In a 1950s nod to Shakespeare, Peter O’Toole said, “A rose by any other name would whither and die.” in the film, 'My Favorite Year.' The original quote comes from 'Romeo and Juliet' when she says "What’s in name? that which we call a rose / by any other name would smell as sweet." But you get the gist. The same rings true of proper jersey numbers. It’s not a hard rule. Michael Jordan did fine when he wore the number 45 he wore in minor-league baseball, when he paid tribute to that time in his life, in his return to Chicago Bulls. Joe Montana was more than respectable with no. 19 for the Kansas City Chiefs at the end of a career he spent mostly with the San Francisco 49ers as no. 16. Tom Brady wore no. 10 at Michigan, and Peyton Manning was no. 16 for Tennessee. But generally speaking, the idea of Jordan as anything but no. 23, Brady as anything but no. 12, or Manning as anything other than no. 18 doesn't seem right.
By modern-day rules, NFL jersey numbers 76 and above are delegated to offensive and defensive linemen, linebackers, tight ends and wide receivers. But if you go back far enough you can find offensive and defensive backs who also wore the high numbers. You can also find kickers, but at that point you’re going back to an era when kickers doubled as position players anyway. The modern number restrictions have been in use since 1973 with some modification since.
In the early days of the NFL, rosters hovered around 22 players and it was rare to see a player wear a number higher than 25. So there aren’t too many people from the pre 1970-merger era to wear the big numbers, but there are some that made the list.
Only in football do you see lots of big numbers. There aren’t a lot of baseball or basketball players that wear numbers above 55. And in football, big numbers go together with big people. If it weren’t for lanky receivers you might think that the numbers also relate to shirt size. Former college-football announcer Keith Jackson used to refer to linemen as the big uglies. They make up the people that wear numbers in the 70s and 90s. In between you have the pass catchers.
Here’s the 24 that represent the best players to wear numbers 76 and higher:
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24 Lou Groza
In the time when position players did the kicking, and by kicking, I mean straight-toe kicking with a high-top boot, Groza was the best. He was a tackle for most of his career, which began with the original Cleveland Browns team in 1946 in the All-American Football Conference. After a one-year retirement in 1960, Groza returned to the Browns in 1961 as a specialist-only and played through the 1967 season. He led the NFL in field-goal percentage five times and was the league-leading scorer in 1957.
Groza’s biggest kick was undoubtedly the game-winning, 16-yard field goal (goal posts were on the goal line in the NFL until 1974) in the 1950 NFL Championship that lifted Cleveland over the Los Angeles Rams, 30-28. It was the Browns' first season in the league after four years in the AAFC. Groza’s career long of 53 yards came during the AAFC years. He played for the freshman team at Ohio State before enlisting in the Army during World War II. He joined former Ohio State coach Paul Brown with the Browns. He is the namesake of the award given to college football’s finest kicker, which is ironic for a player who never played a varsity game.
23 Red Grange
Imagine if college football’s finest player turned pro immediately after his senior season, and made his NFL debut on Thanksgiving day, playing college and NFL football in the same autumn. As the NFL’s first superstar, Grange led the Bears on tour as they played four road games in an eight-day span in December of that year. He switched leagues in 1926, returned to the NFL with the New York Yankees in 1927, and, eventually returned to the Bears in 1929, playing with the team through the 1933 season, which culminated with the first NFL Championship game, won by Chicago against the New York Giants. The game ended with his game-saving tackle of New York’s Red Badgro.
In his sophomore season of 1923, Grange led the University of Illinois to an unbeaten season. George Halas, owner and player-coach of the Bears was also an Illini alum. Grange was nicknamed Galloping Ghost during his college days for his blinding speed and elusive ball carrying.
