The American Athletic Conference hasn’t been together long, but the schools in this conference have produced their share of tough guys. With a little research, I have compiled a list of the toughest guys to ever play football at all of the AAC schools. I ranked them too. Because that’s what I do.
12. USF: Bill Gramatica, Kicker (1998-2000):
11. East Carolina: Linval Joseph, Defensive Tackle (2007-2009): Dense and durable, Linval Joseph wreaked havoc on Conference USA backfields during his late 2000s stretch with the East Carolina Pirates. This 330-pound behemoth has been one of the scariest guys in the NFL to line up across from for much of the 2010s.
10. UConn: Walt Dropo, Tight End (1941-1942, 1945-1946): Best known for his thirteen year Major League Baseball career (1949-1961), 1950 American League Rookie of the Year Walt Dropo was a three-sport standout at the University of Connecticut. The 6’5 son of a Serbian-American textile worker was one of the country’s best ends in football, first basemen in baseball and centers in basketball. In 1947, Dropo was a first round selection by the Providence Steamrollers of NBA-precursor the Basketball Association of America and a ninth round selection by the Chicago Bears. Dropo chose instead to sign on with the Boston Red Sox, who elevated him quickly to their big league club. In the midst of his exemplary college career, Dropo missed three years of school due to military service in World War II. Dropo saw combat action during the Allied invasions of Sicily and Italy in the summer and fall of 1943.
9. UCF: Bruce Miller, Fullback (2007-2010): Brawny enough to get his own brand of paper towels. When he heard I was writing up this list, he started snapchatting me from phonebooths, showing off that he could rip a phonebook in half like it ain’t no thing.
8. Cincinnati: Jason Fabini, Offensive Tackle (1994-1997): UC man and longtime New York Jets offensive lineman Jason Fabini was even more excited than UCF’s Bruce Miller to hear that I was writing up this list. Fabini celebrated by snapchatting me a video of him ripping Bruce Miller in half inside of a phonebooth.
7. Temple: Chuck Drulis, Safety (1938-1941): Tenacious tackling defensive back for the Owls’ excellent teams of the early 1940s. Decades later, he pioneered the safety blitz while serving as the secondary coach for the St. Louis Cardinals, helping Larry Wilson punch his ticket to Canton.
6. Memphis: Ray Brown, Guard, (1981-1985): A road grader personified, Ray Brown was a diabolical, mountainous force for the Tigers in the early 1980s. He cleared paths for such elite NFL running backs as O.J. Anderson, Earnest Byner, and Ricky Watters during a 20 year NFL career. Brown, who spent six seasons with the Washington Redskins (1989-1995), was one of the later-day “Hogs,” playing alongside Joe Jacoby, Mark May, Russ Grimm and Jim Lachey on one of the league’s most legendary offensive lines.
5. Houston: Wilson Whitley, Defensive Tackle (1972-1976): Lombardi award winning defensive tackle Wilson Whitley was arguably the baddest hombre to play in the late, great Southwestern Conference during the mid-1970s. He could fire off the ball like a rocket. He delivered blows to opposing lineman that were worthy of a montage in a Rocky sequel. Whitley was a standout on the Cincinnati Bengals teams of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Sadly, he passed away at age 37 due to a congenital heart condition. He was inducted into College Football’s Hall of Fame in 2007.
4. Navy: Max Lane, Guard (1990-1993): An absolute snarling bulldog of an offensive lineman for the Bill Parcells/Drew Bledsoe-era New England Patriots.
3. Tulane: Rich Kingrea, Linebacker (1967-1970): A member of the undefeated ’72 Dolphins team, Kingrea was an undersized linebacker who gutted and gritted his way to an eight year NFL career (1971-1978). Kingrea was drafted in the 14th round by the Cleveland Browns but spent most of his career with the New Orleans Saints, where he was a front-seven standout on some awfully bad teams. As a senior at Tulane, Kingrea earned All-American honors, leading the Green Wave to a 7-4 mark and their first bowl bid since the 1939 Sugar Bowl. Kingrea steered a stout Tulane defense in the 1970 Liberty Bowl, helping the Green Wave upset the heavily favored Colorado Buffaloes, 17-3.
2. Southern Methodist University: Jerry Ball, Defensive Tackle (1983-1986): Jerry Ball is an all-purpose tough guy. Before starring at SMU, Ball was a standout at West Brook High School in Beaumont, Texas. While Ball made his name at the collegiate and professional levels as a massive, pile moving defensive lineman, he gained the notice of college scouts playing two other positions. Ball earned all-district honors as a fullback and a linebacker in his senior year with the West Brook Bruins. Ron Meyer recruited Ball to SMU to play fullback, but soon converted the 6’1, more than 300 pound Beaumont-native to nose tackle. The move proved advantageous for both Ball and the Mustangs. Ball earned All-Southwest Conference honors on three occasions (1984-1986).
Ball led the 1984 SWC co-champion Mustangs in tackles. He served as team captain in his senior year and is currently ranked fourth in career sacks at SMU. The Detroit Lions selected Ball 63rd overall in the third round of the 1987 NFL Draft. He used his size, strength, and tenacity to develop into one of the league’s premier defensive lineman soon after his entry into professional football. Ball commanded double-teams throughout his career, freeing up other tacklers to bottle up opposing offenses.
Ball earned Pro Bowl honors on three consecutive occasions (1989-1991). He helped lead the 1991 Detroit Lions to the NFC Championship Game, where they lost 41-10 to the Washington Redskins, who went on to win Super Bowl XXVI. On the previous weekend, the Lions’ defense stymied the soon-to-be dynastic Dallas Cowboys in the NFC divisional playoffs 38-6.
1. Tulsa: Dennis Byrd, Defensive End (1985-1988): I hope you got the chance to see Dennis Byrd play. He was J.J. Watt before there was J.J. Watt. There are plenty of great videos of him on YouTube. If you are unfamiliar with his body of work, head over there right now and have a look. Byrd had a motor like none other, which helped him become an elite pass rusher at both the college and pro levels. Byrd earned All-American honors as a senior at Tulsa and was selected by the New York Jets in the second round of the 1989 NFL Draft. Byrd quickly asserted himself as one of the league’s most feared pass rushers. In November 1992, Byrd was paralyzed after breaking his neck in a freak, on-field accident. Byrd fought hard and learned to walk again. For years, he traveled the country, sharing his inspirational story with thousands of people. Dennis Byrd died tragically last fall in a car accident near his home in Oklahoma. Few tougher or more courageous guys have ever walked the earth.
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