3. Walter Payton
You may picture Payton as an elusive back with a killer stutter step, but remember, the nickname Sweetness came from his personality off the field. On the gridiron, Payton was a bruising runner—a perfect fit for a blue-collar team and city—who liked to mow over defenders, refused to run out of bounds and essentially invented the stiff arm. Payton, who missed just one game in his career and logged 300-plus carries 10 times, retired as the leading rusher in NFL history (much of it with no offensive line) and was named to both the NFL’s 1970's and 1980’s All-Decade teams.
2. Barry Sanders
The elusive Barry Sanders was just 1,457 yards shy of Walter Payton’s rushing record when he hung up his cleats. If he hadn’t, there’s no way Emmitt Smith tops the record books. The owner of four rushing titles, Sanders was the first running back to notch five 1,500-yard seasons (four of them in a row) and even went two entire seasons (’91, ’94) without a fumble. Short and stocky, Sanders was custom-built for the artificial turf of the Silverdome, able to make quick cuts and turn losses into huge gains. Of course, some stayed losses. Sanders lost 1,114 yards in his career trying to turn small plays into home runs.
1. Jim Brown
More of a fullback who played halfback, this eight-time All-Pro and three-time MVP never missed a game in his NFL career—though he did cut it short to go into acting. The enormous Brown could just as easily run over defenders as around them, with a scary combination of size and speed that helped him lead the league in rushing in all but one season of his career and rush for over 1,000 yards seven times (he fell short by four yards once)—in seasons that lasted just 12 or 14 games. Brown averaged more than one TD per game in his career, and averaged 5.2 yards per carry, the highest in NFL history.