22 Anthony Muñoz
Another offensive tackle, this one chosen by Cincinnati as the the no. 3 overall selection of the 1980 draft. He played at Southern California as a collegian where he also pitched for the Trojans' 1978 National Championship baseball team. The football team was co-national champions, winners of the coaches poll in 1978 when Alabama won the writers poll. With the Bengals he earned first-team All-Pro nine times and and was chosen to 11-straight Pro Bowls beginning with the 1981 season. He played left tackle and spent his entire 13-year career in Cincinnati. After a 6-10 rookie season, he helped lead to the team to its first Super Bowl the following year, and also in the 1988 season. His first head coach was Forrest Gregg, who had been an offensive tackle during his playing days.
Muñoz missed only three games during his career, validating the Bengals for drafting him high despite the multiple injuries he suffered in college. He passed up a chance to redshirt as a senior, opting instead to play in the Rose Bowl, closing out his collegiate career with the second game he played that year.
21 Rosey Brown
Here, we have a 27th round draft choice who played his way into the Hall of Fame in 13 seasons with the New York Giants. He played left tackle for a team that played in six championship games during his time with New York. Brown was an eight-time All-Pro, and 10-time Pro Bowler. Frank Gifford said he wouldn’t be in the HOF if it weren’t for Brown, who sprung him for the longest touchdown of his career, a 79-yard score against Washington. Giants linebacker Sam Huff described him as a big Jim Brown.
After his playing career, he worked for New York as an assistant, and, later, as a scout. Including his player career, he spent more than 50 years with the team. Brown was named the NFL’s Lineman of the Year for 1956. He helped lead the Giants to six division titles over an seven-year span, from 1956-63. Brown played during the last years of one-platoon football and was a formidable presence in New York’s goal-line stand formation. As a collegian, he played at Morgan State.
20 Jerry Rice
The textbook answer as the greatest wide receiver of all time. Rice was something of a surprise first-round draft choice in 1985, going to a San Francisco team that was coming off a Super Bowl-winning season. The 49ers moved up to the no. 16 pick of the draft to take Rice, who had played at Mississippi Valley State, a Division I-AA school (or what today is called the Football Championship Subdivision). If you were paying attention, though, you noticed he was leading a 9-2 team to nearly 61 points per game.
In the NFL, Rice modernized the role of the receiver, popularizing the run after the catch. He led the NFL in receiving yards six times and set the league record for total touchdowns. He broke the record set by the running back Jim Brown, tying the mark appropriately on the ground, running a reverse for a score. Rice was the MVP of the 49ers' Super Bowl win over Cincinnati at the end of the 1988 season. After 16 seasons with San Francisco, he went on to play for Oakland before closing out his career with Seattle in 2004.
19 Night Train Lane
Dick Lane was known as Night Train, nicknamed for the instrumental song of that name which was released in 1952, the year of Lane’s rookie season with the Los Angeles Rams. He led the NFL with 14 interceptions that year, returning two for touchdowns, but he was more renowned for his tackling. He played during the time that plastic helmets were widely implemented and with them came face masks. With his clothesline tackles, Lane is credited with inspiring the face-masking rule. He played two seasons with the Rams, six with the Chicago Cardinals, and six with Detroit in a Hall of Fame career.
Lane played the corner, but also saw time on offense with eight career catches including a 98-yard touchdown for the Cardinals in 1955. In his rookie season, Los Angeles lost a tie-breaking playoff against Detroit to settle the National Conference after each team went 9-3 during the regular season. It was the closest thing to the postseason that he saw with the exception of three Playoff Bowls with Detroit. The Playoff Bowl was held annually in Miami during the 1960s and pitted the two runner ups that didn't make it to the championship game.
18 Raymond Berry
Berry was on the receiving end of one of the greatest passing combinations ever, Unitas-to-Berry. He played 13 seasons with the Baltimore Colts, beginning with the 1955 season. Berry led the NFL in receiving yards three times, and was a 1,000-yard man in 1960, the last year of the 12-game schedule. He scored a touchdown in the famous 1958 Championship game, decided in overtime against the New York Giants. He had two receptions in the drive resulting in a tying field goal that forced OT, and two more receptions on the game-winning possession. At the time of his retirement in 1967, he was the NFL’s career leader in receptions, yards and touchdowns. During Unitas’s string of 47-straight games of throwing a touchdown pass, the QB totaled 102-TD passes, 38 of which were caught be Berry.
