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. 51
Best player: Falcons C Alex Mack (2016-20)
Honorable mentions: Falcons LB Demorrio Williams (2004-07), Dream F Jessica Breland (2018-19)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 51: 57
Summary: An argument could be made that Alex Mack is one of the most important free-agent signings in Falcons history. Not the best, mind you, but the most important. Looking back, the stats actually weren’t as poor as I remembered, but fans who witnessed the 2014 and 2015 seasons understand how much of an Achilles heel the offensive line was for Atlanta.
The team added a great veteran piece in Andy Levitre in 2015, but the Mack signing in 2016 really opened things up. A perfect move center for Kyle Shanahan’s outside-zone scheme, Mack not only had the athleticism but the intelligence to elevate Atlanta’s offense. His ability to make the offensive line checks at the line of scrimmage allowed Matt Ryan to really survey the defense and focus on coverages. But really all you need to know is that he played in the Super Bowl on a broken leg. For that, he is a legend.
Jersey No. 52
Best player: Falcons LB Matt Stewart (2001-04)
Honorable mentions: Braves P John Thomson (2004-06)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 52: 44
Summary: Drafted by the Falcons in the fourth round of the 2001 draft, Matt Stewart did develop into a three-year starter at right outside linebacker. Unfortunately, he never played on a second contract for Atlanta – which is pretty much indicative of the history with this number – but Stewart was a decent player for a good group that included Keith Brooking and Chris Draft. He helped the Falcons win the NFC South and reach the NFC Championship Game in 2004, finishing with 71 tackles, the third-most on the team. During his four-year run in Atlanta, Stewart recorded 239 tackles, 22 tackles for a loss, seven sacks and five fumble recoveries.
A quick note about John Thomson. When I was like 12 or 13, my family went to a Braves game. I had recently begun playing fantasy baseball and it was Thomson’s turn on the mound that day. Looking over the stats, I saw that Thomson – as a pitcher – had a .750 batting average! He had another hit that day, and I was sold. As soon as I got home, I added him to my team and dusted off the mantle for my eventual trophy. I envisioned Thomson as my team’s very own Shohei Ohtani. Turns out it was only the second week of the season and he’d had all of 6 plate appearances. I ended up regretting adding him as a starting pitcher.
Jersey No. 53
Best player: Falcons LB Mike Peterson (2009-12)
Honorable mentions: Hawks PF Cliff Levingston (1984-90)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 53: 33
Summary: Mike Peterson was at times considered among the very best linebackers in the league during the first decade of his career. The tail end of his NFL run came in Atlanta, where he reunited with his former defensive coordinator, Mike Smith. Peterson was still a starter during his first two seasons and played at a relatively high level. As the game changed and Peterson’s age caught up with him, however, he became more of an asset in the locker room than on the field. Still, Peterson was cause for excitement when the Falcons landed him, and he did what was expected of him in Atlanta.
Cliff Levingston was a part-time starter during the Dominique Wilkins era for the Atlanta Hawks, but he was primarily the team’s sixth man. His most memorable moment for Atlanta is likely his missed shot with four seconds left in a 2-point loss to the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Nevertheless, Levingston was a reliable part of a great Hawks run, and he went on to win two rings with the Chicago Bulls.
Jersey No. 54
Best player: Falcons LB Fulton Kuykendall (1975-84)
Honorable mentions: Braves P Kris Medlen (2009-13), Falcons LB Chris Draft (2000-04), Falcons LB Foye Oluokun (2018-20)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 54: 37
Summary: Part of Atlanta’s legendary “Grits Blitz” defense, Fulton Kuykendall was known as “Kaptain Krazy” for the reckless abandon he played with on the gridiron. There weren’t a ton of individual stats recorded during the era in which Kuykendall played, but comments from former teammates and coaches have assured me that he was the real deal. Plus, the performances of the defenses he was a part of speak for themselves. Atlanta’s early NFL featured some very good linebackers, and Kuykendall deserves to be included among that group.
Remember that amazing 2012 season when Kris Medlen magically turned into like the best pitcher in baseball? Here’s a quick refresher. Medlen started out the year as part of the Braves rotation, but injuries to the starting rotation and struggles by Medlen led to him being sent down to the minors to prep for a possible starting role. When he came back to Atlanta, Medlen stayed in the bullpen for a while before lighting the world on fire as a starter. In the back half of the season, Medlen started 12 games and posted a perfect 9-0 record with an unconscious 0.97 ERA. What a fun time.
Jersey No. 55
Best player: Falcons DE John Abraham (2006-12)
Honorable mentions: Hawks C Dikembe Mutombo (1996-01), Falcons LB Paul Worrilow (2013-16), Falcons LB Ralph Ortega (1975-78)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 55: 29
Summary: It’s a real shame for the Hawks that one of the best defensive ends in Atlanta history wore No. 55, but that jersey belongs to The Predator. John Abraham should also go down as one of the Falcons’ best free-agent signings, and the team has not yet since found a reliable edge rusher of his caliber. Abraham posted double-digit sacks in four of his seven seasons with the Falcons, including a career-high 16.5 during the 2008 season. Abraham is behind only Claude Humphrey in career sacks for the Falcons, and he finished with 68.5 – an average of nearly 10 sacks per season. Few defensive players since have been as persistently threatening to offenses for Atlanta as Abraham.
A Hawks player so famous they included him in a commercial for car insurance. Dikembe Mutombo is renowned for his shot-blocking prowess, and that includes his five-season run in Atlanta. Mutombo averaged over three blocks per game for the Hawks while also contributing nearly 12 points per game on offense. Mutombo helped Atlanta reach the playoffs in three of the four seasons he finished the year with the team, proving he was much more than a gimmick blocker.
Next up: Nos. 56-60
Who is the best player to wear a No. 51-55?
This poll is closed