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The Most Famous


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This page contains a list of the greatest American American Football Players. The pantheon dataset contains 55 American Football Players, 57 of which were born in United States. This makes United States the birth place of the most number of American Football Players.

Top 10

The following people are considered by Pantheon to be the top 10 most legendary American American Football Players of all time. This list of famous American American Football Players is sorted by HPI (Historical Popularity Index), a metric that aggregates information on a biography’s online popularity. Visit the rankings page to view the entire list of American American Football Players.

Photo of O. J. Simpson

1. O. J. Simpson (1947 - )

With an HPI of 68.87, O. J. Simpson is the most famous American American Football Player.  His biography has been translated into 46 different languages on wikipedia.

Orenthal James Simpson (born July 9, 1947), commonly referred to as O. J. Simpson, is an American former football running back, actor, and broadcaster. He played in the National Football League (NFL) for 11 seasons, primarily with the Buffalo Bills, and is regarded as one of the greatest running backs of all time. Once a popular figure with the American public, Simpson's professional success was overshadowed by his trial and controversial acquittal for the murders of his former wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman. Simpson played college football for the USC Trojans, where he won the Heisman Trophy as a senior, and was selected first overall by the Bills in the 1969 NFL/AFL draft. During his nine seasons with the Bills, Simpson received five consecutive Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro selections from 1972 to 1976. He also led the league in rushing yards four times, in rushing touchdowns twice, and in points scored in 1975. In 1973, he became the first NFL player to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season, earning him NFL Most Valuable Player (MVP), and is the only NFL player to do so in a 14-game regular season. Simpson holds the record for the single-season yards-per-game average at 143.1. After retiring with the San Francisco 49ers in 1979, Simpson pursued an acting and broadcasting career. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985. In June 1994, Simpson was arrested and charged with the murders of Brown and Goldman. He was acquitted in a lengthy and internationally publicized trial, but found liable for the deaths three years later in a civil suit from the victims' families. To date, Simpson has paid little of the $33.5 million judgment (equivalent to $61 million in 2022). In 2007, Simpson was arrested in Las Vegas, Nevada, and charged with armed robbery and kidnapping. In 2008, he was convicted and sentenced to 33 years' imprisonment, with a minimum of nine years without parole. He served his sentence at the Lovelock Correctional Center near Lovelock, Nevada. He was granted parole on July 20, 2017, which was the minimum sentence. He was released on October 1, 2017. In December 2021, Simpson was granted early release from his parole by the Nevada Division of Parole and Probation.

Photo of Jim Brown

2. Jim Brown (1936 - 2023)

With an HPI of 52.23, Jim Brown is the 2nd most famous American American Football Player.  His biography has been translated into 32 different languages.

James Nathaniel Brown (February 17, 1936 – May 18, 2023) was an American football fullback, civil rights activist, and actor. He played for the Cleveland Browns of the National Football League (NFL) from 1957 through 1965. Considered one of the greatest running backs of all time, as well as one of the greatest players in NFL history, Brown was a Pro Bowl invitee every season he was in the league, was recognized as the AP NFL Most Valuable Player three times, and won an NFL championship with the Browns in 1964. He led the league in rushing yards in eight out of his nine seasons, and by the time he retired, he held most major rushing records. In 2002, he was named by The Sporting News as the greatest professional football player ever.Brown earned unanimous All-America honors playing college football at Syracuse University, where he was an all-around player for the Syracuse Orangemen football team. The team later retired his number 44 jersey, and he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1995. He is also widely considered one of the greatest lacrosse players of all time, and the Premier Lacrosse League MVP Award is named in his honor. Brown also excelled in basketball and track and field.In his professional career, Brown carried the ball 2,359 times for 12,312 rushing yards and 106 touchdowns, which were all records when he retired. He averaged 104.3 rushing yards per game and is the only player in NFL history to average over 100 rushing yards per game for his career. Brown was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971. He was named to the NFL's 50th, 75th, and 100th Anniversary All-Time Teams, composed of the best players in NFL history. Brown was honored at the 2020 College Football Playoff National Championship as the greatest college football player of all time. His number 32 jersey is retired by the Browns. Shortly before the end of his football career, Brown became an actor. He retired at the peak of his football career to pursue an acting career. He obtained 53 acting credits and several leading roles throughout the 1970s. He has been described as Hollywood's first black action hero and his role in the 1969 film 100 Rifles made cinematic history for featuring interracial love scenes.Brown was one of the few athletes, and among the most prominent African Americans, to speak out on racial issues as the civil rights movement was growing in the 1950s. He participated in the Cleveland Summit after Muhammad Ali faced imprisonment for refusing to enter the draft for the Vietnam War, and he founded the Black Economic Union to help promote economic opportunities for minority-owned businesses. Brown later launched a foundation focused on diverting at-risk youth from violence through teaching them life skills, through which he facilitated the Watts truce between rival street gangs in Los Angeles.

