— Lawrence Taylor struck fear into opponents. Just ask Joe Theismann.
Those unfortunate enough to face the Hall of Fame linebacker knew to brace for contact and pain. So you might assume that Taylor, in response to a question about which athlete he would pay to watch play, would select someone similarly menacing and frightening.
Someone his own size.
He chose a competitor who simply strikes a little white ball, playing a gentleman's game.
"Tiger Woods," Taylor said. "That's it. Tiger Woods. There are a couple of basketball players, but mostly Tiger Woods. Because he plays his game like it's supposed to be played. He takes no prisoners. Every time he steps out on that golf course, he feels he is the best player out there.
"And I used to do the same thing my first five, six years in the league, when I stepped out on the field."
It turns out that Taylor wasn't exactly stepping out on a limb. In fact, when NBCSports.com posed that same question to more than 40 current and former athletes and coaches during the past year, Woods was the overwhelming winner ... as he is most weekends on the course, when healthy.
Others mentioned prominently were Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali Bill Russell and Alex Rodriguez, but Woods dominated the conversation.
Woods is recovering from knee surgery, and could return as early as March. When he does, athletes and coaches in other sports will be nearly as excited as executives on the PGA Tour.
And if you ever wondered whether Woods, as a golfer, qualifies as an athlete, that question is settled by the reverential terms in which team-sport athletes regard him.
Maybe it's because so many have struggled to master the game Woods plays.
Like Indianapolis Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney.
"Tiger Woods," Freeney said. "Because I can't golf. And he can."
Veteran Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning was "bitten by the golf bug" three years ago, and "now that I'm getting into it, I can truly realize how difficult what he's making look easy, how difficult that is. Shoot, I would pay to watch him anyday."
The only guy who comes close for Mourning? Former Boston Celtics center Russell. "To get 20 rebounds, 30 rebounds, consistently like that, come on, man."
Heat guard Dwyane Wade grew up admiring Jordan who, even though retired, was the choice of Boston Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek, St. Louis Rams quarterback Trent Green, New England Patriots halfback Laurence Maroney and Dallas Cowboys cornerback Terence Newman.
"But right now, I'd go pay to see Tiger," said Wade, the 2006 NBA Finals MVP. "I mean, to see his greatness. To watch what he did in (the 2008 U.S. Open), put him up there, no question, with the best of all time. A lot of people don't know how hard a sport golf is."
Aaron Rodgers does. That's why the Green Bay Packers quarterback says, "If I could walk with him, I'd pay whatever."
"If there could be five people in the world who I would want to meet, he'd be one of them," University of Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl said. "The way he keeps raising the bar is fascinating to me.''
Future Hall of Famers in basketball (Jason Kidd) and football (Jonathan Ogden) picked Woods.
College stars such as Notre Dame basketball guard Kyle McAlarney picked Woods: "I watched what he did recently [in the U.S. Open] and I was thinking to myself, 'Wow.' And then it comes out that he had a torn ACL and a fractured tibia. That's amazing. That's impressive. I would definitely pay to see him."
And yes, baseball All-Stars, such as Minnesota Twins closer Joe Nathan and Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Carlos Pena, chose Woods, too.
"He's unbelievable to me," Pena said of Woods. "You have 250 guys going into a tournament. These guys are good. It's amazing to me that over and over and over again, with 250 guys, he's almost always in first place.
"Amazing! Everybody is getting the same test. His level of dominance is crazy. It's like he's in his own little world."
What do athletes and coaches most admire?
"I love his focus on the golf course and his demeanor," renowned tennis coach Nick Bollettieri said. "He's always complimentary of the game.
"When he's asked how he's doing, he says it in a very humble way, but a very proud way. He puts a lot of time and effort into it. He's an inspiration for boys and girls on how to act on the golf course. For that matter, on how to act on the tennis court.''
Yes, focus. That's what Butler basketball coach Brad Stevens cited. Same for Baltimore Ravens tight end Todd Heap: "I would pay to watch that. Because that's what every athlete tries to do."
That's what impresses Milwaukee Bucks coach Scott Skiles: "I would pay to watch Tiger in person. Because his skill and will are so superior. I would like to go to the Masters or British open to watch him."
That's why John Tortorella, a former NHL coach, chose Woods, even though he isn't a golf nut.
"He's an athlete I love to watch, but I hate the sport," Tortorella said. "I think he's the most mentally tough athlete ever. I love watching him. I never watch golf until Sunday, when everybody's chasing him. I think his mental toughness ... there's no one like that.''
Few have come close to that focus. Jordan was one. But even a basketball guru like Louisville coach Rick Pitino calls Woods "the greatest athlete of all time — of any sport."
