One of the fun things about NFL history is that it’s hard to get a consensus as to who the very greatest players of all time are. With players having been active in different eras and across such varied positions, direct comparisons are difficult. Furthermore, “GOAT” lists tend to have different parameters. For instance, if we were talking simply about the greatest to ever do it, our list would likely include Reggie White –– a one-of-a-kind great whose included stretches in Philadelphia, Green Bay, and Carolina.
In this post, however, we want to focus not only on some of the best NFL players of all time, but on what they’re up to now. So, in effect, this list will be narrowed down to those players who remain with us today. Without further ado, here’s who we’re counting in the top five within those boundaries.
Life After Competitive Sports: 5 Greatest NFL Players of All Time and Where they are Now
5 – Barry Sanders
It’s not uncommon for running backs to produce historic seasons. Accordingly, if you look through NFL coverage from recent years, you’ll find suggestions that the likes of Saquon Barkley, Derrick Henry, Todd Gurley, and Adrian Peterson might be on a “best-ever” track. These men may be as talented as any runners. But when you look at sustained excellence, Barry Sanders and Jim Brown (next on our list) are, fairly definitively, the best backs in NFL history. In just 10 seasons (all with Detroit), Sander rushed for 15,269 yards at an astounding five yards per carry.
Sanders also stands out for having retired on top –– something we see less and less frequently from star athletes. An interesting article just recently explored the very concept of , posing the question of whether we as fans “miss out” when stars call it quits when they have more in the tank. The question is unresolved, but Sanders is certainly near the top of the list of those who retired before declining. Indeed, he famously cut his final contract with Detroit short, and stepped away from the game having caused an unfortunate rift with the Lions.
But what is he doing now? The truth is, we don’t know a whole lot about him, and he seems to want it that way! What we do know however is that he made nice with Detroit, joining the organization as an ambassador just a few years ago. He also helped to open up a restaurant (Barry Sanders’ Lefty’s Cheesesteak) in Detroit just this past summer!
4 – Jim Brown
Like Barry Sanders, Jim Brown spent his entire career with a single team –– in this case, the Cleveland Browns of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Over the course of just nine seasons, he racked up 12,312 yards rushing on 5.2 yards per carry, with another 2,499-yard receiving. He was the MVP of the league on three separate occasions –– most remarkably in 1965, his final season in the league (making him another athlete to retire at the height of his powers).
Brown’s life since he retired from the NFL has unfortunately been marked by controversy. He has first and foremost been in and out of legal trouble. He also emerged as an unexpected partisan political figure more recently when he joined controversial rapper Kanye West to meet with then-President Donald Trump about matters of policy. Brown has also stayed involved in sports, however. He has occasionally commentated on boxing and UFC events, and is a part-owner of Major League Lacrosse’s New York Lizards.
3 – Lawrence Taylor
The only defensive player on our list, Lawrence Taylor is simply the best to ever do it on that side of the ball. The Giants legend spent 13 seasons as a fearsome linebacker in New York, garnering Defensive Player of the Year honors three separate times and winning MVP in 1986. You’d be hard-pressed to find a logical argument for a better defensive player in NFL history (though Green Bay’s own Reggie White might be closest).
Just as sports stars retiring atop their peaks raises interesting questions, so too does the more common issue of what happens when athletes simply don’t know what to do with themselves once they stop playing. To this point, an in-depth article looking at noted that some athletes will experience depression. This observation was made specifically with regard to Olympic athletes, with Chantal Buchser (an athlete support manager for the IOC) referring to the phenomenon as “post-Games depression.” But it’s a very real issue for many in traditional sports as well –– including Taylor.
Toward the end of his playing career and thereafter, Taylor is known to have battled depression and addiction; just a few years after he hung up his uniform, he entered drug rehab. He has unfortunately had legal issues and convictions as well. Recently, however, he has said he’s in a better place, with a new partner, kids and grandkids, and the chance to travel and play golf.
2 – Jerry Rice
26 years ago today, Jerry Rice became the 1st player in NFL history to reach 1,000 career receptions in a 24-17 win over the New Orleans Saints. He finished his career with 1,549. pic.twitter.com/7nEIdcUQhk
— Miles Commodore (@miles_commodore) November 3, 2022
As noted previously regarding running backs, there are plenty of wide receivers who put up historic seasons or look otherworldly for a season at a time. Even now, the likes of Tyreek Hill and Justin Jefferson look poised to put themselves on the receiving Mt. Rushmore. When considering the breadth of work and height of accomplishment over a career though, Jerry Rice still stands above the rest –– as well as almost every other player in football history. The San Francisco superstar (who finished his career in Oakland) amassed a sensational 22,895 yards and 197 touchdowns, finished top-10 in MVP voting six times, and won Offensive Player of the Year twice.
Rice has spent much of his post-playing career commentating, and will likely continue to show up at the desk to analyze games. He has also dived into golf, having been known to play even while active in the NFL. By some accounts, he has a near-pro-caliber golf game.
1 – Tom Brady
And then there’s Tom Brady. Once a charming underdog story, then a dominant Super Bowl Champion, and now the undisputed greatest quarterback of all time, Brady has made it difficult to argue that anyone has ever been a better football player. To date, he’s thrown for just over 87,000 yards and 634 touchdowns; he’s a three-time MVP, two-time Offensive Player of the Year, and seven-time Super Bowl winner.