James’ All-Time Inspirational Team

A few weeks ago on the pod Simon offered the following piece of advice to people wanting to get into the game. He said “find a player or players you like and make a point of watching them”.
The point of that advice is, of course that this game is full of inspirational athletes and inspirational characters that can captivate and enthral you. They can make a fairly dense, complex, and brutal game look simple, graceful, thrilling and Beautiful.

What follows is a squad of players who, in my childhood, inspired and captivated me. It’s not a list of players that I perceive to be the best, it’s a list of the players that inspired or captivated my imagination.

John Elway:

Elway captured my imagination immediately, he was a gutsy charismatic, do or die competitor who pulled off 48 4th quarter comebacks and retired in 1998 as the winningest QB in history. His career is a walking talking real-life fairy tale and after years of heartbreak in big games, his back to back Super bowl wins are two of my favourite moments in life. Especially “The Helicopter”, one of the gutsiest plays you’ll ever see. He is the reason I fell in love with the game.

“The drive” vs Cleveland in the 86 AFC championship game. Encapsulated everything exceptional about Elway in one miraculous drive.

Joe Montana:

The coolest QB to have ever walked onto a field, bar none. He is the epitome of the ultimate West Coast QB, cool, composed, intelligent and always making good decisions. His simply gorgeous pocket mobility and stunning consistency and accuracy are all wonderful. But best of all, he was a second round guy with a very average arm, who is not only the very prototype of the modern west coast QB but also a player who, in Super bowls was untouchable, unflappable and best of all… undefeated.


The last drive of Super bowl 23. The most thrilling game winning drive in a Super bowl ever, Every completion is thrilling, dissecting the Bengals defence like a hot knife through warm butter, whilst handling the insane amount of pressure, to look like the Coolest, most focussed, relaxed person in the entire Stadium and by all accounts, he was. A magical end to my first ever Super bowl. And the true birth of the legend of “Joe Cool”.

Walter Payton:

If I were to have a fantasy draft of every player in NFL history, and I picked 1st overall then 10 times out of 10 I would pick Walter Payton, and build my team from there.
Walter Payton is the greatest all round back to ever play the game. (I can think of one or two backs who were better “pure runners” and about 10 backs who probably had more natural athletic ability, but there has never been a more consistent, versatile and inspiring running back than “Sweetness”. No back whose running style was as complete a perfect combination of graceful footwork, patience and blistering punishing power, like Marshawn Lynch, Adrian Peterson, and Gale Sayers all rolled into one.
No back whose ability as a receiver (with the exception of Marshall Faulk) was as so fully realised. And no back who could combine that with such superb blitz recognition and pass protection skills. The most complete football player to have ever set foot on a field, bar none.

There are too many, there is no single Walter Payton moment I would call my favourite. But my favourite game of his is his 275 rushing yards against the Vikings in -9 conditions whilst battling the flu and a 100 degree fever. That should be the game that tells you all you need to know about how tough Payton truly was.

Barry Sanders:

Barry Sanders’ father considers Barry to be only the third best running back in NFL history placing him behind Jim Brown and Walter Payton. That sounds unkind. But as a “complete back” maybe that’s about right? However, let’s be very clear on this point. Barry Sanders is the greatest “pure runner” (Save for maybe Gale Sayers ) to have ever played the game. In terms of natural ability and pure physical talent he is far and beyond any running back in history.
There has never been a back that had such a varied repertoire of cuts and moves that had such incredible change of speed and smoothness and such unbelievable balance as Barry. A Barry Sanders highlight video is quite unlike anything you have ever seen or likely will see ever again. As a teenager watching his highlights on TV would mesmerise me completely.

There are about 200 plays I could list here all as magical as each other. But my favourite is the iconic run against the Patriots where he makes Chris Canty miss three tackles on the same play.

Shannon Sharpe:

As a Broncos fan in the 90’s it was impossible to not love Shannon Sharpe.
In the years between Kellen Winslow Snr. retiring and Tony Gonzalez entering the league, Shannon Sharpe was the next big evolutionary step at tight end. Upon retiring he held every meaningful career record a tight end could have, (receptions, yards, Td’s ) and walked away with 3 Super bowl rings. More lovable still, is the fact that he was one of the funniest, most exciting positive characters in the game. A player who oozed charisma and could hold entire rooms of reporters in his hand with his unique sense of humour. A big dangerous target that always seemed to make huge plays on third down or in the red zone.

Every catch he ever made on 3rd down.

Steve Atwater:

Steve Atwater is as good a “box” safety as you will ever see. Along with Ronnie Lott he brought about the advent of the Strong Safety being seen as an enforcer on the field.
Atwater played “pissed off” for over a decade. He was a player who, on the field was among the most vicious and terrifying in the history of the game. He always made a point of hitting the biggest guy he could, as hard as he could and as early soon as he could. Clearly establishing that he was definitely the “scary guy” on the field as early and as emphatically as possible.

