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. 56
Best player: Falcons LB Keith Brooking (1998-2008)
Honorable mentions: Falcons LB Al Richardson (1980-85), Falcons LB Sean Weatherspoon (2010-13, 2016-17)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 56: 36
Summary: Keith Brooking was the face of Atlanta’s defense for basically a decade, and the fact that he was born in Georgia and played at Georgia Tech only endeared him to fans even more. Take away his backstory, though, and Brooking would have still been just as popular because of his performance on the field. Things really took off for Brooking in 2001, and he went on a crazy tear from that point for the Falcons. He made five straight Pro Bowls from 2001-05 and started every single game from 2001-08 – that’s 128 straight games for an NFL middle linebacker! In part because of his availability, Brooking also topped 100 tackles in each of those eight seasons and led the league with 126 solo tackles in 2003. Brooking’s game was more akin to the old-school punishing linebacker than the rangy playmaker like Deion Jones, but it was just as much fun to watch him.
A couple of other Falcons linebackers deserve mention. Another former Yellow Jacket, Al Richardson’s 1980 season alone would be enough to get him on this list. As a rookie, Richardson started all 16 games and recorded seven interceptions and three fumble recoveries (tackles were not tracked at this time). His performance that year led to him winning AP Defensive Rookie of the Year and earning All-Pro recognition. Richardson finished his six-year career with nine interceptions and 21.5 sacks.
Although mostly known as a key member of “D Block,” Sean Weatherspoon also moonlit as a pretty good linebacker with a couple of terrific seasons. Atlanta’s first-round pick in 2010, Weatherspoon’s career was marred by lingering injuries, but he was an effective player when on the field and a real asset in the locker room.
Jersey No. 57
Best player: Falcons C Jeff Van Note (1969-86)
Honorable mentions: None
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 57: 21
Summary: As you can tell by the small number of players to ever wear No. 57, the selections are starting to dwindle a little bit. Still, even with all options on the table for any number, Jeff Van Note would be a high draft pick. Atlanta’s starting center for nearly two full decades, Van Note played in 246 games during his 18 seasons with the Falcons, which is the second-longest run for a player with a single team in NFL history. An 11th-round pick in the 1969 draft, Van Note went on to make six Pro Bowls, including four straight from 1979-82.
The coolest part of Van Note’s story, however, is that he was drafted as a linebacker before making the transition over to the offensive side of the ball. Despite his lack of experience, Van Note worked to become one of the true faces of the franchise and one of the best players at the position, league-wide. The Falcons retired Van Note’s No. 57 at halftime of his final home game during the 1986 season.
Jersey No. 58
Best player: Falcons LB Jessie Tuggle (1987-2000)
Honorable mentions: Falcons LB Don Hansen (1969-75), Falcons LB Joel Williams (1979-82, 86-89), Braves P Peter Moylan (2006-12, 2015, 2018)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 58: 18
Summary: Another Falcons Ring of Honor member, Jessie Tuggle is beloved by the team’s fan base. Earning the nickname “The Hammer” due to the ferocity and frequency of his tackles, Tuggle was an incredible bright spot during a period in which there were few for the Falcons. Usually a pretty good mark for a linebacker is 100 tackles in a season – Tuggle had 201(!) during the 1990 season and followed that up with 207(!!) the following year. Almost equally as shocking: He did not make the Pro Bowl in either of those years despite leading the league in tackles.
Tuggle would go on to eventually make five Pro Bowls and lead the league in tackles four times. When he retired in 2001, Tuggle’s five fumble recoveries returned for a touchdown were an NFL record. During his 14 seasons in Atlanta, Tuggle recorded 1,805 tackles, which currently puts him fourth on the all-time tackles list.
Jersey No. 59
Best player: Falcons LB John Rade (1983-91)
Honorable mentions: Falcons LB Michael Boley (2005-08), Falcons LB De’Vondre Campbell (2016-19)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 54: 27
Summary: This is the weakest number on our list so far. Rade was a pretty good linebacker during his nine-year career with the Falcons, but he wasn’t a dominant player. He started a total of 112 games and registered a career-high 145 tackles during the 1990 season. Rade was a reliable tackler for Atlanta, topping the 100-tackle mark in four of his seasons, and as a reliable option for a long time for the Falcons.
Michael Boley and De’Vondre Campbell kind of check the same box in a way. Both outside linebackers were athletic and rangy and filled a key role for their respective defenses while with the team. Unfortunately, neither received a second contract from Atlanta.
Jersey No. 60
Best player: LB Tommy Nobis (1966-76)
Honorable mentions: None
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 60: 11
Summary: This portion of the Atlanta Jersey History series has been filled with Falcons legends, and it ends with Mr. Falcon, himself. Tommy Nobis was the very first pick in Falcons history, and he became one of the very best players the team has ever seen. Nobis was a full-time starter right from the jump and recorded an inhuman 294 tackles as a rookie, a number that remains the Falcons’ all-time single-season record and the unofficial mark for the most tackles by a player in a season in NFL history.
For his efforts, Nobis won Rookie of the Year and made the first of three straight Pro Bowls. He made All-Pro teams his next two seasons and went on to make the Pro Bowl five times during his 11 seasons. No other player in team history has ever worn No. 60, and Nobis was an inaugural member of the Falcons Ring of Honor. Nobis was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1960s, and it’s a true shame that he is not a member of the NFL Hall of Fame.
Next up: Nos. 61-65
Who is the best player to wear No. 56-60?
This poll is closed
Jeff Van Note