What is the best jersey number in Atlanta sports history?
That simple question led me on a journey through time to find the answer. Icons can come packaged in every feasible way. Whether it be in a crisp clean single digit like No. 7 (Michael Vick), a classic like No. 21 (Deion Sanders, Dominique Wilkins) or a relatively unassuming numeral like 31 (Greg Maddux), each of these numbers means something in Atlanta sports lore.
Over the coming weeks, I’ll be unveiling my findings five jersey numbers at a time. I looked at each of the major sports franchises in the city’s history, from the Falcons, Braves, Hawks, Dream, United, Thrashers and Flames, all in order to catalog the definitive list of jersey numbers and whose worn them.
Before we get to the list, a few rules: A player had to play multiple seasons in Atlanta to be considered. I did not include any player who played for a franchise while it was located in another city; they had to have played in Atlanta.
To determine value and talent, I used a value-related stat for each sport such as Wins Above Replacement (baseball) or Point Share (hockey). Sometimes, I will make a subjective call. You may disagree, but that’s the fun of all of this, right? So, feel free to debate in the comments and let’s have a fun walk down memory lane. Let’s go!
Jersey No. 36
Best player: Falcons DB Ken Reaves (1966-73)
Honorable mentions: Falcons S Bob Glazebrook (1978-83), Falcons S Lawyer Milloy (2006-08), Braves OF Gary Matthews (1977-80)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 36: 63
Summary: This isn’t the strongest number in Atlanta sports history, but Ken Reaves was a star during the first days of the Falcons franchise. Part of the team’s inaugural draft class in 1966, Reaves took a season to become a full-time starter but his impact in that role was felt immediately. During the 1967 season, Reaves registered a career-high seven interceptions, and he had two more seasons in which he recorded six interceptions. Reaves helped pave the way for playmaking defensive backs like Deion Sanders, Ray Buchanan and DeAngelo Hall in Atlanta, and while he doesn’t receive the amount of respect he deserves, he’s easily the best No. 36 Atlanta has seen.
Jersey No. 37
Best player: Falcons DB Kenny Johnson (1980-86)
Honorable mentions: Falcons S Ricardo Allen (2015-20), Braves P Rick Camp (1980-85)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 37: 36
Summary: Another great ballhawk to suit up for the Falcons, Kenny Johnson had a penchant for making the most of his turnovers. He led the league with two touchdowns off of fumble recoveries during the 1981 season, and he then led the league with a pair of interception returns for touchdowns during the 1983 season. All told, Johnson picked off a total of 16 passes during his seven years in Atlanta, and he also doubled as a fill-in returner at various points throughout his career. Johnson may not rank about the very best secondary players in Falcons history, but he was very dependable.
Ricardo Allen is another player who fits that bill. Allen used his football IQ to maximize his athletic gifts and establish himself as a respected leader on the back end of Atlanta’s defense. Had he spent the rest of his career with the Falcons, Allen probably owns this spot. Given Johnson’s playmaking skills, however, he got the nod. It’s a shame because Allen is one of the more unique football players to come through Atlanta.
Jersey No. 38
Best player: Thrashers D Yannick Tremblay (1999-04)
Honorable mentions: Falcons DB Rick Byas (1974-1980), Braves P Ron Reed (1966-1975)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 38: 44
Summary: This was a toss-up between three not-great options, so if you feel strongly that either Rick Byas or Ron Reed should take the top spot, cool. I went with Yannick Tremblay because he was a staple in the Thrashers lineup for the better part of five seasons, while Byas was only a starter for three years and Reed never achieved the level of success to make his No. 38 iconic.
Tremblay’s best days were spent in Atlanta after he was selected by the expansion Thrashers in 1999. As a defender, Tremblay still managed to create scoring opportunities for his teammates and he finished with 33 goals of his own.
Jersey No. 39
Best player: D Toby Enstrom (2007-11)
Honorable mentions: Braves P Johnny Venters (2010-11, 2018-19), Falcons RB Steven Jackson (2013-14)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 39: 43
Summary: If this feels like déjà vu, well, I can sympathize. With the No. 39, however, Toby Enstrom at least has a stronger claim. While he only spent four years in Atlanta, Enstrom did at least continue on to be an important player for the franchise after it moved to Winnipeg. As a member of the Thrashers, though, Enstrom was a member of the All-Rookie team in 2008 and competed for multiple All-Star teams. He was a strong player on both ends of the ice, harrying opposing offenses and setting up fellow goal-scorers with great passes. Enstrom is worthy of this spot.
It’s a shame that Steven Jackson's two years with the Falcons didn’t have a better result because he was a very good and reliable running back throughout much of his career. Fans will understand why I couldn’t make him the choice here, though, because his two-year stint in Atlanta was far below that standard.
There was a time when I thought Johnny Venters was going to become my favorite Braves player, period. His stuff was that electric prior to a number of injuries. Alas, that’s part of the game.
Jersey No. 40
Best player: P Mike Soroka (2018-20)
Honorable mentions: Falcons S Brian Jordan (1989-91)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 40: 56
Summary: I’m projecting into the future here a bit and – hoping he returns from yet another injury setback – predicting that Mike Soroka will run away from the pack in a couple of years. His one full season was spectacular and gave us a glimpse of the type of player he can become. In 2019, Soroka posted a 13-4 record with a 2.68 ERA – third-best in the league - and 142 strikeouts. An Achilles injury is nothing to overlook, but if Soroka can get healthy, it shouldn’t change his game too much.
Brian Jordan will always hold a unique spot in Atlanta sports history as a two-sport athlete, but he didn’t have a significant enough run with the Falcons to lay complete claim to No. 40.
Next up: Nos. 41-45
Who is the best player to wear a number 36-40?
This poll is closed