There are only a few athletes in history so iconic that all you need to say is the number they wore on the back of their jersey and everyone will know who you are talking about. And, sorry, Chad Ochocinco, you didn’t make the list. Let’s try it!
#2. #3. #23. #32. #42. #66. #80.
If you said Derek Jeter, Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Jackie Robinson, Mario Lemieux, and Jerry Rice, you were probably not alone. Perhaps you heard in your head the Yankees legendary announcer Bob Sheppard introducing “#2, Derek Jeter, #2,” or reminded yourself that Babe Ruth wore his #3 because of the batting order of the “Bronx Bombers” line-up. You possibly saw in your mind’s eye Jerry Rice cutting across the middle or Mario Lemieux coming from behind the net, or remembered the snapshot of the perfect reverses of each-other, #23 and #32, Jordan and Johnson, jostling for position in their one and only finals match-up. Or maybe you thought of the annual Jackie Robinson Day you attended in recent years, desperately trying to figure out who is coming in from the bullpen when everyone in the game is wearing #42.
Indeed, two numbers stand alone as being retired in their respective sports. And while baseball honored Robinson in large part because of his cultural impact and on and off-the-field bravery, only Wayne Gretzky’s #99 was retired in 2000 because of plain and simple, well… greatness.
Here is one hockey player and fourteen other athletes who have done justice to the double nine.
15 Wilf Paiement
Ontario’s own, the last of 16 children, was the second overall pick in the 1974 amateur draft and had a solid, at times spectacular career, before his uniform number became forever connected to NHL greatness. He was big, aggressive, and cocky, racking up nearly 1800 penalty minutes in his career. He played with seven teams, most prominently with the Quebec Nordiques from 1981-1986, where he notably scored the 100,000th goal in NHL history. Prior to that was a three time All-Star with the Colorado Rockies from 76-78 and had arguably his best season with the 1980-81 Toronto Maple Leafs, finishing with 40 goals and 57 assists. When Gretzky entered the league in 1979, the Buffalo Sabres’ Rick Dudley switched his jersey to joined the #99 parade, making them the last three to wear it.
14 Hyun Jin-Ryu
Hyun Jin-Ryu’s six-year, $36 million contract seemed very much worth the Los Angeles Dodgers investment, when he began it by pitching to back to back 14 win seasons in 2013 and 2014. However, the Korean native, after making at least 25 starts in six of his seven seasons with his home country’s Hanwa Eagles, has since succumbed to arm injuries that have limited him to just one start over the last two years. He missed the entire 2015 season after shoulder surgery and recently returned under the knife for arthroscopic left elbow debridement. He’s expected back in time for the start of the 2017 season, but the Dodgers will likely once again fill their staff with more arms than there are openings, as their ridiculous string of starting pitching injuries does not seem to be ending any time soon.
Ryu has worn 99 since his Korean playing days, and says he does so for “good luck.” Perhaps its time to change his number.
13 Jae Crowder
Ranked #53 on Sports Illustrated’s top 100 players in the NBA leading into the 2016-17 season, it is entirely likely Jae Crowder will end up much higher on this list. The five year veteran has found a home with the Boston Celtics, to whom he was traded to by the Dallas Mavericks mid-way through the 2014-15 season. In 2015-16, having never averaged more than 10 points or 25 minutes a game, Crowder raised his numbers to 14.2 per 31.6. He was off to a similar start this year before falling to an injury, but expects to be back in just a couple of weeks. The two-way combo forward fell to the second round of the 2012 draft in no small part because teams didn’t know his position; now, however, Crowder is seen as perhaps the next Draymond Green not just because he was drafted just one spot ahead of him.
Why 99? “It’s just something different,” Crowder said about his number and listing “Mars” as his location on his Twitter profile. “I look at myself sometimes and wonder where are you really from because I’m not like the rest of these guys. I’m a ‘Bossmann,’ which is just a slogan I have attached on me. It really stands for all self-success. I do stuff like a boss in general.”
12 Hugh Green
Hugh Green played in the NFL, but he made this list because he was, plain and simple, one of the greatest defensive players in college football history. An undersized defensive end, the 6’ 2,” 220 LB Hugh Green exploded onto the scene in his very first game as a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh, with 11 tackles, two sacks, and a blocked punt against eventual national champion Notre Dame. In his senior year in 1980, he was second in the Heisman race to South Carolina’s running back George Rogers, tying him for the highest finish by a 100% defensive player in history.
He played 11 professional seasons, splitting his time nearly equally with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first part of his career and the Miami Dolphins in the latter. Moved to linebacker because of his size, he was a two-time All-Pro, but was never able to dominate like he did in the NCAA, particularly after injuries derailed him mid-career.
