MANHATTAN, July 30, 2013 — Football is about more than winning Super Bowls or even entertaining the fans. At its very best it can inspire people to great heights few thought possible. Heroics can come on or off the field at any moment. Here are the 16 most inspiring individuals in AFC history, one for each team.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Art Rooney—The cigar chomping late owner was beloved by his team and the city he proudly represented. His family created the “Rooney Rule” to increase minority hiring among NFL coaches and executives.
Baltimore Ravens: Michael Oher—This black boy was rescued and adopted by a white family, although they say he saved them as much as they did him. His life story inspired the Sandra Bullock movie “The Blind Side.”
Cincinnati Bengals: Boomer Esiason—After he retired, the Bengals settled into their role of the “Bungles” that remains shaken. Esiason took the Bengals to within 34 seconds of a Super Bowl win. The team has never been the same since he left.
Cleveland Browns: Otto Graham—The Browns went to ten consecutive championship games led by the quarterback who struck fear into opposing defenses. The Browns have not had anyone like him in the half a century since he retired.
Buffalo Bills: Marv Levy—He took the Bills coaching job long past the age when most coaches retire. He led his players to four straight Super Bowls with stories of World War II and other military victories. Honorable mention: Jim Kelly
Miami Dolphins: Don Shula—The winningest NFL coach of all time led his team to the only unbeaten NFL season. The 1972 Dolphins achieved perfection, and he kept that team focused despite losing their star quarterback for most of the season.
New York Jets: Joe Namath—“Broadway Joe” was not intimidated by the Jets being 18 point underdogs in Super Bowl III. He guaranteed victory and then went out and won it. The Jets have not had anybody comparable at the helm since he retired four decades ago.
New England Patriots: Tom Brady—This sixth round draft pick was never expected to see the field until an injury forced him into the lineup. Despite the team starting 0-2, he led them to a dynasty of three Super Bowls and nearly several more.
Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts: Johnny Unitas—Perhaps the greatest quarterback in NFL history, he slung the football from the late 1950s through the 1970s. He played through enormous pain long before medical advancements allowed for quicker recoveries. Honorable mention: Peyton Manning
Jacksonville Jaguars: Fred Taylor—The “old reliable” running back was a quiet player on a quiet team in the NFL’s smallest market. He ran for over 10,000 yards in an unassuming manner.
Houston Texans: Andre Johnson—The greatest player on the most recent expansion team is also a solid citizen who plays wide receiver in anything but a flashy way. He will be a first ballot Hall of Fame entry.
Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans: Steve McNair—Some play hurt. He frequently played injured. This football warrior led the Titans to within one yard of a potential Super Bowl win. He may have been the toughest quarterback of his generation.
Denver Broncos: John Elway—He could roll out to his right an throw the ball 70 yards to his left. After 15 seasons that included three Super Bowl losses, he went out on top in seasons 16 and 17 with consecutive Super Bowl victories. The all time leader in fourth quarter comebacks when he retired, now he is the team president and just as hungry. Honorable mention: Terrell Davis
San Diego Chargers: Dan Fouts—He led the “Air Coryell” attack to consecutive AFC Title Games. Despite not getting to the Super Bowl, he was given the ultimate compliment by an opposing star defender who said to his own quarterback, “You’ve got to keep scoring. We can’t stop him.”
Kansas City Chiefs: Dennis Byrd—A collision on an ordinary play left him paralyzed. Yet he refused to give up, and his story inspired the movie about him entitled “Rise and Walk.”
Oakland Raiders: Jim Plunkett—Born to parents who were both poor, blind, and Mexican, he beat Osgood-Slaughter’s Disease and neck cancer. After being discarded as a “washed up bum,” he led the Raiders to two Super Bowl wins. His autobiography “Jim Plunkett: The saga of a man who came back” is one of the most uplifting sports stories ever. He and Tom Flores in 1980 became the first Mexican-American quarterback and coach respectively to win a Super Bowl. Honorable mention: Jim Otto
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