FROM HONUS WAGNER to Magic Johnson, from Satchel Paige to Usain Bolt, the world of sports has always been a treasure trove of onomastic awesomeness. And yet for some reason—maybe because of the way the games are called, with the names of the players spoken slowly and with surpassing gravitas by the Pat Summeralls and Al Michaeles and Marv Alberts of the broadcast booth—the NFL produces the best sports names. I have no objective way of proving this, of course, but if you watch sports, you’re probably nodding your head in agreement right now.
Before we get to the good stuff, a few words about my process. Obviously, there is no scientific method for this sort of thing. Yet most of us would agree that, when it comes to naming a professional athlete, Colt McCoy is a better choice than, say, Philip Rivers. Here are my criteria:
1) The name has to be a name that only works for football. “Tom Brady” is a great name for a quarterback, but Tom Brady could just as easily be the lead singer of the latest indie band, or the protagonist of the new Dan Brown novel. Whereas Daunte Culpepper can only be a football player.
2) The player in question has to be decent—a guy in the Hall of Fame, for the old-timers, or else someone you can remember John Madden or Dan Dierdorf or Cris Collinsworth raving about. This means wonderfully-appellated fringe players like Taco Wallace and Frostee Rucker are ineligible.
3) Ideally, it’s a unique name, one you’ll probably never hear again. There are plenty of dudes named Aaron Rodgers. There is only one Donovan McNabb.
4) Nicknames are usable, as long as the player is primarily known by his nickname; “cognomens” are not. So: Boomer Esiason is fine; William “The Refrigerator” Perry is not.
Dick “Night Train” Lane
Jack “The Assassin” Tatum
Johnny “Lam” Jones
Sam “Bam” Cunningham
And now, the 50 greatest gridiron monikers:
50. Pierre Garçon, WR, Washington Redskins
Sounds like the character from a spy novel written by a seventh grader in his first semester of French 101. Go long, mon ami—there’s a fly in my soup!
49. Hines Ward, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
Apt that a Pittsburgh player should bear the name of a company headquartered there. But why this spelling? Is it for Gregory Hines? Bonus: when you say it fast, it becomes Hein Sword.
48. Dexter Manley, DT, Washington Redskins
If you had the pleasure of watching this gentleman wreak havoc on opposing offenses for the ‘Skins back in the day, you know that his surname was the equivalent of Wilt Chamberlain being Wilt Tall. Dexter, however, is an ironic choice for a man who could not read until he was playing in the NFL.
47. Jerricho Cotchery, WR, New York Jets
My mind likes to move the superfluous r in the first name to the second position in the last, and make him Jericho Crotchery.
46. Mike Singletary, Richard Dent (tie), MLB and DE, Chicago Bears
Singletary is the perfect surname for a middle linebacker, because in the 4-3, there’s only one guy at that position. He’s a single tear-y. And a defensive lineman named Dent? Bang on. Ranked #46 in honor of their vaunted “Super Bowl Shuffle” Bears defense.
45. Lynn Swann, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
Can’t-miss name for a graceful wide-out. Bonus: could also be a minor character in Twilight.
44. Denarius Moore, WR, Oakland Raiders
A denarius, I happen to know, is a silver coin used as currency in the early Roman Empire. This means that Denarius’s name is money. Check that: mo’ money. In a word, he’s mint.
43. Mosi Tatupu, TE, New England Patriots
Special teams standout and father to linebacker Lofa Tatupu, who also played in the NFL. Bonus: his name was used in The Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror III,” during the (arguably racist) King Kong spoof.
42. Richie Incognito, OL, Miami Dolphins
For all we know, he’s Jeff Saturday in disguise!
41. Lincoln Kennedy, OL, Oakland Raiders
Chris Berman should have nicknamed him Lincoln “Had a Secretary Named” Kennedy. No truth to the rumor had he was replaced in the Raiders lineup by a tackle named Johnson Johnson.
40. Osi Umenyiora, DE, New York Giants
Fun words to say—it sounds like an incantation, something Hermoine Granger might utter to make the Slytherin quidditch player screw up. Extra points for the fact that “NY” is smack dab in the middle of his last name.
39. Emerson Boozer, RB, New York Jets
The prep-school first name contrasts beautifully with the lunch-pail surname, itself a combination of booze and bruiser, two words we associate with football. Almost 70, Boozer is better than most of the running backs on the Jets’ current roster.
