NFL – Four tough guys for Championship Sunday

Speed and strength, the twin turbines that power the NFL scouting combine.

Blaze through a 40 and bang out major reps at 225 and your draft stock — and salary — will soar.

Road to Super Bowl XLIII

But there is another quality, essential to NFL success, that can’t be quantified by a sprint or on the bench press or with a Wonderlic score.


You can’t very well start shutting car doors on draftees’ hands or putting them in extreme stress positions.

But if you could, here are four guys — one from each of the final four teams — who might not mind. It’s the tougher-than-a-two-dollar-steak edition of the Sundays of Our Lives.

Anquan Boldin

There is plenty of NFL video that tests the strength of your stomach. Joe Theismann, Tim Krumrie and Ed McCaffrey flippy-flop to mind. But some injuries, hidden by a helmet, become more sickening upon reading the details.

Anquan Boldin suffered such an injury in Week 4 against the Jets in the Meadowlands. When Boldin was hit from behind by Kerry Rhodes it drove his head into the oncoming helmet of Eric Smith. The collision was so violent it made Kurt Warner start thinking seriously about stepping away from the game.

Boldin was left with a concussion, two facial fractures and a jaw that had to be reattached using eight plates and 40 screws. Upon leaving surgery Boldin refused post-op analgesics, declaring simply, “I don’t do pain meds.”

Upon seeing replays of the hit and learning of the severity of the head and facial injuries, it seemed all but certain that we’d seen the last of Boldin in 2008.

Boldin missed two games.

Was he tentative upon returning? Try 22 catches for 240 yards and five touchdowns in his first three games back. His one concession? For the first time in his career he is wearing a mouthpiece.

Boldin had already established his tough-guy rep by constantly going over the middle and running through and over linebackers and safeties. But the rapid return from having his jaw reattached — yes, reattached — this season put him into a whole new category of hombre.

Boldin wanted to play last week against the Panthers despite a hamstring-hip ailment suffered against the Falcons in the first round of the playoffs, but the medical staff wouldn’t let him. This Sunday, according to Boldin, there’ll be no holding him back.

Had there been a test for toughness at the combine, Boldin would have scored off the charts and might not have lasted until the 54th pick.

Ray Lewis

If you looked up Ray Lewis on CarMax you’d see that his chassis has been involved in a couple thousand accidents. By any normal measure the guy’s frame should be headed to the scrap heap for recycling.

But, of course, there is no existing yardstick against which to measure Ray Lewis. So perhaps it shouldn’t have come as such a huge shock that after 12 seasons of mayhem that would debilitate mere mortals, Lewis spent his 13th season enhancing his case as the greatest defensive player of all time. (If a Lewis-led defense carries a rookie QB to a title after carrying Trent Dilfer to the Promised Land his claim on that mantle will be that much stronger.)

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Ray Lewis is the hammer. The league is the anvil. The anvil is supposed to wear down the hammer. But after 13 seasons, and 10 Pro Bowl invitations, the hammer is wearing down the anvil, one crunching hit at a time.

Ben Roethlisberger

The car-crash metaphor works for Ray Lewis hits, but the fact is he does weigh 4,000 pounds less than the Chrysler New Yorker Big Ben tangled with in June 2006.

After getting cut off by the Chrysler, a helmet-less Roethlisberger was thrown over the handlebars of his motorcycle, bounced off the windshield and landed on the pavement. He had multiple facial injuries, including a broken jaw and nose. But he was ready to go by opening day, save for the small problem of an emergency appendectomy. Ten starts into that star-crossed ’06 season Big Ben had been sacked 36 times. But he kept coming back for more.

So it came as no surprise to Steeler fans that just two weeks after being carted off on a stretcher in this year’s regular-season finale Roethlisberger started against the Chargers and led the Black and Gold to the AFC title game with a near-flawless performance.

It has since been revealed that the concussion Roethlisberger suffered in Week 17 was a spinal cord concussion, which is much more serious than the “mild concussion” originally reported. Roethlisberger was reportedly unable to feel the doctors sticking pins in his arms after the injury. But once the feeling came back in his arms, Big Ben was back doing what he always does: toughing it out and leading his team to victory.

Brian Westbrook

When a running back is undersized he invariably gets labeled a third-down back or a “change of pace” back. Which are polite ways of saying nobody thinks you can stand up to the beating of being the featured back.

Add 5-10, 203-pound Brian Westbrook to the short list of little guys who have proven the football cognoscenti wrong.

Westbrook has averaged 324 touches per season over the last three years — 351 and counting if you include playoffs. As to be expected, he’s been nicked plenty. But he’s shown a Larry Csonka-like toughness in a Mercury Morris body.

From all first-hand testimonials on the subject, a broken rib can make it painful to so much as breathe. Imagine how it feels to run into London Fletcher with two broken ribs. Because that’s just what Westbrook did in an Oct. 6 loss to the Redskins. Over and over. The injury was so painful Westbrook admitted to trouble sleeping after the game.

The upside of the excruciating rib injury was that it helped take his mind off his excruciating high ankle sprain that had forced him out the previous week. After the ‘Skins game, it looked like Westbrook would be forced to shut it down for a while. Correll Buckhalter became a very hot property in fantasy leagues.

But Westbrook sat one game, then returned from the bye week and played against the much-improved Falcons D. All he did was put up 209 yards from scrimmage and score two touchdowns in a 27-14 victory. Who needs to sleep or breathe?

Westbrook tweaked his sore left knee last weekend in the Meadowlands and has been sitting out practice this week. The Cardinals would no doubt love for him to be sidelined on Sunday. But after strafing Arizona for four touchdowns — two rushing, two receiving — in the teams’ first meeting, you know there’s no way this guy won’t strap it on.

Just like you know there’s no way he’d have gone 91st overall in the 2002 draft if they could have graded him on toughness.

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