Photo of Tom Brady

3. Tom Brady (1977 - )

With an HPI of 51.07, Tom Brady is the 3rd most famous American American Football Player.  His biography has been translated into 44 different languages.

Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. (born August 3, 1977) is an American former football quarterback who played in the National Football League (NFL) for 23 seasons. He spent his first 20 seasons with the New England Patriots and was a central contributor to the franchise's dynasty from 2001 to 2019. In his final three seasons, he was a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Brady is widely regarded as the greatest quarterback of all time.After playing college football at the University of Michigan, Brady was selected 199th overall by the Patriots in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft, later earning him a reputation as the NFL's biggest draft steal. He became the starting quarterback during his second season, which saw the Patriots win their first Super Bowl title in Super Bowl XXXVI. As the team's primary starter for 18 seasons, Brady led the Patriots to 17 division titles (including 11 consecutive from 2009 to 2019), 13 AFC Championship Games (including eight consecutive from 2011 to 2018), nine Super Bowl appearances, and six Super Bowl titles, all NFL records for a player and franchise. He joined the Buccaneers in early 2020 and won Super Bowl LV, extending his individual records to 10 Super Bowl appearances and seven victories. Beginning in 2024, Brady will be the lead color commentator for NFL on Fox.Brady holds many major quarterback records, including most career passing yards, completions, touchdown passes, and games started. He is the NFL leader in career quarterback wins, quarterback regular season wins, quarterback playoff wins, and Super Bowl Most Valuable Player (MVP) Awards, and the only Super Bowl MVP for two different franchises. Additional accolades held by Brady include the most Pro Bowl selections and the first unanimous NFL MVP. The only quarterback to win a Super Bowl in three separate decades, Brady is also noted for the longevity of his success. He was the oldest NFL MVP at age 40, the oldest Super Bowl MVP at age 43, and the oldest quarterback selected to the Pro Bowl at age 44. Brady is the only NFL quarterback named to two all-decade teams (2000s and 2010s) and was unanimously named to the 100th Anniversary All-Time Team in 2019.

Photo of Joe Montana

4. Joe Montana (1956 - )

With an HPI of 48.79, Joe Montana is the 4th most famous American American Football Player.  His biography has been translated into 30 different languages.

