Top 10 KU Football Players of All Time
Few programs in college football history have seen the valleys that the University of Kansas has endured since it began playing college football 132 years ago.
That sort of long-term despair has meant that when times are good — which are few and far between — it is oh-so-important to savor those moments. To that end, 2022 has been one of the few bright spots for the Jayhawks. They haven't won a conference championship in over 50 years but were bowl eligible for the first time since 2008 headed into the regular-season finale against hated rival Kansas State on Nov. 25, 2022, in the annual Sunflower Showdown.
What might surprise you is KU hasn't just had some pretty decent players over the years ... they've been the college home to some all-time greats. Here's a look at the greatest KU football players of all time.
10. Gilbert Brown
Position: Defensive Line
Height/Weight: 6-foot-2, 340 pounds
Career highlights: All-Big Eight (1990), Super Bowl champion (1996)
Bottom line: There's probably a debate between Gilbert Brown and fellow defensive lineman and teammate Dana Stubblefield for this spot — but for our money, we'll pick Brown every day of the week.
Brown, a Detroit native, started all but two games over four seasons at Kansas and was an All-Big Eight pick in 1990. Brown also authored one of the most famous sack celebrations of all time. And, yes, it originated at Kansas — the "Gravedigger" move became a staple during Brown's 10 NFL seasons, including a Super Bowl win with the Green Bay Packers in 1996.
9. Bobby Douglass
Height/Weight: 6-foot-4, 225 pounds
Career highlights: Big Eight champion (1968), two-time All-Big Eight (1967, 1968), AP All-American (1968), Heisman Trophy finalist (1968)
Bottom line: Bobby Douglass played for his father at El Dorado (Kan.) High, just a few hours away from Lawrence, before going on to star for the Jayhawks.
Douglass was a two-time, All-Big Eight and All-American selection for Kansas as a senior in 1968 when he led his school to the Big Eight championship and a berth in the Orange Bowl. Douglass also finished seventh in the Heisman Trophy voting.
Douglass ended up having a lengthy NFL career, playing for four teams over 11 seasons, and set the NFL single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback in 1972 with 965 yards.
8. Anthony Collins
Position: Offensive Tackle
Height/Weight: 6-foot-5, 315 pounds
Career highlights: Orange Bowl champion (2008), AP All-American (2007), All-Big 12 (2007), Outland Trophy finalist (2007), Kansas Ring of Honor (2017)
Bottom line: Anthony Collins owns the title of the greatest offensive lineman in Kansas history, earning All-American honors after he helped lead the Jayhawks to an Orange Bowl win in 2008.
Collins, a Beaumont, Texas, native, left Kansas with one year of eligibility remaining and was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the fourth round of the 2008 NFL Draft and played seven seasons in the NFL.
7. John Zook
Position: Defensive End
Height/Weight: 6-foot-4, 243 pounds
Career highlights: Big Eight champion (1968), two-time All-Big Eight (1967, 1968), AP All-American (1968), NFL All-Pro (1973), two-time All-NFC (1972, 1973), Pro Bowl (1973)
Bottom line: John Zook is one of several players on this list to call Kansas home, hailing from tiny Larned High before becoming a star for the Jayhawks and helping lead the school to the Big Eight championship as a senior in 1968.
Zook — a two-time, All-Big Eight pick and All-American — went on to play 11 seasons in the NFL and was an NFL All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection for the Atlanta Falcons in 1973. Zook died in 2020, at 72 years old.
6. John Hadl
Height/Weight: 6-foot-1, 215 pounds
Career highlights: Three-time All-Big Eight (1959-61), two-time AP All-American (1960, 1961), NFL All-Pro (1973), two-time Pro Bowl (1972, 1973), four-time AFL All-Star (1964, 1965, 1968, 1969), two-time All-AFL (1965, 1966), AFL champion (1963)
Bottom line: John Hadl starred at Lawrence (Kan.) High and stayed home for college, where he became the first two-time, All-American in Kansas history — first at halfback in 1960 and then at quarterback in 1961. Hadl did all that and more for the Jayhawks, where he played on both sides of the ball as a sophomore but also returned punts and led the nation in punting with an average of 45.6 yards in 1959.
Hadl and the Jayhawks were ranked in the Top 20 for all of his final two seasons. He went on to star in the AFL and NFL, winning an AFL championship with the San Diego Chargers in 1963 and earning NFL All-Pro honors with the Los Angeles Rams in 1973.
5. Todd Reesing
Height/Weight: 5-foot-10, 200 pounds
Career highlights: Orange Bowl champion (2008), two-time All-Big 12 (2007, 2009), Davey O'Brien Award semifinalist (2007)
Bottom line: Todd Reesing was a lightly recruited player out of Lake Travis High School in Austin, Texas, despite earning Class 4A Player of the Year honors in high school. Reesing shook off the doubters to become one of the best quarterbacks in Big 12 history.
