Who Is Toughest Athlete In Boston Sports History?

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Toughness is impossible to quantify. But you know it when you see it.

Sometimes, it’s obvious. Boxers, for instance, can give a beating and take a beating. Otherwise, they wouldn’t step into the squared circle. It’s an inherent part of their job. And the mental aspect of preparing for a physical altercation shouldn’t go unnoticed, either. Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth, right?

Other times, toughness is less obvious. Injuries, unfortunately, are part of sports. Everyone gets banged up over the course of their career. Pain tolerance and the intestinal fortitude to keep pushing are what separate the “tough” athletes from those who perhaps rely more on skill. But not every ailment is on full display. Occasionally, we don’t know what players are dealing with until after the fact, at which point we gain a greater appreciation for them continuing to show up for work.

So, whether it’s fighters like Micky Ward and “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler, a group of gritty hockey players like the “Lunch Pail A.C.” Boston Bruins of the 1970s and 1980s or someone who overcame insurmountable odds just to throw on the uniform each day, there are countless ways to define “toughness” in professional sports.

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With that in mind, we asked several members of the NESN Digital team to submit their picks for the toughest athlete in Boston sports history. The responses, as you’ll see below, took into account various factors.

Mike Cole: Tom Brady
It’s easy to point to guys who drop the gloves or the dudes in the trenches and say they’re the toughest. And yes, they could beat me up. But I’m coming at this from a different direction with Brady, who played a physically and mentally demanding position at the highest level for two decades. The only time he missed was due to a knee injury he couldn’t control, and he played through a lot — including winning a Super Bowl with a gnarly thumb injury. You also need a special kind of mental toughness to spend 20 years working for Bill Belichick.

Ricky Doyle: Jason Varitek
There are several athletes whose off-the-field battles trump almost any injury that can be sustained between the lines. And if we’re talking hand-to-hand combat, sure, choose your boxer, your mixed martial artist or one of the many Bruins enforcers who frequently dropped the mitts. But I’ve always been amazed at the demands of playing catcher in Major League Baseball. Varitek did it for 15 years in Boston, dealing with injuries, pressure and clubhouse shenanigans that would’ve broken most people. Plus, of course, he gloved A-Rod in the face. And that counts for something.

Adam London: Zdeno Chara
Chara was Mr. Reliable in Boston, missing nine games or less in 10 of his 14 Bruins seasons despite often leading the team’s blue line group in ice time. Big Zee wasn’t exactly an enforcer, but when he dropped the gloves, he often won the bouts by unanimous decision. And if we’re talking about Boston sports moments that highlight toughness, few exceed Chara playing the back end of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final with a broken jaw.

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Sean McGuire: Zdeno Chara
There’s never been a celebration of toughness quite like the ovation Chara received before the Bruins faced the St. Louis Blues in Game 5 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final. It’s impossible to forget given it came a mere two days after Chara broke his jaw in Game 4. It was to the point where Chara was answering questions from reporters with a pen and paper because it hurt too much to talk. That didn’t stop him from taking the ice in an astronaut helmet, though. While hockey players have proven time and time again to be a different species, I’ll always recall that ridiculous level of toughness and commitment.

Jason Ounpraseuth: Robert Parish
“The Chief” not only was a key contributor on the floor for the Celtics in the ’80s, but he was a true enforcer on the court, too. Parish was someone who you didn’t want to mess with, and even though it was a moment he’d regret later in life, his shot at Bill Laimbeer remains an iconic moment in the Celtics-Pistons rivalry.

Gayle Troiani: Patrice Bergeron
Bergeron not only was a world class leader, but Game 6 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final against the Chicago Blackhawks proves he is the epitome of the toughest athlete in Boston sports history. He suited up and played in the deciding game with cracked ribs, torn cartilage and a punctured lung he suffered in Game 5, and he battled through a separated shoulder he sustained in the first period of Game 6. If that isn’t the definition of toughness, I’m not sure what is.

Fred Nutter: John Wensink (Bruins); Trot Nixon (Red Sox); Julian Edelman, Wes Welker, Vincent “The Undertaker” Brown (Patriots); Robert Parish (Celtics)

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