Matuszak, 1973-81 -- The man they called "Tooz'' was the No. 1 pick in 1973, going to the Houston Oilers out of the University of Tampa. But that's not what the 6-foot-8, 282-pound defensive end is remembered for. His legacy was that of a brawling, incorrigible miscreant who occasionally played hard but always partied harder. It was inevitable that Matuszak ended up with the Raiders, where he spent the final six years of his career (1976-81), because Oakland by then had become a halfway house for the NFL's unrepentant, rowdier crowd.

During his playing career, Matuszak is said to have enjoyed what he considered the "breakfast of champions,'' a vodka and valium combination that can not be found on any Wheaties box. Before the Raiders played the Eagles in Super Bowl XV, Matuszak was quoted saying he was going to see to it that none of his teammates strayed too far from the team hotel, thereby risking a curfew violation.

"I'm going to see that there's no funny business,'' he said. "I've had enough parties for 20 people's lifetimes. I've grown up. I'll keep our young fellows out of trouble. If any players want to stray, they gotta go through Ol' Tooz.''

The only problem? The next night Matuszak was caught partying until at least 3 a.m. and was slapped with a $1,000 fine for his indiscretion.

After his playing days ended in 1981, Matuszak went on to a fairly successful career in movies, generally playing a version of himself. He died in 1989, of heart failure, at age 38.


5. John Riggins, 1971-85 -- The best running back the Redskins ever had was one of the most colorful and odd characters in NFL history. Remember when he sported a Mohawk haircut as a New York Jet? And then there was everyone's favorite "Riggo'' story, the night he attended a Washington Press Club Salute to Congress dinner and reportedly told Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor: "Come on, Sandy, baby, loosen up. You're too tight.''

In the summer of 1980, unhappy with how contract negotiations were going with the Redskins, he packed it in and went home to Kansas, telling The Washington Post: "It's a very simple situation. Either we'll get together and work this out and I'll play, or we won't work it out and I won't play.''

The ever-iconoclastic Riggins was true to his word. He sat out the 1980 season and didn't rejoin the Redskins until 1981, when new Washington head coach Joe Gibbs traveled to Kansas to make a peace offering.

"He had a camouflage outfit on,'' Gibbs recalled. "He had been hunting, him and a buddy. He had a beer can in his hand. It was 10 o'clock in the morning and he's meeting his coach for the first time and I'm thinking [sarcastically], 'This guy really impresses me.' But I went in there, and halfway through the conversation he says, 'You need to get me back there. I'll make you famous.' ''

Riggins reported to training camp with the pithy: "I'm broke, I'm bored and I'm back.'' But again he was dead on. With Riggins as his power back, Gibbs and the Redskins won the Super Bowl in 1982 and made it back to the big game in 1983, losing to the Raiders.

Don Banks covers pro football for SI.com.