He became head coach of the New England Patriots midway through the 1984 season and coached them through 1989. Berry was the first coach to lead the Patriots to a Super Bowl, losing to the Chicago Bears at the end of 1985.
17 Ted Hendricks
Hendricks was a linebacker who wore no. 83 for all but one season in his 15-year career, his lone season in Green Bay in 1974 when he was no. 56. He was an All-American defensive end at Miami before his selection by the Baltimore Colts as a second-round draft choice in 1969. The 6’7” Hendricks played linebacker in the NFL and was an All-Pro with three different teams. He played five seasons with Baltimore before going on to Green Bay. From there he went to Oakland and played with the team long enough to retire as a Los Angeles Raider. In what would be the final playoff game at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, in 1977, he had a role in the Raiders’ overtime victory by blocking a punt, setting up an Oakland touchdown that put his team ahead in the third quarter.
Hendricks recorded two defensive touchdowns and four safeties during his career. He also totaled 25 blocks of field goals and extra points. He played on Super Bowl-winning teams with Baltimore, Oakland and Los Angeles.
16 Randy Moss
Of all the teams he played with and numbers he wore, Moss will be most remembered for the no. 84 he donned for the Minnesota Vikings. He had the benefit of teaming up with a veteran receiver in Cris Carter, and quarterback in Randall Cunningham. As a result, he was one of the best rookie receivers ever, helping Minnesota to a 15-1 regular season in 1998 when he led the NFL in touchdown receptions while maintaining a 19.0 yards-per-catch average. Moss played five seasons with the Vikings and eclipsed 1,200 receiving yards each year, culminating with a career-high 1,632 in 2003.
He went on to Oakland where he wore no. 18, and to New England, where he was no. 81. He went back to no. 84 in 2010 when he played four games with Minnesota before finishing out the season in eight games with Tennessee. Moss then closed out his career in San Francisco in 2012. He played at Marshall as a collegian and was with the team when they made the jump from Division I-AA to I-A for his final collegiate year, when he scored 26 touchdowns in 13 games.
15 Antonio Gates
Undrafted out of Kent State in 2003, Gates has gone on to be one of the greatest tight ends in NFL history. He has played his entire career with the San Diego Chargers and was All-Pro for three-consecutive seasons beginning in 2004. He has scored 10 or more touchdowns in four seasons, and has caught 10 or more passes in a game four times. In a career that is still active, he has recorded more than 10,000 yards and 100 touchdowns. Gates had hoped to play basketball and football as a collegian, but focused on basketball in a career that saw him play at two four-year and two junior colleges. He helped lead Kent State into the 2002 NCAA Tournament.
Gates signing with the Chargers was a boon to a team that had a mostly forgettable '03 draft with their first selection not coming until the 30th pick of the first round. He started 11 games as a rookie, but in his second season made the jump from a 24-catch 2003 campaign to 81 receptions as the team did a reversal from a 4-12 year to 12-4.
14 Gary Collins
Collins was the star of Cleveland’s 1964 Championship game win over the Baltimore Colts, when he made three second-half touchdowns, blowing open wide a game that was a scoreless draw at halftime into a 27-0 win. It was the first postseason game of his career. The following season he recorded 100-yard games in three straight weeks. This was at a time when receiving yards were less fantasy-friendly than now. He was drafted No. 4 overall in 1962 and led the NFL in touchdown receptions in ’63. Collins spent his 10-year career with the Browns, and handled punting duties for his first six seasons. He led the NFL with a 46.7 yards-per-punt average in 1965.
Collins was part of one of the great pass-catching tandems of the era, teaming up with Hall-of-Famer Paul Warfield for six seasons, 1964-69. In 1969, they each caught 10 or more touchdown passes, accounting for all but three of the Browns TD receptions that year. Collins played at Maryland as a collegian, and was an All-American selection in 1961.
