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What does it mean to play 'iron-man' in American football?

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βˆ™ 2010-02-02 14:08:29

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"Playing Iron-man" means playing as an offensive player and a defensive player, as well, perhaps, as a special teams player all within the same game. It generally involves mastering both offensive and defensive playbooks, being sufficiently competent at multiple positions to merit a starting position in two or more, keeping up with the training regime of both offensive and defensive units, and having the discipline and stamina to voluntarily play in all or nearly all plays in any given game.

As such, across all levels of American football, players "playing Iron-man" range in rarity from perhaps a handful a decade to unheard of in over a half century.

An example would be a player playing Center on offense and Nose Tackle on defense in the same game, only coming off the field for special teams plays.

The term "Iron-man football" is the popular name for the "one-platoon system," wherein player substitution is strictly limited and nearly all players have defensive, offensive and special teams roles and the vast majority of players play nearly complete games. Until the 1940's this was the only system by which American football was played. The University of Michigan adopted the "two-platoon system" (often simply referred to as "the platoon system") in 1945, creating specialist offensive and defensive units. This system became the standard until the final abolition of Iron-man or one-platoon football by the NCAA in 1965.

Players and teams, during the transition period of 1945-1965 and the rare few players since 1965, who continued to play in multiple roles were referred to as Iron-men. It is sometimes said in praise of Iron-men that "the only people who spend more time on the field are the refs."

Since the system is now long out of use and very few players have played both sides of the ball in decades, the term nowadays is sometimes applied to players who lay it on the line every play or who display incredible endurance, toughness and leadership. This usage is not without controversy, as, as late as 2006, traditional Iron-men have continued to exist, at least in the NCAA, albeit in very small numbers. Traditional Iron-men and football purists often consider the wider application of the term a cheapening of it, and in those circles it is frowned upon to apply it to anyone who does not actually play in multiple roles and in the vast majority of plays in any game in which they appear.

The most prominent example of a player who plays in only one role being referred to as an Iron-man is Brett Favre, who was given the nickname "Iron Man" by the Pro-Football Hall of Fame. He is known as such because he holds the record for career starts, having never once missed a start in his 19 year career. Note that this usage is not controversial and few if any of those critical of the wider application of the term consider Favre undeserving of his nickname.

Regardless of whether the original or wider definition is being applied, few players today are ever referred to as an "Iron-man" and being known as one is likely to be the greatest compliment a player will ever receive.

2010-02-02 14:08:29
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