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. 66
Best player: OT Warren Bryant (1977-84)
Honorable mentions: None
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 66: 19
Summary: Look, six is the worst single-digit number – that’s just science. But if I had to wear a jersey starting in the sixties, I’m doubling down and going with 66. Apparently I’m in the minority there, however, because only 19 athletes in Atlanta history have worn this number. The best of them is Falcons offensive tackle Warren Bryant. Bryant was a good right tackle and a full-time starter for most of his eight years in Atlanta. The sixth overall pick in the 1977 NFL Draft, Bryant was a member of the All-Rookie Team and started 14 games right out of the gate.
Jersey No. 67
Best player: Falcons G Andy Levitre (2015-18)
Honorable mentions: Falcons DT Moe Gardner (1991-96)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 67: 24
Summary: Moe Gardner had a really good run for the Falcons in the 90s, starting 85 games across six seasons and finishing with 446 tackles. That’s a crazy number for a defender who rotated between nose tackle and defensive tackle throughout his career. Still, even if he was in Atlanta for a shorter time, I think Andy Levitre was the better player.
Levitre arrived in Atlanta one year prior to Alex Mack, but a case could be made that duo was as responsible as any for the Falcons’ Super Bowl run in 2016. Levitre was absolutely sensational that season, playing 98 percent of the team’s snaps and earning an 85.6 grade from PFF, which ranked fourth among guards. Unfortunately, Levitre missed most of his final season due to injury, but he was superb during his three full years.
Jersey No. 68
Best player: Falcons G R.C. Thielemann (1977-84)
Honorable mentions: None
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 68: 22
Summary: Fun fact: There are only three players listed with the initials “R.C.” in Pro Football Reference, and Raymond Charles Thielemann is one of them. A second-round pick in the 1977 NFL Draft, Thielemann was a full-time starter at guard for each of his eight seasons with the Falcons. Once he gained experience, Thielemann established himself as one of the best guards in the entire NFL. He made three straight Pro Bowls from 1981-83 and was named a first-team All-Pro in 1982. Thielemann reached the playoffs three times while in Atlanta, but he won a Super Bowl with Washington in 1987.
Small shoutout to Braves relief pitcher Tyler Matzek, who currently wears No. 68.
Jersey No. 69
Best player: Falcons DT Mike Lewis (1971-79)
Honorable mentions: Falcons G Houston Hoover (1988-92)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 69: 9
Summary: After joining the Falcons as an undrafted free agent, Mike Lewis developed into a longtime starter at defensive tackle. We often talk about undersized defensive tackles like that’s suddenly been a new occurrence, but at 6-foot-4 and 261 pounds, Lewis proves that’s not the case. Even at that size, Lewis was very productive.
He accrued 25 sacks across his nine seasons in Atlanta, including a career-high eight in 1975. Lewis also had one career interception, and we all know how exciting it is when a defensive lineman gets a pick. One other little serendipitous nugget: Lewis started 96 games for Atlanta while wearing No. 69. Nice.
Jersey No. 70
Best player: Falcons OT Bob Whitfield (1992-2003)
Honorable mentions: Falcons OT Jake Matthews (2014-present), Falcons G Dave Scott (1976-82)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 70: 17
Summary: Bob Whitfield also belongs on the list of players who have been a bit overlooked as the years go by. Especially among linemen, availability and consistency are critical. Whitfield was had both of those things in spades. The eighth overall pick in the 1992 NFL Draft started 167 games across 12 seasons for Atlanta, which ranks among the most in franchise history. He started all but one game from 1993-2002 and made the Pro Bowl in 1998 after easily the best season of his career. Whitfield had a tendency to rack up the penalties and wasn’t a superstar, but he was still terrific and absolutely belongs on the shortlist for all-time great Falcons linemen.
Speaking of all-time Falcons linemen, how about Jake Matthews? Another incredible player who I don’t think gets the recognition he deserves. I get it, the offensive line isn’t fun and we only really care when something negative happens. But we are spoiled by Matthews being the offensive line equivalent of having Matt Ryan at quarterback. As soon as you don’t have a left tackle, it becomes a massive need for an organization. The Falcons haven’t had that concern since 2014—he’s now entering his eighth NFL season, incredibly—and I don’t expect them to as long as Matthews is around.
Next Up: Nos. 71-75
Who is the best player to wear No. 66-70?
This poll is closed