11 Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams
Mitch Williams was an eleven year journeyman for six different teams who pitched exclusively out of the bullpen and had only four stand-out seasons, but he was, for a brief period, one of the most feared pitchers in baseball, earning him the nickname… “Wild Thing.” His two best years happened to come as closer for the 1989 Chicago Cubs, who made the NLCS, and the 1993 Philadelphia Phillies, who made the World Series (albeit with Williams giving up one of the most famous home runs in history, Joe Carter’s Game 6 World Series winner), thrusting him into the limelight as he saved 36 and 43 games respectively. Looking like a cave man with his ragged beard, long hair, and Speedy Gonzales tattoo and proclaiming he threw “like a man with his hair on fire,” he announced in 1989 that his hero was Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn, played by Charlie Sheen in “Major League,” which had recently premiered. The nickname stuck, and by the time he was the closer for the ’93 Phillies, he came into games just like his fictional idol, to the cheers of fans singing along to the song that gave him his nickname.
He even changed his number that year, from 28 to 99. Who else wore 99? Ricky Vaughn of course.
10 Cortez Kennedy
One of three 99’s to be in the NFL Hall-of-Fame (soon to be four - see #9 on this list!), Cortez Kennedy had 58 sacks over 11 seasons, that included five All-Pro selections and eight Pro Bowls and a selection to the NFL’s all decade team of the 1990s. The third player selected overall in the 1990 draft to the Seattle Seahawks, the extremely durable 6’ 3,” 298 pound defensive tackle played his whole career there, participating in 167 of a possible 176 games. Interestingly, Kennedy only wore the number 99 one year (his main number of 96, is retired by the Seahawks), in honor of his friend and former University of Miami teammate, Jerome Brown, who may have made this list himself if it wasn’t for his tragic fatal car accident in 1992. Brown had just come off of consecutive Pro Bowl appearances for the Philadelphia Eagles, also as a defensive tackle, and Cortez dedicated the season to him and ended up having his highest accolade, earning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, despite his team finishing with a 2-14 record.
9 Charlie “King Kong” Keller
Charlie “King Kong” Keller was a left fielder who had the fortune of playing next to and hitting behind Joe DiMaggio. Keller earned his nickname because of his tightly packed physique in his 5’ 10” frame and his bushy eyebrows, which he picked up while at the University of Maryland. Hall of Fame teammate Lefty Gomez commented “Keller wasn’t scouted… he was trapped.” Thanks to all the opportunities given to him with DiMaggio on base, the talented hitter in his own right ended up becoming a five time All-Star, and, of course, a three-time World Champion. In fact, as a rookie in 1939, at the age of just 23, Keller hit three home-runs in just two games in Cincinnati, helping the Yanks to a World Series sweep. He played for the New York Yankees from 1939-1949, and, after two years with the Tigers, returned for a final plate appearance in 1952 before retiring. That one plate appearance? He wore the number 99.
8 Jason Taylor
Jason Taylor played 15 years in the NFL, 13 with the Miami Dolphins (and briefly with the New York Jets and Washington Redskins), before retiring following the 2011 season. He is considered a shoo-in to be the fourth player to don the #99 to enter the Hall of Fame when it is announced this coming February in his first year of eligibility. The defensive end is sixth career all-time with 139.5 sacks and was selected to six Pro Bowls and was a three time All-Pro selection. He won Defensive Player of the Year in 2006. A former “Walter Payton Man of the Year” winner, Taylor was beloved by his teammates and was carried off the field after his final game. The Dolphins have only retired three numbers in team history, but there are calls that number 99 should be their fourth. Indeed, while it is still available, no player on the team has worn it since.
7 Carl Edwards and Jeff Burton (tie)
The #99 car in NASCAR is technically not “worn,” but we’ll make an exception here as the number is shared by two of the strongest drivers in track history, whose stats are just “too close to call” to choose only one. Edwards has 384 starts with 25 wins, 113 top-fives and 197 top-10s with 5,651 laps led. Burton has 668 starts, 21 wins, 133 top-fives, and 250 top-10s with 6530 laps led. Burton retired after the 2013 season but Edwards is still climbing, ranking seventh in the Sprint Cup standings this year. In NASCAR, the numbers are assigned to the team rather than the player. In 2004, Burton was in the midst of a mid-career struggle while working for Jack Roush Racing, and announced he was switching to Richard Childress Racing, allowing Carl Edwards to take over the seat of the #99 Ford.
6 Dan “Danimal” Hampton
While Jason Taylor and Cortez Kennedy perhaps had more prolific individual careers, Dan “Danimal” Hampton, a Hall of Famer, ranks higher on this list for one reason. He was the anchor of one of the greatest defenses in history. Hampton was the Chicago Bears #1 overall pick in the 1979 draft, and fourth overall. He went on to play his entire career in Chicago, twelve seasons in total, a six-time All-Pro and named to four Pro Bowls. The Bears won a Super Bowl in 1985, a season in which, in typical Hampton fashion, he rotated between right defensive tackle and left defensive end. He earned the nickname “Danimal” for his ferocious style of play, and had, ten, yes, TEN, knee injuries during his career but kept coming back. No matter where he played or what condition he was in, the results were the same.
