Uniform Numbers of the NFL: All-Time Rosters, Facts and Figures
When New Orleans Saints All Pro linebacker Pat Swilling signed with the Detroit Lions as a free agent in 1993, there was one hangup, his uniform number. Swilling had always worn 56 in New Orleans, but in Detroit 56 belonged to Joe Schmidt in whose name it has been retired. The Lions contacted Schmidt, and he gladly consented to let Swilling wear 56. At the Silverdome ceremony when Schmidt presented 56 to Swilling, he said, "I understand how a number is important to some people, and I'm happy to do this if it's part of making Pat feel more comfortable here. When you go out on the field that number becomes a part of you. It's an emotional and spiritual part of a player."
Uniform numbers conjure vivid memories in sports, and, in football where faces are hidden under helmets, players almost become their number. 19 is John Unitas; 4 is Brett Favre; 22 is Emmitt Smith, and 32 is Jim Brown. Players and fans both develop strong attachments to particular numbers and superstitions about others. Stories abound concerning players in all sports making deals with new teammates to secure their favorite number. Rob Burnett reportedly paid Adewale Ogunleye enough money to make a down payment on a house so that he could wear 90 in Miami; Jim Burt gave Rollin Putzier three cases of beer to wear 64 in San Francisco; Lonnie Marts simply gave 56 to Hardy Nickerson with no strings attached when Nickerson joined Jacksonville; when Washington safety Ifeanyi Ohalete, who had refused to give up 26 to Chad Morton in 2003, turned down Clinton Portis in 2004, Portis challenged him to a boxing match for the number. Fans spend a great deal of money purchasing the jerseys of their favorite players. Manufacturers not only make money meeting that demand, but have found a new market by producing retro jerseys of former players in the original styles. These are sported by both fans and players paying homage to the "old school" look.
Popular broadcaster John Madden took on the unusual duty of assigning uniform numbers to his players when he coached the Oakland Raiders in the 1970s because, "I've always felt that you can put a number on a person that tells about that person. Certain numbers have certain characteristics." In his book One Size Doesn't Fit All, Madden explains some of those characteristics and even fits them to non-athletes. 32, for example, "is a skills number, but it also fits people with some hardness." Thus, it fits O.J. Simpson and Raider safety Jack Tatum, but according to Madden, it also fits actress Elizabeth Taylor and boxer Muhammad Ali. Other numbers with characteristics he specifies include 12, "a leader with charisma," 16, "a number with a certain softness about it," 18, "a little classier, someone who's not out in front all the time," and 22, "always a speed number." Some numbers, he insists, carry a physical image. 8 and 9 "are angular you have to be really tall," so for 88 he sees a lanky guy like Pat Summerall. By contrast, Madden's tight end Dave Casper was "not quite tall enough to be an 89, but [was] a perfect 87." On the other hand for short people, "2 is a good number."
One caveat with this view is that it depends on the time frame. Today, a player wearing 98 or 99 is likely either to be a husky defensive lineman or a rugged linebacker; in the 1930s and 1940s he very well could have been a shifty halfback like Tom Harmon or Marshall Goldberg. A hefty tackle in the 1930s might have worn 2, but today that number would only be worn by a kicker or quarterback. The NFL itself legislated this turn of events in the 1952 by outlining what numbers could be worn by which positions. For some teams, that entailed wholesale changes to the game program. The Cleveland Browns had several star players switch numbers in 1952. Actually they were shifting from the old All America Conference numbering scheme to one newly-instituted by the NFL. Tackle Lou Groza went from 46 to 76 while fullback Marion Motley went from 76 to 36. Browns Hall of Fame quarterback Otto Graham wore 60 from 1946-51 and 14 from 1952-5. His jersey is on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, and you can see that instead of issuing him a new jersey, the team simply tore off the 60 and sewed a 14 on to his faded jersey with the outline of the original number still visible. There was no money to waste in those days. Over the years, those league numbering guidelines have been revised slightly and expanded over the full 0-99 spectrum as roster sizes increased.
My own interest in this topic arose from my research on my favorite team, the Green Bay Packers. That initial research I developed into a book I wrote called Packers By the Numbers (Prairie Oak Press, 2003) that provides a history of the team and its players through the uniform numbers that they wore. The success of that project led naturally to this one where I have compiled uniform numbers for all 32 current NFL franchises.
