If you try to remember some of the most memorable Falcons of all-time, several numbers will begin to emerge in your mind. Some of those numbers become more frequent and it starts to become a unforgettable number in franchise history. The number 56 can be classified as one of the most significant numbers in Falcons history.
It features a linebacker from Georgia Tech, who played 11 years for his home team. A legendary pass-rusher that was elected into the 2012 Hall Of Fame. We also can't forget about a true fan-favorite linebacker from Missouri and his brilliant trademark celebration? This is truly one of the greatest numbers in Falcons history. Here are the list of players, who wore the number 56 in Falcons history.
OLB/MLB: Keith Brooking
The hometown hero grew up in Senoia, Georgia. Atlanta used their first-round pick on him in the 1998 draft. While expectations were high immediately, nobody expected him to become a five-time Pro Bowler. Brooking didn't become a full starter until 2001. The former Yellow Jacket still played a pivotal role in nickel packages earlier in his career, particularly during the 1998 Super Bowl run. His first season as a starter was at middle linebacker, which never seemed like an ideal fit for him. Brooking was a bit undersized, yet still did his job diligently.
From 2001 to 2005, Brooking made the Pro Bowl. That achievement tied him for the franchise record of most Pro Bowl appearances. He was consistently amongst the top five in tackles every season. There weren't many linebackers that can make sideline to sideline plays like him. While his play started to decline in 2007, he was still vital in keeping the locker room afloat during tough times. From Jim Mora Jr's shenanigans to Bobby Petrino's cowardice, Brooking was one of the few leaders in the locker room.
It's still difficult to digest Brooking getting beat by Stephen Spach on third and sixteen to end Atlanta's fairytale season in 2008. The fifteen-year veteran will always be considered a far better player at outside linebacker, where he was able to freelance more and take on less blockers. While his time in Dallas and Denver didn't lead to many positive memories, Brooking will always be remembered as an outstanding player. He eventually retired in 2013 to end a remarkable career.
C: Joe Cerne
Cerne was the first ever Slovenian to play in the NFL. The former second round pick out of Northwestern played three seasons with San Francisco. He signed with Atlanta in 1968 and played one season as a backup. After not living up to expectations, Cerne wasn’t re-signed and his career ended in 1969.
OLB: Darion Conner
It’s rare to see a linebacker play fifteen seasons, despite his career not fully taking place in the NFL. Conner was selected in the second round of the 1990 draft. He developed into a solid linebacker for the Falcons through the early 1990’s. Atlanta decided not to re-sign him following the 1993 season. Conner signed with New Orleans and became an instant hit immediately. He had a career high ten-and-half sacks, which proved his worth as a pass-rusher in the 3-4 scheme. Carolina selected him in the expansion draft, which didn’t work well for both teams.
Conner was ineffective as a pass rusher, which led to Philadelphia and Cleveland giving him opportunities to resurrect his career. That never came to fruition, as Conner ended up signing with the Tampa Bay Storm in the AFL. He played seven more seasons to conclude a successful career. Unfortunately, his life off the field was in complete disarray. Conner was arrested seven times, which includes five arrests for DUI. The disgraced linebacker is currently serving a fifteen-year sentence in prison for killing a biker.
DE: Joe Costello
Costello was a career backup through his three seasons in Atlanta. Other than starting four games in 1987, the run stuffer was seldom used. Costello played one season for the Los Angeles Raiders. Nothing substantial came from that move. His career was over by 1989.
DE: Chris Doleman
Atlanta was fortunate enough to have the legendary defensive end for two seasons. The fourth overall pick of the 1985 draft played nine seasons in Minnesota, while earning a plethora of awards. From being a three time All-Pro to being on the 1990’s All-Decade Team; Doleman was an absolute nightmare for opposing tackles. At thirty-three years old, he signed with Atlanta and was still relatively productive. Doleman produced 16 sacks in two seasons, which is impressive for a player close to their mid thirties.
When you thought he was slowly declining, Doleman took his game to another level by producing three double-digit sack seasons for San Francisco. At 37 years old, Doleman was tied for third in the league with 15 sacks. Unfortunately, the future Hall Of Famer never quite played at an elite level in Atlanta. That doesn’t discount his achievements of being one of the greatest pass rushers of all-time.
RG: Dennis Havig
Havig was drafted in the eighth round of the 1971 draft. He exceeded expectations by playing four seasons with Atlanta, along with starting every game at right guard. Eventually, his play teetered off, which led to him not being re-signed following the 1975 season. Houston and Green Bay gave him opportunities, yet Havig struggled to secure a starting position. His career ended in 1978, which concluded a respectable six-year career.
MLB: Ron McCartney
Despite being a second round pick in the 1976 draft, McCartney never started an NFL game. The former Volunteer was a backup linebacker for three seasons with Atlanta. He wasn’t re-signed following the 1979 season and wasn’t signed by another team.
OLB: Al Richardson
The 1980 defensive rookie of the year had one of the greatest rookie seasons in NFL history. Richardson had seven interceptions, along with recovering three fumbles for the NFC West divisional champions. He was on the verge of becoming the next huge defensive star. It was pretty monumental, considering Richardson was an eighth round draft pick. Unfortunately for him, that rookie year will essentially be remembered as a one-hit wonder. Richardson struggled with injuries between 1982 and 1983. A fractured shoulder blade hindered his ability to get back to his rookie form.
At 28 years old, the former Yellow Jacket was cut during preseason of the 1986 season. No other team gave him an opportunity. It’s rare to see such a special rookie season followed by forgettable seasons that were derailed by injuries and poor play. Richardson could have been one of the better defensive players in Falcons history.
OLB: Guy Roberts
Roberts only played one season for Atlanta. After an underwhelming four seasons with Houston, he was looking to possibly become a starter for the first time of his career. That never came to fruition, as Roberts never moved up the depth chart. Miami gave him an opportunity in 1977, but released him after four games. That was last team he played for in the NFL.
OLB: Sean Weatherspoon
It was only five months ago, when Weatherspoon decided to not re-sign with Atlanta. I wrote a farewell piece for one of the most talented defensive players in the past decade for the franchise. It has become well documented that the Falcons defense has been below average for the majority of the past decade. That being said, the defense was relatively solid in 2011 and 2012. Weatherspoon played 29 out of 32 games between both seasons. His versatility in coverage and play against the run was pivotal for both playoff teams. Mike Smith may have never won a playoff game, if it wasn’t for Weatherspoon forcing Marshawn Lynch to fumble on a critical first quarter drive.
Injuries have derailed Weatherspoon's career over the past two seasons. He seemed to be a shell of himself in 2013 from coming off the short-term injured reserve list. The former first-round pick will now look to prove critics wrong in Arizona. It was disappointing for many fans to witness his departure. They saw him as a potential defensive leader, which the team has lacked, since Keith Brooking wasn't re-signed in 2009. Expectations were extremely high for him following an outstanding 2011 season. Those expectations were never met and the organization felt it was time to move on.
Despite featuring several talented players, there is only one clear cut choice for the best number 56 in Falcons history. Doleman's credentials as a Hall Famer are well-documented and fans will always cherish his two seasons in Atlanta. Two seasons aren't good enough to overtake eleven seasons of hard work and five Pro Bowls. Brooking is unquestionably the greatest number 56 in Falcons history. Nobody has come close to replacing his leadership over the past five seasons.
His willingness to always playing hard through the most difficult times (2006-2007) and shining through the most positive times (2002 and 2004) should be admired. It's hard to see any fellow Georgia or Georgia Tech player will ever come close to matching Brooking's accomplishments.