13 Lionel Taylor
Taylor was the drawing card for the American Football League-era Denver Broncos. He was the first professional football player to record 100 catches in a season, reaching 100 exactly in 1961 for a 3-11 Broncos team. Taylor was an original Bronco in the team’s first year of 1960. He had previously played eight games for the Chicago Bears in 1959 but did not catch a pass. Taylor had 93 receptions in his first year with Denver, and 543 in his seven seasons with the team, leading the league in catches five times. He went on to play two seasons with the Houston Oilers, and with the 1967 Oilers he played on a winning team for the first time.
In his initial season with the Broncos in 1960 he had four games in which he caught 10 passes or more. In a 38-38 tie against Buffalo that year he had 199 yards and three touchdowns on nine catches. Whereas Taylor was just starting out, his quarterback, Frank Tripucka, was a veteran of four NFL seasons and seven in Canada. Together they made football fun for a fan base that would have to wait until the team’s 18th season to see the playoffs.
12 Alan Page
Page was a defensive lineman for Notre Dame in 1966 when the team went unbeaten with a tie against Michigan State, who also went unbeaten. Michigan State’s defensive end Bubba Smith went no. 1 in the 1967 draft, though Page, who went 15th overall to Minnesota, had the better career. He was the NFL MVP for 1971, a rarity for a defensive player. As a defensive tackle for the Purple People Eaters, he anchored a defense that shut out three opponents, and allowed only 139 points during an 11-3 season. They did this while the offense struggled with three starting quarterbacks, and led the NFL for most punts. Page recorded two safeties that year.
He played 11-plus seasons with the Vikings before being released six games into the 1978 season. He was immediately picked up by Chicago and started for them through the 1981 season. Born in Canton, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988. He has lived quite a life after football as an associate justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court.
11 Gino Marchetti
Marchetti was the no. 14 overall selection of the 1952 draft, which, at the time, was a second-round pick. He spent his rookie season with the Dallas Texas, who folded at season’s end. Their holdings were purchased by a Baltimore group and Marchetti spent 13 seasons with the Colts. In Marchetti and Art Donovan, the Colts had two Hall of Fame defensive linemen who began their careers with the Texans. Marchetti supplied an outside pass rush in an era that ushered in the modern passing game. He was a six-time All-Pro and helped lead Baltimore to three NFL Championship games. He played at San Francisco as a collegian, and helped lead the Dons to an undefeated season his senior year.
Marchetti played offensive tackle in his rookie year with Dallas, and realized the hardest guys to block were the ones who made him miss, so that was the type of defensive end he became with the Colts. He famously watched the rest of 1958 championship game sitting down on sideline after fracturing his ankle while making a first-down-preventing tackle.
10 Neil Smith
What would be the better opportunity on draft weekend: getting one great player or two really good ones? The Kansas City Chiefs took the former opportunity over the latter in 1988 when they surrendered a second-round draft pick to the Detroit Lions just for the opportunity to move up from the no. 3 pick of the draft to no. 2. With the no. 2 pick they took Smith, a defensive end from Nebraska. Detroit came away with Miami safety Bennie Blades no. 3, and Ohio State linebacker Chris Spielman in the second round. Spielman went on to earn four Pro Bowl selections, and Blades one. Meanwhile Smith was an All-Pro in 1993, one of five Pro Bowl seasons during his years with the Chiefs.
He also earned Pro Bowl recognition with Denver in 1997. Smith amassed 85.5 sacked during his nine years in Kansas City and was the NFL leader for 1993. He had a pair of sacks in the Broncos’ Divisional Playoff win at Kansas City at the end of 1997, allowing Denver to go on to a Super Bowl championship, though they had finished second to the Chiefs in the AFC West during the regular season.
9 Kevin Greene
The great thing about a number like 91 is it’s not in high demand. Greene wore it throughout his Hall of Fame career, which spanned 15 seasons and employment with four teams. He was inducted into the Hall this year, honoring his career as one of the game’s finest outside pass rushers. Greene led the NFL in sacks in 1994 with Pittsburgh, and in 1996 with Carolina. He had 4.5 sacks for Los Angeles in a 1988 game against San Francisco. He was drafted in the fifth round of 1985. During his career he scored three touchdowns and three safeties. He was a walk-on at Auburn after first playing for the ROTC team. He led the SEC in sacks in 1984 when he started only four games. Greene had double-figures sacks in 10 seasons. He spent five years as an assistant coach with the Green Bay Packers. He was an emotional leader who still inspires. He gave the pre-game talk before the Steelers win over Kansas City this season.
