Reineking Recalls: ‘The Diesel’ & Company

A Football Life, Teams

Editor’s Note: Jim Reineking is an editor for NFL.com. Here’s his take on the top 10 greatest running back nicknames in NFL history.

“John Riggins: A Football Life” debuts on NFL Network tonight at 8 p.m. ET.

“Crank up that Diesel!” — Chief Zee at Super Bowl XVII.

That rallying cry from one of the Washington Redskins’ most famous fans portended what was to come on Jan. 30, 1983 at the Rose Bowl.

With the Redskins trailing the Miami Dolphins 17-13 in the fourth quarter and facing a fourth-and-1 situation, John Riggins provided the go-ahead touchdown in dramatic fashion with a 43-yard score. The powerful run through that season’s top-ranked defensive unit propelled the Redskins to their first-ever Super Bowl victory and first NFL title since 1942. “The Diesel” finished the game with a then-Super Bowl record 166 yards. It was the glorious confluence of player, moment and nickname.

“The Diesel” — the topic of the latest installment of “A Football Life” — inspired this epic countdown of the top 10 greatest running back nicknames in NFL history.

10. “Bus” – Jerome Bettis

Years: 1993-2005

Team(s): Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams, Pittsburgh Steelers

Bettis was initially known as “The Battering Ram” after quickly earning a reputation as a power runner after rushing for what wound up as a career-high 1,429 yards in his rookie season with the Rams. It wasn’t until his time in Pittsburgh that Bettis became known as “The Bus.” The Steelers rode “The Bus” to their first Super Bowl victory in 25 years, a 21-10 triumph over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL, that allowed Bettis to be one of the fortunate few to retire a champion.

9. “Kansas Comet” – Gale Sayers

Years: 1965-1971

Team(s): Chicago Bears

Sayers — a Wichita, Kansas native and University of Kansas alum — had a brief, yet brilliant, NFL career. Sayers’ career resume includes a sensational highlight reel matched only by a select few and one of the game’s great quotes … “Give me 18 inches of daylight, that’s all I need.”

 

8. “Ironhead” – Craig Heyward

Years: 1988-1998

Team(s): New Orleans Saints, Chicago Bears, Atlanta Falcons, St. Louis Rams, Indianapolis Colts

Heyward was built much like the aforementioned Bettis, standing 5-foot-11 and often weighing more than the men attempting to tackle him. A punishing runner, “Ironhead” briefly put aside his tough-guy persona in the mid-1990s for a memorable body wash commercial … “but Ironhead, what’s with this thingy?”

7. “Pocket Hercules” – Maurice Jones-Drew

Years: 2006-2012

Team(s): Jacksonville Jaguars

Standing 5-foot-7, Jones-Drew is supposedly small enough to fit in a pocket, yet his powerful frame is reminiscent of the Greek demigod. Put the two together and you have the current NFL running back with the best nickname. “Purple Jesus” (Adrian Peterson), “Burner” (Michael Turner), “CJ2K” (Chris Johnson) and “Muscle Hamster” (Doug Martin) were also considered, but Jones-Drew’s moniker is the best of that bunch.

6. “Golden Boy” – Paul Hornung

Years: 1957-1966

Team(s): Green Bay Packers

Hornung was already a football legend when he arrived in Green Bay after winning the 1956 Heisman Trophy at Notre Dame. The versatility of “The Golden Boy” made him a key contributor for Vince Lombardi’s Packers dynasty that won an unprecedented five NFL titles in seven seasons in the 1960s (including the first two Super Bowls). Like the next player on this list, Hornung earned a reputation for playing big both on and off the field.

5. “Blood” – John McNally

Years: 1925-1938

Team(s): Milwaukee Badgers, Duluth Eskimos, Pottsville Maroons, Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Pirates

McNally was the ultimate pro football vagabond, assuming “Blood” — as in Johnny Blood, inspired by the 1922 film “Blood and Sand” — to protect his college eligibility while taking a stab at playing football professionally (this practice of assuming aliases wasn’t totally uncommon in the wild and wacky infancy of pro football). McNally played for five NFL teams but made his most meaningful mark with the Packers, for whom “Blood” was a part of Green Bay’s first four NFL championship teams (1929-31, 1935). The colorful Hall of Fame career of McNally was also the inspiration behind the 2008 film “Leatherheads.”

4. “Diesel” – John Riggins

Years: 1971-1985

Team(s): New York Jets, Washington Redskins

On the field, Riggins was a workhorse running back who could get tough yardage in crucial situations. Off the field, Riggins was one of the most outrageous characters in NFL history. Among his unforgettable antics was regularly drinking beer with Redskins linemen in a shed following practice in a team-bonding exercise known as “The 5 O’Clock Club.” Let that situation marinate for a while … could you imagine that happening in this era of Twitter, blogs and constant coverage of everything that happens around the NFL?

3. “Galloping Ghost” – Red Grange

Years: 1925-1934

Team(s): Chicago Bears, New York Yankees

Harold Edward Grange actually had two nicknames. “Red” due to the color of his hair, and “Galloping Ghost” due to his ability to elude opposing gridders. A Chicago sportswriter nicknamed Grange “The Galloping Ghost” while he was playing for the University of Illinois. It was at Illinois where the Grange mythology developed, and his dramatic move to the NFL’s Chicago Bears was one of the seminal moments in the history of the pro game. “The Galloping Ghost” was the NFL’s first bona fide star and helped legitimize the young league.

2. “Sweetness” – Walter Payton

Years: 1975-1987

Team(s): Chicago Bears

“Sweetness” was more an acknowledgement of Payton’s personality off the field than his playing style on it. Payton’s on-field demeanor was more demolition derby during a Hall of Fame career that concluded as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. Payton refused to run out of bounds, rather sizing up opposing defenders to deliver a punishing hit before being forced to the ground.

 

1. “Nigerian Nightmare” – Christian Okoye

Years: 1987-1992

Team(s): Kansas City Chiefs

For those fortunate to have lived in the early 1990s heyday of the Nintendo 64 legend “Tecmo Super Bowl,” you’ll be familiar with the epic exploits of the unstoppable force that was Okoye. Okoye was a pixelated powerhouse, and became immortalized alongside Bo Jackson, Lawrence Taylor, David Fulcher, QB Eagles and Bob Nelson in the video game. In real life, Okoye — who sported massive shoulder pads that made him look even more menacing with the ball in his hands — had a brief but impactful career with the Chiefs, leading the NFL in rushing in 1989 with 1,480 yards.

Also considered: “A-Train” – Mike Alstott; “Tyler Rose” – Earl Campbell; “Moose” – Daryl Johnston; “Tuffy” – Alphonse Leemans; “The King” – Hugh McElhenny; “He Hate Me” – Rod Smart; “Wham-Bam” – Steve Van Buren.

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