A skilled blitzer and brutal tackler who could cover most receivers well. Like Lott his speciality was timing. A classic Steve Atwater moment in Super bowl 32 ( in addition to 11 vicious tackles, 1 strip sack and an interception of Brett Favre) is the moment late in the 4th Quarter where Brett Favre throws high over the middle to Robert Brooks who has stolen a yard on Corner Darien Gordon. As the ball arrives so does Atwater who succeeds in forcing a drop, and simultaneously concusses the Brooks, Gordon AND HIMSELF! Three guys knocked unconscious in one terrifying brutal hit. One hit. Three gurneys.


Atwater at 6’3″ and 205lbs running head on into 6’2″ 255lb Chiefs legendary power RB Christian Okoye at full speed and hammering him into the dirt with an impact that makes you wince. And then standing over him…..pointing.

Cris Carter:

Cris Carter has the best hands, the best field presence and is the best Red-zone receiver I have ever seen. A player who almost allowed his drink and drug problems to prevent him being drafted, and eventually, in spite of his considerable abilities, got him cut by the Eagles. A second chance with Minnesota and a solid long term rehab saved Carter’s career and from then on he became one of the very best to ever play the position. He had a charisma and competitive nature that was infuriating to opponents and utterly infectious to his teammates and fans and becoming a mentor for both Randy Moss and Larry Fitzgerald speaks further to his greatness. So if it was 3rd down and you really needed yards or points then you just threw it in the same postcode as Cris Carter and he would catch it. His film is the film young receivers should watch if they want to see how to win a contested ball or make a “leaning tower catch at the side-line or in the back of the end zone”. Carter was also plucking them out of the air with one hand before Odell Beckham had even been born. He was today’s modern receiver, 30 years early.


In a game vs Miami. The pass is thrown too low and too far in front of Carter. He dives to the turf while the Corner is wrenching his left arm into a half-nelson. Carter stretches out pulling the corner behind him and with his free hand, at full stretch stops it dead inches from the turf, scoops it with one hand up into his ribcage and tucks it as he falls to the turf. It’s one of the best, and my favourite catch, ever. The difficulty level is insane and It’s beautiful to watch.

Steve Largent:

Too short, too small, too slow, from a small school. It’s a miracle he ever got drafted at all, let alone got picked in round 4 by the Houston Oilers. At 5’10” (and that’s generous) and 185lb’s (again, generous). He was cut almost immediately by the Oilers, and then tried out for Seattle. From that day on Largent became a superstar. A supreme route runner who had the ability to get separation from guys who were faster and more athletic than him. And had the most impeccable timing of any receiver you will ever see, especially when getting position for a contested ball on a player who was significantly bigger and stronger. Largent was also one of the last truly great receivers to play with Bare hands. Those bare hands could do things that most gloved guys can’t do. He was tough, instinctive and dogged too. Never scared to go over the middle, or go get a questionable ball. Growing up watching him making huge plays and signature diving catches week in week out, was a staple of my childhood, and for my 11th Birthday I got an away team Seattle “Largent” jersey that I wore to death..and I mean TO DEATH. it’s no surprise that Largent held almost every meaningful receiving record when he left the game, and it would be nearly 2 decades before Jerry Rice would bear them.
But trust me, if Largent played today, he would at least be a top 5 slot receiver, hands down!. I never tire of watching Steve play.

Not a catch, but a tackle he makes on Broncos Safety Mike Harden during an interception return. It’s a revenge moment almost a year in the making that is payback for a late hit that nearly paralysed Largent the year before. It’s incredible

Anyway, here is a full squad of, not the best, but my favourite players of all time.

QB1: John Elway
QB2: Joe Montana
QB3: Fran Tarkenton

FB: Larry Centers
RB1: Walter Payton
RB2: Barry Sanders
RB3: Marcus Allen

TE1: Tony Gonzalez
TE2: Shannon Sharpe
TE3: Kellen Winslow Sr

WR1: Jerry Rice
WR2: Chris Carter
WR3: Steve Largent
WR4: Michael Irvin
WR5: Lance Alworth

LT: Anthony Munoz
LG: John Hannah
C: Randy Cross
G: Larry Allen
RT: Gene Upshaw

In my 4-3 defensive system:

DE: Deacon Jones
DT: Jon Randle
DT: Alan Page
DE: Reggie White
Sub Package DE: Bruce Smith
Sub Package DT: Howie Long

OLB: Bobby Bell
MLB: Mike Singletary
OLB: Jack Ham
Sub Package OLB: Lawrence Taylor.
Sub Package ILB: Derrick Brooks.

CB1: Ronnie Lott.
CB2: Deion Sanders
CB3: Mike Haynes
SS: Steve Atwater
FS: Ed Reed.
Dimeback: Darrell Green

Kicker: Morten Andersen
Punter: Ray Guy.
Kick returner: Brian Mitchell