38. Herschel Walker, RB, Minnesota Vikings
One of the best pure athletes that ever graced the earth, but never a bona fide football star; the Vikings traded about 68 draft picks to get him from the Cowboys, who used those picks to build a juggernaut in the early 90s. The shhh in that first syllable hints at the incredible speed at which Walker did anything but walk by, and the whole first name sounds a bit like hurdle.
37. Zeke Mowatt, TE, New York Giants
Will forever be known as the guy who allegedly whipped out his Mowatt to reporter Lisa Olson during a locker-room interview in 1990, but that doesn’t change the fact that his name rocks.
36. Garo Yepremian, K, Miami Dolphins
Cypriot, legendary placekicker, thrower of the worst forward pass in the long annals of the sport, and presumed inspiration for the SNL “We Are Kickers, We Kick Ball” sketch.
35. Keyshawn Johnson, WR, New York Jets
The charismatic wideout from USC brought the –shawn suffix to the NFL. Without him, there is no Knowshon Moreno. He was also a pioneer of the “wide receivers listed as fourth-string QBs on the depth chart so they can wear numbers not in the 80s” trend. One of my favorite players of all time.
34. Lance Alworth, WR, San Diego Chargers
Similar name to the disgraced Tour de France winner, who is also blessed with one of the best names in all of sport. The cyclist had strong arms because he was juicing—only this Lance (nickname: Bambi) was “worth all.”
33. Bart Starr, QB, Green Bay Packers
Monroe Starr, the eponymous Last Tycoon of the famous unfinished novel, has a better name—but F. Scott Fitzgerald made that up. Bart’s is real. And he won the first two Super Bowls. He also won the Ice Bowl—so called because the temperature at Lambeau Field, with wind chill, was 45 fucking degrees below zero—on a quarterback sneak.
32. Takeo Spikes, LB, Cincinnati Bengals
T.K.O. Spikes—a menacing name for a menacing linebacker. Begs the question, “What does Takeo spike?”.
31. Ray Guy, P, Oakland Raiders
Ray perfectly describes the laserbeam precision of his powerful punts, guy his punter’s obscurity on the team. I can almost hear Tom Flores say, “It’s fourth and 26—where’s that ray guy?”
30. Garrison Hearst, RB, San Francisco 49ers
Taken together, these two names suggest that the entire Symbionese Liberation Army is going to ram the ball straight up the gut, moving the chains by any means necessary.
29. Ronnie Lott, DB, San Francisco 49ers
There are Biblical undertones to the name—anyone familiar with Exodus knows a man named Lott leaves nothing but destruction in his wake. Which is exactly what Ronnie did.
28. Doak Walker, RB, Detroit Lions
With a name like this, you either play football, or you’re the protagonist of a William Faulkner novel.
27. Jermichael Finley, WR, Green Bay Packers
The way Troy Aikman says this name on the telecasts, I’m totally convinced he knows six or seven other guys named Jermichael.
26. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, RB, Cincinnati Bengals
On ESPN, he’s known as The Law Firm.
25. Button Gwinnett, DB, Atlanta Falcons
This one’s a joke—Button Gwinnett is actually one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Although it must be said that every one of those small-p patriots has a great NFL name. Imagine Al Michaels making this call: Thomas Heyward Jr. takes the snap from Ellery…pitches back to Elbridge Gerry, who runs right…but here comes Lyman Hall on a reverse…Hall pitches back to Heyward Jr., who fires a perfect spiral to Francis Lightfoot Lee streaking down the right sideline…Lee at the 40…the 30..the 20…Lee hit by Caesar Rodney…fumble! And Button Gwinnett recovers! Totally works, right?
25. Willie Roaf, OL, Kansas City Chiefs
Roaf is a combination of roast beef and loaf, both of which hint at size, something Willie had in ample supply.
24. Deacon Jones, DE, Los Angeles Rams
Coined the term quarterback sack, a statistic in which he often led the league. His real first name is David, and I like to think his nickname came from wanting to have opposing quarterbacks come to Jesus.