Team web sites and media guides often present a cumulative list of uniform numbers worn by their players. For those teams, that served as my starting point, but several others had to be built entirely from scratch. Even if there was an existing list, it had to be fact-checked and corrected. These lists were not always up-to-date, did not include all the information fields I wanted to include, and featured mistakes of all kinds. Players were missing, their playing years were inaccurate, they had their names misspelled, and were listed as having worn numbers that they didn't. The ultimate source for uniform numbers is the game program, and I have looked at over 1,000 of them, but that is still a fraction of the 10,000 plus game programs these teams would have generated. Many other sources were used for identification, verification and corrections, including team media guides, annual Sporting News Pro Football Guides, contemporary newspaper and periodical sources, Internet resources, and even team pictures. The official NFL encyclopedia, Total Football, was used as the last word on correct names and years of play. I have tried to limit the listings to those who actually appeared in a game, not just on an active roster.
The main problems that had to be addressed fell into three categories: 1) a conflict between two players wearing the same number in the same year, 2) a potential conflict with one player being listed as wearing more than one number in the same year, and 3) a gap when no number is recorded for a player in a particular year or range of years. The first two types of problems sometimes were truly conflicts that had to fixed and other times reflected two players who each played less than a full year or a player actually wearing multiple numbers in the same season. As to the third type of problem, of 30,880 possible player-team combinations, I was unable to find a number for only 141. That success rate of 99.54% is purer than Ivory Snow soap. Of the missing 141, the overwhelming majority is from pre-World War II players and from players who played 3 or fewer games with that team. Players for whom I was unable to find any number or for whom I was unable to confirm their wearing of a particular additional number are listed separately at the end of each chapter and are included in the index. Two other player categories are included in the index: players from NFL team that went out of business since 1933 the year league began to come into its own as a modern sports league and players from defunct All America Conference teams, many of whom played for NFL teams before or after that league folded. Thus, there are 32,424 index entries and 196 feature a question mark rather than a uniform number (99.4%).
Of course my listings are not perfect, but they are my best effort to be complete and accurate. For one thing, even game programs are sometimes wrong and include errors or omissions. Second, if a player wore more than one number in a year, I may not have caught the second number since I have not viewed every game program for every game for every team. Finally, despite thorough fact-checking and proofreading, typographical errors are probably inevitable in a project of this size as well. For any of those I apologize in advance.
In addition to the team listings, each chapter consists of a number of categories of information drawn from those listings. The parameters of these categories are defined below.
The Franchise: A summation of the team covering the ownership, leading
players and coaches, and major events in team history. The city's relationship
with pro football is also noted.
Origin of Name: How the team was given its nickname.
Record By Decade: Regular season and Playoff won/lost records and championship seasons. Plus the number of winning and losing seasons. Information for all teams is compiled and sorted in Appendix B.
Time Till First Championship: Years from the team's inception to its first championship.
Time Since Last Championship: Years since the team last won the title.
Coaches: Regular season and postseason record for all of the team's coaches with championships won in parentheses. Coaches with over 100 regular season wins are listed in Appendix B.
Retired Numbers: Numbers officially set aside by the team in honor of a particular player. They are compiled and listed by number in Appendix B.
Other Numbers worn by these players: if they wore multiple numbers.
Those who wore Retired Numbers after the Honored player: Self explanatory.
Numbers that should be retired: In my subjective opinion which is prejudiced towards Hall of Fame players who were dominant at their positions and leaders on the field.
Owned numbers: Number worn by only one player in team history and then retired. These are compiled and listed by number in Appendix B.
Numbers worn by Hall of Famers: Hall of Famers who spent any portion of their career with the team. These players are in bold type in the chapter listing.
Star power: A lesser light gives up his number to an incoming star player.
Star eclipsed: Star is denied a number because someone else already has it.
Numbers with most great players: In my subjective judgment.
Worst represented numbers: In my subjective judgment.
Number worn by the most players: Self explanatory. The most popular numbers league-wide are included in Appendix B. The highest figure for any team is noted in Appendix B.
Player who wore the most numbers: Self explanatory. Those who wore at least five numbers for one team are compiled in Appendix B, as are those who wore the most numbers for more than one team..
Longest tenure wearing a number: Player who wore a number for the longest time for the team. Those who wore a number for at least 15 years for a team are listed in Appendix B, as are those who wore the same number for the most different teams.
Number worn by first ever draft pick: Self explanatory.
Biggest draft busts: Draft busts are generally from the first 10-15 selections in the first round.