Reesing unselfishly sacrificed his redshirt season in 2006 to rally Kansas to a win over Colorado by coming off the bench to score three touchdowns. He became the Jayhawks' full-time starter in 2007, leading his team to a 12-1 record and an Orange Bowl win in arguably the greatest season in school history.
Reesing holds every significant career passing record for Kansas and has the top-three, single-season records for passing yards in school history. He's also in the Top 10 for the Big 12 in career passing yards and touchdowns.
4. John Riggins
Position: Running Back
Height/Weight: 6-foot-2, 230 pounds
Career highlights: Big Eight champion (1968), two-time All-Big Eight (1968, 1970), Super Bowl champion (1982), Super Bowl MVP (1982), NFL Comeback Player of the Year (1978), NFL All-Pro (1983), Pro Bowl (1975), NFL 1980s All-Decade Team
Bottom line: John Riggins was a high school football All-American at tiny Centralia (Kan.) High before staying in his home state to star for the Jayhawks.
At Kansas, Riggins was a two-time, All-Big Eight selection and led his team to a Big Eight title and a berth in the Orange Bowl as a junior. Then, he broke Gale Sayers' career rushing record as a senior and was named an All-American.
Riggins went on to become one of the more well-known NFL players of all time because of both his play — he was named Super Bowl MVP in 1982 with the Washington Redskins — and his outgoing personality.
3. Nolan Cromwell
Position: Defensive Back
Height/Weight: 6-foot-1, 200 pounds
Career highlights: Big Eight Offensive Player of the Year (1975), three-time All-Big Eight (1973-75), four-time NFL All-Pro (1980-83), four-time Pro Bowl (1980-83), UPI NFC Defensive Player of the Year (1980), NFL 1980s All-Decade Team
Bottom line: Nolan Cromwell's legend as a schoolboy athlete in Kansas is still something to behold, coming from tiny Ransom High to become an All-State pick in football and basketball while winning an AAU national championship in the decathlon.
Cromwell was a two-time, All-Big Eight pick as a safety before he became an All-Big Eight as a quarterback in 1975 when he was named Big Eight Offensive Player of the Year.
Cromwell, who was also an All-American sprinter at Kansas, played 11 years in the NFL as a safety for the Los Angeles Rams, where he was a four-time NFL All-Pro and eventually named to the NFL's All-Decade Team for the 1980s.
2. Aqib Talib
Height/Weight: 6-foot-1, 209 pounds
Career highlights: Orange Bowl champion (2008), Orange Bowl MVP (2008), three-time All-Big 12 (2005-07), Kansas Ring of Honor (2017), AP All-American 2007), two-time NFL All-Pro (2013, 2016), five-time Pro Bowl (2013-17), Jack Tatum Trophy (2007)
Bottom line: For a brief, shining moment in the late 2000s, the Jayhawks were as good as anyone in college football — and their best player was cornerback Aqib Talib.
Talib only played three seasons for Kansas, announcing his decision to forgo his senior year right after winning the Orange Bowl in January 2008. He capped his college career as a consensus All-American and played a significant role in the victorious Orange Bowl, where he was named the game's Most Valuable Player in a win over Virginia Tech.
Few college cornerbacks could play at Talib's level, ever, and he went on to play over a decade in the NFL, where he was named an NFL All-Pro twice, made five Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos in 2016.
1. Gale Sayers
Position: Running Back/Return Specialist
Height/Weight: 6-foot, 198 pounds
Career highlights: Three-time All-Big Eight (1962-64), two-time AP All-American (1963, 1964), NFL Comeback Player of the Year (1969), NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year (1965), five-time NFL All-Pro (1965-69), four-time Pro Bowl (1965-67, 1969), NFL 1960s All-Decade Team, NFL 50th Anniversary Team, NFL 75th Anniversary Team, NFL 100th Anniversary Team
Bottom line: The greatest Kansas player of all time also had the greatest nickname in school history — the Kansas Comet.
Gale Sayers was actually born in Wichita, Kansas, but grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, where he starred in football and track and field at Omaha Central High. At Kansas, Sayers was lightning in a bottle and finished his career with the most all-purpose yards (4,020) in Big Eight Conference history and was a two-time All-American. Sayers was as dangerous as a running back as he was a return specialist.
Sayers went on to star in the NFL with the Chicago Bears — most famously chronicled in the 1971 film "Brian's Song" — and was a five-time NFL All-Pro.
Sayers died in 2020, at 77 years old.