Some couldn't decide between Jordan and Woods. Even Gators disagreed.
Billy Donovan and Urban Meyer have each won two national championships at the University of Florida, coaching the basketball and football teams, respectively.
Donovan? Woods. "The ways he finds to rise up are something you don't see anywhere else."
Meyer? "That's an easy one. Michael Jordan. The ultimate winner. He raised everyone else's level of play. He took those other four guys along with him to all those championships. My gosh. I can't even remember their names.''
How would former NBA All-Star guard Penny Hardaway settle it?
"Watch Tiger play in the afternoon, and Michael play that night,"
Others went off the board, however.
Some went old-school.
"If you want to go back to me growing up, I would've loved to have seen Bob Gibson pitch a game live," Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Just the nature of this man, the intensity of this man when he pitched, you could see it even through our black-and-white TV.''
Grady Sizemore, the Cleveland Indians outfielder, answered "Bo Jackson. He could do it all."
New York Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora couldn't choose between hundreds: "Muhammad Ali in his prime. Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. Jesse Owens. But I'm a huge Yankee fan and a huge baseball fan so I'll say Thurman Munson, Dave Winfield and Reggie Jackson in October."
Eddie Sutton, the former NCAA basketball coach, also mentioned Ali.
"To me, he epitomized what a champion should be," Sutton said. "He developed his talent to the fullest."
So did Hank Aaron, until recently the all-time home run champion. His three choices? "A-Rod, he's selling me more and more. Derek Jeter, I always like to watch him. And that kid in Philly, Chase Utley. He is everything you want to see. They are the only three I'd put down my dime to see."
Some current athletes don't have to pay anything to see the guy they chose. They face that guy on the field or court on a semi-regular basis.
George Sherrill, the Baltimore Orioles closer, also picked Alex Rodriguez.
Joakim Soria, the Kansas City Royals closer, chose New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, in part because "some people talk about the comparisons between us. I don't know about that, but he's always been one of my favorites."
O.J. Mayo, the Memphis Grizzlies rookie, took LeBron James: "Just look at him. He's 6-8, runs a 4.3 and has moves that are out of this world."
And yet, many others looked outside their preferred sport.
Bob Knight, the NCAA's all-time men basketball wins leader, selected Albert Pujols, who plays for Knight's friend Tony LaRussa with the St. Louis Cardinals: "He will go down as one of the great players in baseball history. He's a remarkable asset for the city of St. Louis. You can see his work ethic. You know he shows up to play every day. I'd pay to see him play and I'd study everything he does.''
Pat Summitt, the NCAA's all-time women basketball wins leader, went with someone she watched grow up: "I'm a Peyton (Manning) fan, obviously dating back to his Tennessee days. But what he does for the Colts is something to see. His intelligence and preparation are off the charts.''
Matt Doherty, the SMU basketball coach, split his vote between Manning and Tom Brady: "For their excellence, their intelligence, but mostly for their class and demeanor and the way they represent the game.''
Some might have been influenced by the timing of the question.
Derrick Rose, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 NBA draft, voted for Roger Federer.
"He's been the best for a long time," said Rose, now a Chicago Bulls rookie. "I'd just want to study what makes him that."
Rafael Nadal has since edged past Federer in tennis's world rankings.
Washington Redskins defensive end Jason Taylor, when asked in late August, said he would have gone with Jordan if not for what gold medal swimmer Michael Phelps had just finished accomplishing: "He's the hottest thing. It's amazing."
And if the athletes and coaches had all been asked now, more might have agreed with Maddon, the Rays manager, who spoke months ago about his infatuation with Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
"He's probably most acrobatic NFL receiver since Lynn Swann," Maddon said. "I would watch Larry Fitzgerald every week."
Now he can watch him on television on Super Bowl Sunday.
Further, if Kansas basketball coach Bill Self received this query after the Jets choked away a playoff spot, he might change his answer.
"I definitely would've paid to watch (Brett) Favre," Self said. "Up until five years ago, I would've paid to watch Barry Bonds. I thought he was he was the most fabulous athlete of all time. But that has gotten a little clouded.''
And so has Favre's appeal, considering his 2008 finish.
Things change quickly in sports.
When a correspondent asked Jon Gruden the "pay to watch" question last year, the former Super Bowl champion was still coaching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He's since been fired. Gruden, for the record, picked Jerry Rice. "He was an inspirational athlete to me, and I got to coach him," Gruden said. "Really, I like teams, not individuals. I'll watch tennis or golf if I want to watch individuals. I'm not paying to watch one player. That's half the problem in the world today, if you ask me.''
The other half, if you ask some professional athletes and coaches, is that Tiger Woods isn't back on the golf course yet. So that they can watch him play. Even if they have to pay.