Number worn by first expansion draft pick: Category only appears for the 10 expansion franchises, and not all expansion draft were conducted in easily numerated rounds. Also included is mention of the expansion draft pick who lasted the longest with the club.
Number worn by oldest player: Self explanatory. All players over 40 are listed.
Cameos: Notable veteran players who spent only one year with this team.
Ones who got away: Notable players who spent only a year or two with the team before becoming a star elsewhere.
Least popular numbers: Numbers worn by the fewest players. The least popular numbers league-wide are included in Appendix B. All players who wore 0 or 00 also are listed in Appendix B.
Last number to be originated: Last number to be worn for the first time.
Longest dormant number: Number with the longest period of time between players wearing it. Retired numbers are excluded from this category. Longest dormancy period is listed in Appendix B.
Triskaidekaphobia Notes: Players who wore 13. Sometimes bad luck players who wore other numbers are noted here.
Shared numbers: Number worn by two stars of nearly equal value, especially when they play the same position.
Continuity: Number passed seamlessly from one star to another, preferably at the same position.
Discontinuity: Number made famous by one player that is worn next by a player of decidedly less ability.
Family connections: Two or more brothers and father/son combinations that played for this team.
Quarterback numbers over 19: Category is limited largely to teams that began before 1960 since quarterback numbers were stipulated in 1952 to be below 20. These are compiled and listed by number in Appendix B.
Number of first black player: Category limited to teams that began before 1962 when the last all-white team, the Redskins, finally added black players to their roster. Appendix B lists all 1920s and 1930s black players who played on current teams and those who broke the color barrier in 1946.
Numbers of future NFL head coaches: Numbers worn by NFL head coaches when they were players.
Numbers of future NFL referees: Numbers worn by NFL referees when they were players.
Players who played other sports: These sports include Major League baseball, the NBA and its precursors, Olympic track and field, boxing, and wrestling of all types.
Players more famous after football: Actors, politicians, businessmen and so on.
First player to wear a number in the 70s: Category limited to teams that began prior to 1960. The earliest instance is listed in Appendix B.
First player to wear a number in the 80s: Category limited to teams that began prior to 1960. The earliest instance is listed in Appendix B.
First player to wear a number in the 90s: Category limited to teams that began prior to 1995. The earliest instance is listed in Appendix B.
Number with most points scored: Best combined point total for all players who wore the number for this team.
Number with most yards rushing: Best combined yardage total for all players who wore the number for this team.
Number with most receptions: Best combined reception total for all players who wore the number for this team.
Number with most touchdown passes: Best combined touchdown pass total for all players who wore the number for this team.
Number with most interceptions: Best combined interception total for all players who wore the number for this team.
Oddity: The strange but true category.
Team All-Time Numerical Roster
Players are listed in chronological order for each number. Those with an "r" following the year 1987 were replacement players during the players' strike. The player's position is noted as well. Pro Bowl players and pre-1950 All-Pros for each number are in italics; Hall of Famers are in Bold type.
Finally, in addition to Appendix B noted above, there are three other appendices. Appendix A lists the best players throughout the league to have worn each number. Appendix C lists the numbers worn by players on NFL teams that have ceased to exist since the league instituted significant rules and alignment changes in 1933 that ushered in the beginnings of stability and growth. Appendix D lists the numbers worn by players on the All America Conference teams that went out of business. AAC numbers for the Browns and 49ers are included in their chapter listings. Numbers from Appendices C and D are included in the index.
Special thanks to Chad Reese and the staff at the Pro Football Hall of Fame archives for accommodating me in my research in my trips to Canton and for answering several thorny email queries with pleasant equanimity. George Rugg, the Curator of Special Collections at the University of Notre Dame's Hesburgh Library, was very responsive to my email questions also. Jim Kennedy and Billy McClurg from the PortsmouthSpartans.org web site were very generous with their time and game programs. My Rutgers colleagues continue to show uncommon forbearance towards my research; special thanks goes to my very imaginative boss, Gary Golden. Thanks also to Mary Anne Nesbitt for borrowing countless reels of microfilm from far-flung institutions. Staff at the New York Public Library and Princeton University's Firestone Library as well as the University of Houston and Houston Public Library were helpful, too. My wife Suzanne and daughters Juliane and Katie deserve recognition for their understanding on the lengthy demands on my time in researching and writing this (and all previous) books. I am thankful that the friendly folks at McFarland agreed to take on this book project and have been so helpful in the production process.