Written By: Ben Cosgrove

Once again, football season is upon us, and once again, the occasion brings with it all the marketing mayhem, fan frenzy and trash-talking that sports are so often heir to. Pro football is unique among American sports due to its sheer, outsized spectacle. It’s louder than baseball, brasher than basketball, and more routinely violent than the phenomenally physical sport of NHL hockey and the high-speed lunacy of NASCAR. In fact, of all the major sports in North America, football is arguably the one that brings out whatever vestiges of machismo might be lurking in even the most seemingly mild of fans.

Football, after all, is for manly men. But there are many types of toughness. Mental toughness (Jackie Robinson); quiet toughness (Gregory Peck, Gary Cooper); gritty toughness (a weary, determined American Marine); crazy, spasmodic toughness (Cagney’s sociopath, Cody Jarrett, in White Heat); run-right-over-you toughness (Jim Brown); and on and on.

Here, LIFE.com offers a look back at some of the iconic faces and personalities that, in their own time and in their own chosen pursuit, were tough enough to answer that age-old question: Who’s the man?


Actor John Garfield smokes and studies the script for the movie, 'They Made Me a Criminal.'

John Garfield 1938

Alfred Eisenstaedt Time & Life Pictures/Shutterstock

A U.S. Marine peers over his shoulder during the final days of fighting to wrest the island of Saipan from Japanese troops, 1944.

Marine on Saipan 1944

W. Eugene Smith Time & Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Decorated veteran James Stewart, home from the war, 1945.

Jimmy Stewart 1945

Peter Stackpole Time & Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Kirk Douglas 1949

Allan Grant Time & Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Texas cowboy Clarence Hailey "C.H." Long, Jr., 1949.

C.H. Long 1949

Leonard McCombe Time & Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Gary Cooper 1949

Peter Stackpole Time & Life Pictures/Shutterstock

James Cagney in the iconic, climactic scene scene from 'White Heat.'

James Cagney 1949

Allan Grant Time & Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Marlon Brando 1949

Ed Clark Time & Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Jackie Robinson during filming of his own biopic in 1950.

Jackie Robinson 1950

J.R. Eyerman Time & Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Gregory Peck 1950

W. Eugene Smith Time & Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Humphrey Bogart 1951

Eliot Elisofon Time & Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Rocky Marciano, still the only heavyweight champ to retire undefeated, 1951.

Rocky Marciano 1951

Eliot Elisofon Time & Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Ernest Hemingway, Cuba, 1952.

Ernest Hemingway 1952

Alfred Eisenstaedt Time & Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Spencer Tracy, 1955.

Spencer Tracy 1955

J.R. Eyerman Time & Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Mickey Mantle, 1956.

Mickey Mantle 1956

Ralph Morse Time & Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Project Mercury astronauts at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia: (top, left to right) Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Gordon Cooper; (bottom left to right) Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, John Glenn and Scott Carpenter, 1959.

Mercury Astronauts 1959

Ralph Morse Time & Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Burt Lancaster at Dodger Stadium during Game 3 of the 1959 World Series in Los Angeles.

Burt Lancaster 1959

Grey Villet Time & Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Frank Sinatra, 1961.

Frank Sinatra 1961

Leonard McCombe Time & Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Steve McQueen rests in the midst of a long-distance motorcycle race, 1963.

Steve McQueen 1963

John Dominis Time & Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Muhammad Ali after defeating Cleveland Williams in Houston, Texas, to retain the heavyweight crown, November 1966.

Muhammad Ali 1966

Bob Gomel Time & Life Pictures/Shutterstock

John Wayne in 1969.

John Wayne 1969

John Dominis Time & Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Former pro football player-turned-actor Jim Brown in 1969.

Jim Brown 1969

Henry Groskinsky Time & Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Johnny Cash in 1969.

Johnny Cash 1969

MIchael Rougier Time & Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Jack Nicholson relaxing at home in Los Angeles, 1969.

Jack Nicholson 1969

Arthur Schatz Time & Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Clint Eastwood on the set of 'Dirty Harry,' 1971.

Clint Eastwood 1971

Bill Eppridge Time & Life Pictures/Shutterstock

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