Joseph Clifford Montana Jr. (born June 11, 1956) is an American former football quarterback who played in the National Football League (NFL) for 16 seasons, primarily with the San Francisco 49ers. Nicknamed "Joe Cool" and "the Comeback Kid", Montana is widely regarded as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. After winning a national championship at Notre Dame, Montana began his NFL career in 1979 at San Francisco, where he played for the next 14 seasons. With the 49ers, Montana started and won four Super Bowls and was the first player to be named the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player (MVP) three times. He also holds Super Bowl career records for most passes without an interception (122 in four games) and the all-time highest passer rating of 127.8. In 1993, Montana was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs, where he played for his last two seasons and led the franchise to its first AFC Championship Game. Montana was inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000.In 1986, Montana won the AP NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award. In 1989 and again in 1990, the Associated Press named Montana the NFL MVP, and Sports Illustrated magazine named Montana the 1990 "Sportsman of the Year". Montana was elected to eight Pro Bowls as well as being voted First-team All-Pro by the AP in 1987, 1989, and 1990. Montana had the highest passer rating in the National Football Conference (NFC) five times (1981, 1984, 1985, 1987, and 1989), and in both 1987 and 1989, Montana had the highest passer rating in the NFL.Among his career highlights, "The Catch" (the game-winning touchdown pass to Dwight Clark vs. Dallas in the 1981 NFC Championship Game) and a Super Bowl-winning 92-yard drive against the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII are staples of NFL highlight films. The 49ers retired Montana's No. 16 jersey number after the conclusion of his playing career. In 1994, Montana earned a spot on the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team; he is also a member of the NFL 1980s All-Decade Team. In 1999, editors at The Sporting News ranked Montana third on their list of Football's 100 Greatest Players. Also in 1999, ESPN named Montana the 25th greatest athlete of the 20th century. In 2006, Sports Illustrated rated him the number-one clutch quarterback of all time.

Photo of Ernie Davis

5. Ernie Davis (1939 - 1963)

With an HPI of 48.08, Ernie Davis is the 5th most famous American American Football Player.  His biography has been translated into 16 different languages.

Ernest R. Davis (December 14, 1939 – May 18, 1963) was an American college football player for the Syracuse Orangemen who won the Heisman Trophy in 1961. He was the award's first African American recipient. Davis was selected by the Washington Redskins with the first overall pick of the 1962 NFL Draft, but was almost immediately traded to the Cleveland Browns. He was diagnosed with leukemia that same year, and died shortly after at age 23 without ever playing in a professional game. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1979 and was the subject of the 2008 film The Express: The Ernie Davis Story.

Photo of Johnny Unitas

6. Johnny Unitas (1933 - 2002)

With an HPI of 44.66, Johnny Unitas is the 6th most famous American American Football Player.  His biography has been translated into 28 different languages.

John Constantine Unitas (; May 7, 1933 – September 11, 2002) was an American football quarterback who played 18 seasons in the National Football League (NFL), primarily with the Baltimore Colts. Following a career that spanned from 1956 to 1973, he has been listed as one of the greatest NFL players of all time.Unitas played college football for the Louisville Cardinals. He set many NFL records and was named Most Valuable Player three times in 1959, 1964, and 1967, in addition to receiving 10 Pro Bowl and five first-team All-Pro honors. He helped lead the Colts to four championship titles; three in the pre-merger era in 1958, 1959, and 1968, and one in the Super Bowl era in Super Bowl V. His first championship victory is regarded as one of the league's greatest games and is credited with helping popularize the NFL. Between 1956 and 1960, he set the record for most consecutive games with a touchdown pass at 47, which held for 52 years. Nicknamed "Johnny U" and "the Golden Arm", Unitas was considered the prototype of the modern era marquee quarterback. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979.

Photo of Dan Marino

7. Dan Marino (1961 - )

With an HPI of 44.28, Dan Marino is the 7th most famous American American Football Player.  His biography has been translated into 29 different languages.