8 Reggie White
One of the best players to begin his career in the United States Football League, or to begin a career anywhere, White played two seasons with the Memphis Showboats before moving on to the Philadelphia Eagles in 1985. Since the USFL was a spring league, he played for both teams in ’85. When unrestricted free agency came to the NFL in 1993, he was most attractive free agent and left Philadelphia for Green Bay. White played six seasons with the Packers and, after a one-year retirement, spent one season with Carolina in 2000. With Philadelphia he led the NFL in sacks in back-to-back seasons in 1987 and ’88. His 21 sacks in ’87 represent his career high and came in only 12 games due to a player’s strike.
White played at Tennessee as a collegian and was the SEC Player of the Year for 1983, the first defensive player to win the award in 15 years. He died of cardiac arrhythmia on Christmas weekend 2004. White was an ordained Baptist Minister. Two streets are named after him: Reggie White Boulevard in Chattanooga, Tennessee; and Reggie White Way in Green Bay.
7 John Randle
From undrafted to the Hall of Fame, Randle was signed out of Texas A&M-Kingsville (then Texas A&I) by Minnesota in 1990. His breakthrough year came in 1991 when he had 9.5 sacks. After that he had double-figures sacks eight straight years including his league-leading 15.5 in 1997. He joined Seattle in 2001 and, that year, scored the only touchdown of his career, an end-zone fumble recovery against the New York Giants. Randle was the highest paid defensive lineman in NFL history when he signed a deal in 1998. He was hard to ignore for his skill and his talking, earning the nickname Motor Mouth. He even did the research on his opponents to support his trash talking.
Randle played predominantly on the inside of the line, but played on the end in 1991 when he made the first eight starts of his career. He also played end during his final three seasons with the Vikings before moving back to the inside with Seattle. In his 14 years he played on only two losing teams. Randle forced 28 fumbles and recovered 11 over his career.
6 DeMarcus Ware
Ware came to Denver in 2014 after nine seasons with Dallas, where he led the NFL in sacks in 2008 and ’10 when he had 20.0 and 15.5, respectively. He was a four-time All-Pro during his years with the Cowboys. Ware came to Dallas as a 2005 first-round draft pick, no 11 overall. As a collegian he played at Troy (Alabama) and was the Sun Belt Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year his senior season. He came along quickly as a rookie, recording sacks in four straight games. His finest all-around year may have come in 2006 when he scored an interception-return touchdown, fumble-return TD, forced five fumbles and recorded 11.5 sacks. The 2014 season was kind of a big offseason for Denver.
In addition to signing Ware, they also brought in Emmanuel Sanders on the other side of the ball. Ware had 10 sacks that year. The following season he got off to a big start in a year that would culminate in the Super Bowl, earning AFC Defensive Player of the Month for September.
5 Richard Dent
The Super Bowl MVP in the Chicago Bears victory over the New England Patriots at the end of 1985, Dent was one of the finest pass rushers of his time. He entered the NFL as an eighth-round draft choice out of Tennessee State in 1983 and played 15 seasons in a Hall-of-Fame career. The 1985 Bears are considered one of the best defenses of all time. That season he led the league with 17 sacks that year as the team held six opponents to seven points or less. In the NFC Playoffs they shut out both of the opponents they faced. Dent had a career-high 17.5 sacks the previous season, the first of five straight years in which he had more than 10 sacks. After 11 seasons with the Bears, he moved on to San Francisco, and returned to Chicago for one more season in 1995 before moving on again to Indianapolis in 1996 before closing out his career with Philadelphia the following season. But it was with the 1993 Chicago team that he started 16 games for the final time.
