Looking at possible numbers for the NFL to retire league-wide

Looking at possible numbers for the NFL to retire league-wide

The NFL is now the only big-four pro sports league in North America to not have a number retired throughout the league

We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Image for article titled Looking at possible numbers for the NFL to retire league-wide
Photo: Getty Images

The NFL is now the only big-four pro sports league in North America to not have a number retired throughout the league. The NBA retired Bill Russell’s No. 6 earlier this month after his death. Major League Baseball gave that honor to Jackie Robinson’s No. 42, while the NHL has barred anyone from donning Wayne Gretzky’s No. 99 again.

The NFL is the second-youngest of the four leagues only besting the NBA. And oddly enough, a league that’s constantly loaded with star power in the Super Bowl era doesn’t have a long list of names that jump out as distinct possibilities. The most popular sports league in America might not want to pursue this venture. But that doesn’t stop me.

I’ve narrowed the possibilities of worthy NFL league-wide jersey retirees to 10, some for obvious reasons, some with the same parallels made in other sports, and a few complex choices. One jersey retirement would be more for someone who never played a game in the NFL. Weird right? Well, let’s get started.

Advertisement

2 / 12

Tom Brady

Tom Brady

Image for article titled Looking at possible numbers for the NFL to retire league-wide
Photo: Getty Images

The 45-year-old Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback kicks off our countdown as the only active player deserving of consideration. He’s beyond the backstretch of his career, already retiring for 40 days this offseason and delaying Blaine Gabbert’s rise to superstardom. After less than six weeks with Gisele and the kids — and presumably kissing his son on the lips — Brady decided further risking CTE would be more fun.

With the NHL retiring Gretzky’s jersey league-wide at the 2000 NHL All-Star Game, less than a year after his retirement, hockey’s designation that the best to ever play the sport deserves the distinction can translate to the NFL. How you define the NFL’s GOAT is much harder than its on-ice contemporary.

If it’s based on the number of Super Bowls won, Brady stands alone atop that list with seven. He also won his Lombardi Trophies over a 20-season span, a nearly impossible feat to replicate. Yes, No. 12’s detractors will shout about being a system guy, Deflategate, Spygate, and anything that sticks when it comes to Brady. His results speak for themselves, however, which the NFL clearly cares more about.

Advertisement

3 / 12

Jerry Rice

Jerry Rice

Image for article titled Looking at possible numbers for the NFL to retire league-wide
Photo: Getty Images

My pick for the greatest NFL player per position in history is Rice, who already has the FCS’ most outstanding freshman award named after him, with former winners including Cooper Kupp and Trey Lance. His career accomplishments are unmatched and anyone who argues Rice isn’t the greatest wide receiver of all time truly has to gerrymander their standards.

Here’s just a little snippet of Rice’s accolades: He’s the NFL’s all-time leader in receiving yards (22, 895), pass receptions (1,549), all-purpose yards (23,546), receiving touchdowns (197), and total touchdowns (208). Rice has also won three Super Bowls and was a 10-time first-team All-Pro selection.

His No. 80 is already retired by the 49ers and the timing of letting his jersey hang around NFL stadiums would be strange. Yet, if anyone deserves the honor regardless of team accomplishments, not many have a stronger argument than Rice.

Advertisement

4 / 12

Lawrence Taylor

Lawrence Taylor

Image for article titled Looking at possible numbers for the NFL to retire league-wide
Photo: Getty Images

This selection is purely for his gridiron accomplishments (sorry Joe Theismann) and not his antics, for lack of a better word, off of it. Defensive players deserve some love and Taylor was the best defender in NFL history. The Giants retired his No. 56 long ago and he’s a two-time Super Bowl champion.

As amazing as a 10-time Pro Bowler and an eight-time first-team All-Pro selection would be, his off-field lifestyle likely makes this honor impossible. Taylor admitted to using cocaine during his NFL career and served a suspension in 1988 for failed drug tests. He’s also served three jail sentences for drug possession.

Taylor was also arrested in 2010 for having sex with an underage girl, a charge to which he pleaded guilty. Having a registered low-risk sex offender have his jersey hanging around NFL stadiums sends the wrong message. It’d be a public-relations disaster for a league that clearly doesn’t have a pulse when it comes to moral clarity in the first place.

Advertisement

5 / 12

Jim Brown

Jim Brown

Image for article titled Looking at possible numbers for the NFL to retire league-wide
Photo: Getty Images

Running back is one of the few positions in the NFL where one or two elite players don’t separate themselves from the rest, claiming to be the best to ever do it. The conversation isn’t complete without Brown. While he’s had legal troubles like Taylor, his rap sheet is nowhere near as long and arduous.

Brown was invited to the Pro Bowl every year he was in the league and it’d be great to give him his flowers while still alive. The 86-year-old Brown hasn’t played in the NFL in nearly 60 years and giving the honor to someone who helped form the league in the pre-Super Bowl era would be a nice touch.

