There’s a large roster of sports and business talent that has made the NFL into what it is today. Here we’ve gathered several of the familiar faces that have had the best influence over the NFL throughout its nearly one-hundred-year history. Over so many years, there are too many personalities to count, so we’ve picked out the best and most memorable.
While many of them are historical figures who helped establish and mainstream the NFL, some of them are still active today. Through sites like Fanduel.com, you can bet on some of the people mentioned on this page!
1. Jim Thorpe
Our first figure isn’t just a man who was an influential founding figure, player, and coach of the NFL, he was also an accomplished basketball player, baseball player, Olympian, and movie star. It’s no surprise that he’s considered one of the best sportsmen of the modern age.
Living from 1887 to 1953, Thorpe was the first Native American to win an Olympic gold medal, even though he broke amateurism rules of the time. He would get his awards reinstated three decades after his death.
During his life, however, he’s credited as being the first-ever president of what would become the NFL. Having played for six teams in the American Professional Football Association, which only had ten teams at the time, Thorpe was the nominal president from 1920 to 1921 before it became the NFL in 1922.
2. Al Davis
The transition from the American Professional Football Association into the NFL was just part of the journey to get where the NFL is today. The modern NFL is formed from two halves, the National Football League and the American Football Conference. The AFC was once a league of its own – the AFL – but they merged in 1966 and celebrated the union with the first-ever Super Bowl. Al Davis is considered just one of the men who made that happen.
Al Davis was born in 1929 and grew to become the face of the Oakland Raiders. As one of the most famous franchise owners in the world, Davis was part of the merging process of the NFL and the AFL after the NFL broke a gentleman’s agreement not to poach players from the rival league.
During the 1966 struggle, the first AFL commissioner Joe Foss resigned and Davis was chosen for the role, specifically because he would fight against the NFL. The NFL soon came to the table for negotiations and, while many of them were done behind Davis’ back and the initial merger displeased him, it’s generally recognized that it was Davis’ take-no-prisoners reputation that made the NFL want to negotiate in the first place.
3. Lamar Hunt
While Al Davis played a role in demoralizing the NFL and making them desperate for negotiations, it was Lamar Hunt that founded the AFL in the first place and wrote to the NFL’s commissioner during that time period. He’s also the man who named the Super Bowl.
Living from 1932 to 2006, Hunt had inherited oil wealth that he tried to use to get a role in the NFL. They didn’t want to expand, so he was turned down and formed his own league instead in 1959. From there, he oversaw the Dallas Texans for the rest of his life. Never heard of them? That’s because they quickly became the Kansas City Chiefs after the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys outcompeted them in sales.
This ignited the rivalry between the big egos at the helm of both the NFL and the AFL. As we’ve covered, it all came to a head in 1966 when Davis took the role of AFL commissioner and was public with his intentions of going on the warpath against the NFL. While Davis was ready for war, it was Hunt that led negotiations for peace in the form of the merger.
4. Jim Brown
When asked to name some of the most iconic players of the NFL, the name Jim Brown would come to mind to those who know their history. There are many firsts on this list and Brown is no different, being the first big NFL star. He played as running back for the Cleveland Browns from 1957 to 1965, winning an NFL championship with them in 1964. Poetically, he was also runners-up for the championship for his first and last years of football in 1957 and 1965.
He racked up many of the first’s that we use to measure modern players by. He won NFL MVP four times and was the first player to achieve 10,000 rushing yards, and he still holds the average yards rushed record in the NFL at 103 yards each game. He was also named in the 50th, 75th, and 100th Anniversary teams.
Brown retired in 1966 after the merger and he’s still the all-time leading rusher for the Cleveland Browns today. He would go on to star in several movies.
5. Tom Brady
While we’re sure there will be more icons to come from the NFL in the future, Tom Brady has been around long enough that he’s made a name for himself as America’s favorite quarterback that still takes to the field. As the face of the New England Patriots, Brady played two legendary seasons as a QB in 2007 and 2011 and has racked up many modern records, including most wins as a quarterback.
Other records include thirteen AFC championship victories, eight of which were consecutive between 2011 and 2018, ten Super Bowl appearances, and seven Super Bowl titles. He’s racked up over 93,000 passing yards as a QB along with 679 touchdown passes and 8,033 completions.
He still plays today for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and still seems to be going strong, achieving that last Super Bowl win in 2023. While many influential NFL figures are retired or deceased, it’s great that there’s still a player on the field who has broken so many NFL records and inspired the next generation of football athletes.