After that he opened only four games, becoming strictly a passing-down specialist. For his career, he had 137.5 sacks, eight interceptions, 37 forced fumbles, 13 recoveries, two defensive touchdowns, and one safety.
4 Cortez Kennedy
During his Hall of Fame career with the Seattle Seahawks, Kennedy wore no. 96 in all seasons but one, 1992, when he wore no. 99 to honor the late Jerome Brown. Like Kennedy, Brown played at the University of Miami, though they did not play together. In 1992, Kennedy was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, no small feat for a player laboring on a team that led the league in punts and required its defense to play on little rest. The Seahawks traded up in the 1990 draft to take Kennedy no. 3 overall. He spent his entire 11-year career for Seattle, and was named All-Pro three times, and chosen to the Pro Bowl in eight seasons. Kennedy played at over 300 pounds and supplied an inside rush, recording 58.0 career sacks. His only touchdown came in a win over San Diego in the 1998 season, when he returned a fumble 39 yards.
The Kennedy-era Seahawks made the playoffs only in 1999, and were defeated in his only postseason game. He intercepted two passes that year, the first two INTs of his career. Things were different in his two years at Miami, when the Hurricanes went 22-2 with a 13-game winning streak.
3 Cornelius Bennett
Drafted second overall by Indianapolis in 1987, Bennett didn’t play for the Colts until 1999, closing out his career in two seasons with the team. As a rookie holdout, he was involved in one of the biggest blockbuster trades of his time, going to Buffalo as part of the three-team deal that sent Eric Dickerson from the Los Angeles Rams to Indianapolis. Bennett, an outside linebacker, spent nine years with the Bills, was an All-Pro in 1988, and a five-time Pro Bowler. In 1990, Bennett was one of three Buffalo LBs, along with Shane Conlan and Darryl Talley, to be selected to the Pro Bowl. That was the first of three seasons in which the team won the AFC Championship. Bennett forced no less than five fumbles during a rookie season in which he played only eight games.
Between Buffalo and Indianapolis, Bennett played three seasons with Atlanta, culminating with their NFC Championship-winning season of 1998. He played at Alabama as a collegian and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2005.
2 Jessie Armstead
An eighth-round draft choice for 1993, Armstead was selected by the New York Giants out of Miami. He spent nine seasons with New York before closing out his career in two years with the Washington Redskins. Armstead was an All-Pro in 1997, the first of five straight seasons in which he was selected to the Pro Bowl. He scored the winning points in a 1995 Giants win over Arizona with a 58-yard interception-return touchdown in overtime. No. 98 was a departure for Armstead, who wore no. 1 as a collegian. During his 12-year career, he recorded 40.0 sacks, 12 interceptions, 13 forced fumbles, nine recoveries, two defensive touchdowns, and one safety.
At Miami, he was joined by Micheal Barrow and Darrin Smith in a linebacking corps that was bantered about as one of college football’s best of all time. Barrow and Smith were second-round draft choices, but Armstead lasted much later due to a knee injury sustained in his sophomore season. Among them, Armstead was the only one to be named All-Pro or reach the Pro Bowl, though Barrow and Smith had slightly longer careers.
1 J.J. Watt
The 11th overall pick of the 2011 draft, he has played on both sides of the ball at times. He was the second D-Line player taken in the 2011 draft following a collegiate career that began at Central Michigan, where he played tight end. He transferred to Wisconsin and played two seasons with the Badgers. Watt helped lead the team to an 11-1 record going into bowl season in 2010. He has been limited to three games this year due to back surgery, though he is coming off his third NFL Defensive Player of the Year award over a four-year span. Watt led the NFL in sacks in 2012 and ’15 with 20.5 and 17.5 sacks, respectively. He also had 20.5 sacks in 2014. He also chipped in on offense in 2014, catching three touchdown passes. He also scored two defensive touchdowns and recorded a safety.
Watt’s first career touchdown came in the playoffs at the end of his rookie season when he intercepted a pass and took it 29 yards for a tie breaking score, giving Houston a 17-10 halftime lead in their victory over Cincinnati.
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