5 George Mikan
Long before Gretzky became the greatest to ever wear #99 in HIS sport, George Mikan had grabbed greatest #99 in NBA history and refused to let go. He IS aided by the fact that the N.C.A.A. and National Federation of High School Associations do not allow any jersey numbers that include the digits 6, 7, 8, or 9, to allow referees to use their fingers to tell the scoring table who they are blowing the whistle on. As a result, the NBA features very few players today with those numbers on their jersey, as athletes tend to stick to the same number (Jae Crowder is the only current pro wearing the #99).
The N.C.A.A. themselves is unclear how old the rule is, but, we can probably assume that George Mikan played before it. Considered professional basketball’s first star big man, the 6’ 10” Mikan dominated at Center, winning the league scoring title in each of his first three seasons with the Minneapolis Lakers in the late '40s and early '50s. In all, Mikan played nine years, his first two with the National Basketball League and his third with the Basketball Association of America before they merged to form the NBA in 1949. He played in the league’s first four All-Star games, and was in the first Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame class in 1959.
4 J.J. Watt
It would be no surprise, of course, if in the end J.J. Watt ends up number one on this list as the number two #99 of all time. There are, in fact, 76 reasons we think that may happen. 76 sacks to be precise (and counting). Yes, Watt has enjoyed five remarkable seasons since his debut for the Houston Texans in 2011, playing a full 16 each time, but he was done for the year after just playing three games and undergoing back surgery. In the process, Watt has led the league in sacks twice, and was well on pace to make a run at the big two at the top of the career leaderboard, reaching 76 faster than any other player besides the all-time best, Reggie White. Unfortunately, there is question if Watt will ever be the same player again with a now recurring back issue. After three Defensive Player of the Year Awards in five seasons, it would be a major loss to the NFL if that were the case.
3 Manny Ramirez
“Manny being Manny” seems like the perfect catch phrase for the greatest baseball player of all time to wear the #99. The numbers speak for themselves: 555 homers, 1831 RBI, a .312 career batting average, 12 All-Star appearances, nine top-ten MVP finishes. A two-time World Champion with the Boston Red Sox, including winning the World Series MVP for the 2004 team that ended the Curse of the Bambino. He may have played longer too, padding his Hall of Fame quality stats, if he hadn’t abruptly retired in 2011 rather than face his second steroid-related suspension that would have forced him out for 100 games. That, alone, may keep him out of the Hall.
Ramirez wore the #24 for the bulk of his 19 year playing career but when he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2008, the number had already been retired in honor of former manager Walter Alston. In true Manny fashion, he denies ever wanting #99, saying "I don't know why they gave me 99. I wanted 34.” The Dodgers said the decision was made through agent Scott Boras and his staff, and reportedly at first it was to be #66, now the domain of another eccentric Dodger, Yasiel Puig.
Soccer star Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima, not to be confused with Christiano Ronaldo, wore the jersey #99 only briefly, when he joined AC Milan in 2007. But that’s all that’s needed to get him on this list. In a career that spanned nearly two decades, Ronaldo, as he was widely known, was one of the best scorers in Europe in the mid-90s, and the Brazil native famously led his nation to its fifth World Cup victory in 2002 after a disappointing 1998 finish, winning the Golden Boot in the process for the tournament’s top scorer. In 2004, he was named to the FIFA Top 100, a list of the greatest living players compiled by #10 himself, Pelé, and in 2010 was named goal.com’s player of the decade.
After being criticized for being overweight by Real Madrid’s coach Fabio Capello, Ronaldo angled for a transfer that he received to AC Milan. Perhaps the fresh start prompted the desire for a new number. Unfortunately, in 2008 he sustained a major knee injury, and he returned to his home country to play for Corinthians, with whom he stayed until his retirement in 2011.
1 Warren Sapp
Warren Sapp filled up a stat sheet. Four All-Pro selections. Seven Pro Bowls. 1999 Defensive Player of the Year. Named to the NFL’s all-decade team of the 1990s AND the 2000s. He was also a leader, playing 13 seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Oakland Raiders, anchoring the former’s vaunted defense on the way to winning the only Super Bowl in franchise history in 2002. He was a personality, known as a trash talker, particularly to his rival across the line, Brett Favre, who sometimes couldn’t help but respond with a smile. He retired by simply writing the words “I’M DONE” on his website. Recently, he got bit by a shark and laughed his way through an interview with Rich Eisen explaining it. If that’s not the definition of tough we don’t know what is.
He is as close to a legend as one can get without being called “The Great One.” That’s why, for now at least, he is the #1 player NOT named Wayne Gretzky in any sport to wear the #99.