There could be a renewed interest in Brown after he was portrayed in two recent movies — “One Night in Miami” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” The 1964 NFL champion and three-time NFL MVP is still No. 11 in all-time rushing yards (12,312) and is the only running back in the top 30 of that list to have retired before 1970.

Advertisement

6 / 12

Otto Graham

Otto Graham

Image for article titled Looking at possible numbers for the NFL to retire league-wide
Photo: Getty Images

While Brown is a well-remembered legend, giving a league-wide retirement to a more-forgotten superstar would be an awesome way to prop someone up. And there’s no better fit for that than Graham. The longtime Cleveland Browns quarterback died in 2003 and honoring the 20-year anniversary of his passing could be a nice touch.

It’s been almost 70 years since Graham retired, doing so during Dwight Eisenhower’s first term as President. He’s a three-time NFL champion and has a trio of MVPs to his name. Not having palpable buzz around his name shouldn’t deter his selection if the NFL wanted to honor someone from a long time ago.

It’d be tough for the NFL to retire a quarterback’s typical jersey number without grandfathering a bunch of players. Graham wore No. 14 for the latter part of his career after the league required positions to wear certain numbers. Having the No. 60 displayed in Graham’s honor would be a lot easier.

Advertisement

7 / 12

Walter Payton

Walter Payton

Image for article titled Looking at possible numbers for the NFL to retire league-wide
Photo: Getty Images

Here would be my choice. Payton not only falls into hockey’s choice of choosing one of the GOATs, but is a similar choice to the NBA giving Bill Russell that distinction. Not only was Rusell one of the best to ever participate in sport but his humanitarian efforts skyrocket his profile, much like Payton.

There’s a reason the league has the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, given to someone because of their volunteer work combined with on-field ability. The FCS’ equivalent of the Heisman Trophy is named for Payton. He’s as strong a combination of durability and ferocity as the running-back position has ever seen.

Payton is still second all-time in career rushing yards (16,726), only trailing Emmitt Smith. His entire playing career was during Pete Rozelle’s tenure as league commissioner and his name resonates with current NFL fans as well as any who last suited up in the 1980s. I can’t see much backlash for making this happen.

Advertisement

8 / 12

Kenny Washington

Kenny Washington

Image for article titled Looking at possible numbers for the NFL to retire league-wide
Photo: AP

Major League Baseball was the first big-four professional sports league to retire a jersey number league-wide with Jackie Robinson’s No. 42. Here’s the NFL equivalent in Washington, who debuted in the NFL in 1946, a year before his UCLA teammate Robinson started with the Dodgers. There were Black players in professional football prior to Washington, like Robinson in baseball, but Washington broke the NFL’s post-World War II color barrier and officially integrated the league.

George Halas wanted Washington to play for his Bears team but pressure from the publicly owned Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum created the necessary pressure for Washington to play for the Rams. Washington, a running back, finished his NFL career with only eight touchdowns and 859 yards. His contribution to the league still looms large.

Advertisement

9 / 12

Pat Tillman

Pat Tillman

Image for article titled Looking at possible numbers for the NFL to retire league-wide
Photo: AP

After playing for the Arizona Cardinals for four seasons, Tillman enlisted in the US Army as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks. He served for several tours of Afghanistan before being killed by friendly fire in 2004, three years after the end of his NFL career. The Cardinals and Arizona State have both already retired Tillman’s No. 40 and No. 42 jerseys, respectively.

Honoring the 20th anniversary of his passing would be really cool, even if he doesn’t have the ideal on-field credentials. It’s a shame newer NFL fans don’t know Tillman’s story. This would be a great introduction for them.

Advertisement

10 / 12

Brian Piccolo

Brian Piccolo

Image for article titled Looking at possible numbers for the NFL to retire league-wide
Photo: Getty Images

The NFL just missed the 50-year anniversary of his passing. The close friend of Gale Sayers, as shown in the movie “Brian’s Song,” Piccolo passed away at 26 from embryonal cell carcinoma, a rare type of cancer. Piccolo died nearly 30 years before any league retired jersey numbers, so the moment may have passed.

However, Wake Forest and the Bears retired Nos. 31 and 41 respectively in his honor. Piccolo had five career touchdowns in the NFL in five seasons, much of the glory going to Sayers, one of the best running backs of all time.

Advertisement

11 / 12

Junior Seau

Junior Seau

Image for article titled Looking at possible numbers for the NFL to retire league-wide
Photo: Getty Images

Instead of giving the honor of league-wide retirement to a GOAT, honoring integration, a great humanitarian, or past personal tragedy, shining a light on a current NFL epidemic would be a great sign that the NFL is focused on stopping it. Seau, a great linebacker and longtime San Diego Charger, has been at the forefront of talks about CTE. 

Seau died by suicide in 2012, and tests found he had the brain disease believed to be caused by repeated head trauma. His No. 55 is already retired by the Chargers. As a Pro Football Hall of Famer, combining the awareness he’d bring to CTE with his on-field play, Seau would be a great choice to earn the first-team honor.

Advertisement

12 / 12