Daniel Constantine Marino Jr. ( mə-REE-noh; born September 15, 1961) is an American former football quarterback who played in the National Football League (NFL) for 17 seasons with the Miami Dolphins and currently works for the same team since 2014 as a special advisor. He played college football for the Pittsburgh Panthers, earning first-team All-American honors in 1981. Marino was the last quarterback taken in the first round of the famed quarterback class of 1983. He held or currently holds dozens of NFL records associated with the quarterback position, and despite never being on a Super Bowl-winning team, he is recognized among the greatest quarterbacks in American football history.Best remembered for his quick release and powerful arm, Marino helped the Dolphins become consistent postseason contenders, leading them to the playoffs ten times and one Super Bowl appearance in XIX, although a title victory ultimately eluded him during his career. Marino is considered by many to be one of the greatest players to never win a Super Bowl and has the most career victories of quarterbacks not to win a title at 155. A nine-time Pro Bowl selection, six-time first (3) or second (3) team All-Pro, and All-AFC six times, Marino was voted NFL Rookie of the Year by Sporting News. The following season in 1984, Marino was the NFL Most Valuable Player (MVP), when he set single-season records of 5,084 passing yards, 48 touchdown passes, nine 300-yard passing games, and four 400-yard passing games. He was voted the 1994 NFL Comeback Player of the Year, and the 1998 NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year. At the time of his retirement, Marino held more than 40 NFL single-season and career passing records (many of which have since been surpassed), including career passing attempts (8,358), completions (4,967), passing yards (61,361), and touchdown passes (420). Marino was the first quarterback in NFL history to reach 5,000 yards passing in a season (1984); 50,000 and 60,000 career passing yards respectively, and also the first quarterback to reach 40-plus touchdown passes in a season (48 in 1984), and 400 career touchdown passes. Marino was enshrined into the Miami Dolphins Honor Roll immediately after his retirement in 2000, inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003, inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005 in his first year of eligibility, and is currently one of only three former Miami Dolphins to have his jersey number retired. In 2019, Marino was named to the NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time Team as one of the 10 greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, as determined by a panel of coaches and media members.

Photo of Colin Kaepernick

8. Colin Kaepernick (1987 - )

With an HPI of 44.12, Colin Kaepernick is the 8th most famous American American Football Player.  His biography has been translated into 30 different languages.

Colin Rand Kaepernick ( KAP-ər-nik; born November 3, 1987) is a former American football quarterback and American civil rights activist. He played six seasons for the San Francisco 49ers in the National Football League (NFL). In 2016, he knelt during the national anthem at the start of NFL games in protest of police brutality and racial inequality in the United States.Kaepernick played college football for the Nevada Wolf Pack, where he was named the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) Offensive Player of the Year twice and became the only player in NCAA Division I history to amass 10,000 passing yards and 4,000 rushing yards in a career. After graduating, he was selected by the 49ers in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft. Kaepernick began his professional football career as a backup quarterback to Alex Smith, and became the 49ers' starter in the middle of the 2012 season after Smith suffered a concussion. He then remained the team's starting quarterback for the rest of the season, leading the team to their first Super Bowl appearance since 1994. During the 2013 season, his first full season as a starter, Kaepernick helped the 49ers reach the NFC Championship Game. Over the next three seasons, Kaepernick lost and won back his starting quarterback job, with the 49ers missing the playoffs for three seasons. In the 49ers' third preseason game in 2016, Kaepernick sat during the playing of the U.S. national anthem prior to the game, rather than stand as is customary, as a protest against racial injustice, police brutality and oppression in the country. The following week, and throughout the regular season, Kaepernick kneeled during the anthem. The protests received highly polarized reactions, with some praising his protests and others denouncing the protests. The actions resulted in a wider protest movement, which intensified in September 2017 after President Donald Trump said that NFL owners should "fire" players who protest during the national anthem. Kaepernick became a free agent after the season and remained unsigned, which numerous analysts and observers have attributed to political reasons. In November 2017, he filed a grievance against the NFL and its owners, accusing them of collusion in keeping him out of the league. In August 2018, arbitrator Stephen B. Burbank rejected the NFL's request to dismiss the case. Kaepernick withdrew the grievance in February 2019 after reaching a confidential settlement with the NFL. His protests received renewed attention in 2020 amid the George Floyd protests against police brutality and racism, but he remains unsigned by any professional football team.

Photo of Peyton Manning

9. Peyton Manning (1976 - )

With an HPI of 41.91, Peyton Manning is the 9th most famous American American Football Player.  His biography has been translated into 37 different languages.

