Some of the NFL’s biggest all-time stars have a gaping hole on their playing resumes.
Sure, they’ve got Pro Bowl selections, All-Pro honors and even bronze busts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But they never got a chance to play in the Super Bowl.’
The first game, of course, was played in 1967, when it was known as the AFL-NFL World Championship Game until getting its current name in 1969. So players in the middle of Hall of Fame careers, such as Deacon Jones, Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus, had fewer chances to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
Bad timing for some. Bad teams for others. And, for many, simply missed opportunities.
Here’s a look at some other of the game’s greats who retired without playing on football’s biggest stage:
BARRY SANDERS (Detroit, 1989-98)
The third-leading rusher in NFL history walked away from the game after 10 seasons of juking defenders and 15,269 yards rushing — just 1,457 short of then-No. 1 Walter Payton — at 30 years old. He spent his entire career with Detroit and, just like any other player who has worn only a Lions jersey, never made it to the Super Bowl. Sanders came tantalizingly close in the 1991 season, his third in the league, when Detroit lost to Washington in the NFC championship game. Current Lions receiver Calvin Johnson is reportedly considering retirement — he’s 30, like Sanders was — and could soon join this list.
DAN FOUTS (San Diego, 1973-87)
One of the most prolific passers of his era set the league’s single-season mark for yards passing in three straight seasons (1979-81) and finished with 43,040 over his 15-year career, all with the Chargers. He thrived in Don Coryell’s “Air Coryell” pass-happy offense, but Fouts couldn’t get San Diego to the Super Bowl. The Chargers played in the AFC title game twice with Fouts, but lost to Oakland (1980 season) and Cincinnati (1981).
ERIC DICKERSON (L.A. Rams, 1983-87; Indianapolis, 1987-91; L.A. Raiders, 1992; Atlanta, 1993)
One of the most dominant and dynamic running backs of all time is seventh in career rushing and still holds the single-season NFL mark with 2,105 yards in 1984. He got his career off to a good start by setting league rookie records for yards rushing (1,808), TD runs (18) and attempts (390). Dickerson got to the NFC championship game in his third season, but the Rams were shut out by Chicago 24-0.
TONY GONZALEZ (Kansas City, 1997-2008; Atlanta, 2009-13)
Arguably the best pass-catching tight end in NFL history holds the league records at his position for catches (1,325), yards receiving (15,127) and TD receptions (111). Gonzalez was a 14-time Pro Bowl selection, which ties the NFL mark, and a first-team All-Pro pick six times. His best chance to get to the Super Bowl came in his second-to-last season, when Atlanta fell to San Francisco in the NFC title game.
WARREN MOON (Houston, 1984-93; Minnesota, 1994-96; Seattle, 1997-98; Kansas City, 1999-2000)
Moon won five straight championships in the Canadian Football League and earned two Grey Cup MVP awards with the Edmonton Eskimos. That big-game success didn’t quite translate south of the border in the NFL, where Moon is the seventh-leading passer in league history with 49,325 yards — but he never got close to a Super Bowl. He was 3-7 in the NFL playoffs, failing to get past the divisional round.
- Earl Campbell (Houston, 1978-84; New Orleans, 1984-85)
- Cris Carter (Philadelphia, 1987-89; Minnesota, 1990-2001; Miami, 2002)
- Dan Dierdorf (St. Louis Cardinals, 1971-83)
- Cortez Kennedy (Seattle, 1990-2000)
- Steve Largent (Seattle, 1976-89)
- Willie Roaf (New Orleans, 1993-2001; Kansas City, 2002-05)
- Lee Roy Selmon (Tampa Bay, 1976-84)
- O.J. Simpson (Buffalo, 1969-77; San Francisco, 1978-79)
- Derrick Thomas (Kansas City, 1989-99)
- LaDainian Tomlinson (San Diego, 2001-09; N.Y. Jets, 2010-11)