Peyton Williams Manning (born March 24, 1976) is an American former football quarterback who played in the National Football League (NFL) for 18 seasons. Nicknamed "the Sheriff", he spent 14 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts and four with the Denver Broncos. Manning is considered one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. A member of the Manning football dynasty, he is the second son of former NFL quarterback Archie Manning, older brother of former NFL quarterback Eli Manning, and uncle of Texas Longhorns quarterback Arch Manning. He played college football for the Tennessee Volunteers, winning the Maxwell, the Davey O'Brien, and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Awards as a senior en route to victory in the 1997 SEC Championship Game. Manning was selected first overall in the 1998 NFL Draft by the Colts and served as their starting quarterback from 1998 to 2010. He helped transform the struggling Colts franchise into consistent playoff contenders, leading them to 11 playoff appearances, eight division titles, three AFC Championship Games, two Super Bowl appearances, and one championship title in Super Bowl XLI, the franchise's first in over three decades and first since relocating to Indianapolis. Manning was also named Super Bowl MVP in the victory. After undergoing neck surgery that sidelined him for the 2011 season, Manning was released by the Colts and signed with the Broncos. Serving as the Broncos starting quarterback from 2012 to 2015, he helped them clinch their division each season and reach two Super Bowls. Manning's career ended with a victory in Super Bowl 50, making him the first starting quarterback to win the Super Bowl for more than one franchise.Manning holds many NFL records, including most MVP awards, quarterback first-team All-Pro selections, 4,000-yard passing seasons, single-season passing yards, and single-season passing touchdowns. He is also third in career passing yards and career passing touchdowns. Helping lead both the Colts and Broncos to two Super Bowls each, Manning is the only quarterback to have multiple Super Bowl starts with more than one franchise. He was inducted to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2017 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2021.

Photo of Joe Namath

10. Joe Namath (1943 - )

With an HPI of 41.44, Joe Namath is the 10th most famous American American Football Player.  His biography has been translated into 17 different languages.

Joseph William Namath (; NAY-məth; born May 31, 1943) is an American former football quarterback who played in the American Football League (AFL) and National Football League (NFL) for 13 seasons. Nicknamed "Broadway Joe", he spent the majority of his career with the New York Jets. Namath played college football for the Alabama Crimson Tide, where he won the national championship as a senior, and was selected by the Jets first overall in the 1965 AFL draft. During his five AFL seasons, Namath was a two-time MVP and twice led the league in passing yards, while winning one AFL championship and one Super Bowl. Both victories remain the Jets' only championships. Following the 1970 AFL–NFL merger, he joined the NFL with the Jets, where he was the league's passing yards and touchdowns leader during the 1972 season. He played in New York for seven more seasons and spent his final year as a member of the Los Angeles Rams. Namath cemented his legacy in 1969 when he guaranteed his heavy underdog Jets would win Super Bowl III before defeating the NFL's Baltimore Colts in one of the greatest sports upsets of all time. The Super Bowl victory was the first for an AFL franchise, helping dismiss notions that its teams were inferior to the NFL's and demonstrating they would enter the merger as equals. Namath received Super Bowl MVP honors in the game, while also becoming the first quarterback to win both a college national championship and a major professional championship. He was inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985.

Pantheon has 57 people classified as american football players born between 1903 and 1997. Of these 57, 47 (82.46%) of them are still alive today. The most famous living american football players include O. J. Simpson, Tom Brady, and Joe Montana. The most famous deceased american football players include Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, and Johnny Unitas. As of April 2022, 4 new american football players have been added to Pantheon including Aldo Donelli, Byron White, and Patrick Mahomes.

Living American Football Players

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Deceased American Football Players

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Newly Added American Football Players (2022)

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Which American Football Players were alive at the same time? This visualization shows the lifespans of the 10 most globally memorable American Football Players since 1700.