23. Mike Ditka, TE, Chicago Bears
Inspired not just one but a series of SNL sketches that rank among the best ever. “Did God create da Bears, and make dem superior to all udder teams, or is He simply a huge fan, and Ditka made dem superior to all udder teams?” “Dat’s a tough one.” “Dit-ka, Dit-ka, Dit-ka.”
22. LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, San Diego Chargers
The god of fantasy football heralded the trend of the prefix La- for first names. His wife—you can’t make this stuff up—is named LaTorsha. That’s LaLovely.
21. Joe Namath, QB, New York Jets
“Broadway Joe” always had a flair for the dramatic—even the way he hit on Suzy Kolber was larger than life. (The Lord Namath, and the Lord taketh away). Guaranteeing victory in Super Bowl III is probably the coolest sports thing that ever happened.
20. Laveranues Coles, WR, Washington Redskins
Could be one of the emperors during the Roman Age of Chaos, or perhaps a minor character in Caligula. Either way, luh-VERN-ee-us is a bane to spellcheck everywhere.
19. Champ Bailey, Boss Bailey, DB/LB, Denver Broncos
Not their given names, unfortunately, but Exhibits A and B for the “give your kid a name he has to live up to and he will” theory. The third brother, plain old Ronald Bailey, did not play in the NFL. Maybe they should have called him Winner.
18. Larry Csonka, RB, Miami Dolphins
ZONK is the Batman-like sound that happened when this bruising fullback ran over a weak safety.
17. Jevon Kearse, DE, Tennessee Titans
Kearse looks like hearse, and is pronounced like curse. Put them together, and that’s what Jevon did to quarterbacks from the blind side.
16. LaRod Stephens-Howling, RB, Arizona Cardinals
There are any number of awesome aspects to this mouthful of a name—it sounds a bit like L. Ron Hubbard, the surname is an active verb (and one that conjures up memories of Halloween), and if it wasn’t the name of a player in the NFL, it could just as easily be some obscure member of the House of Lords just arrived at Downton Abbey to court Edith.
15. Deion Sanders, CB, Dallas Cowboys
The “Neon” nickname was always de trop…his first name and his personality were blinking colored lights. Fastest guy in the NFL, pretty good baseball player, and props for being the only two-way player in my lifetime.
14. (tie) Mercury Morris, RB, Miami Dolphins; Jumpy Geathers, DT, Atlanta Falcons
Two incredible nicknames: Mercury was quick, and Jumpy jumped offsides a lot.
13. Joe Montana, QB, San Francisco 49ers
The legend about the town in Montana changing its name to Joe is apocryphal, but then, it’d be a better name for a Berkeley coffeehouse. In his later years, after his injury in the 1990 NFC Championship Game against the Giants, he was often banged up, leading to this joke: Q. What’s the difference between Joe Montana and a dollar bill? A. You can get four quarters out of a dollar bill.
12. Pepper Johnson, LB, New York Giants
Others may not dig on Pepper’s sneeze-worthy nickname, so take his inclusion with a grain of salt.
11. Red Grange, RB, Chicago Bears
Has one of the greatest NFL names and the greatest sobriquet: The Galloping Ghost. His brother, also a pro player, was Garland Grange—another terrific name.
10. Y.A. Tittle, QB, New York Giants
If you read it fast, it looks like the placard at Barnes & Noble where Sean Beaudoin’s books are shelved. The initials, incidentally, stand for Yelberton Abraham.
9. John Riggins, RB, Washington Redskins
Have you seen Friday Night Lights? You know how the stud fullback is named Tim Riggins? Big John is why.
8. Alge Crumpler, Carlester Crumpler, Jr., TE, Atlanta Falcons/Seattle Seahawks
The onomatapoetic last name is made for football—”crumple” is what big blocking tight ends do to tackling dummies, as well as opposing cornerbacks. But the first names are genius. Fun fact: their father, Carlester Sr., played for the Buffalo Bills.
7. Merlin Olsen, OL, Los Angeles Rams
You know him, probably, from Little House on the Prairie, but he was one of the best offensive linemen who ever lived. His career, in both football and Hollywood, was magical.
6. D’Brickashaw Ferguson, OL, New York Jets
Never mind that this is a phonetic corruption of Father Ralph de Bricassart from The Thorn Birds. If your name is D’Brickashaw, and you’re six-six-three-twenty—if you’re built, in other similar words, like the Brick Shithouse this name kinda sounds like—you were born to protect the quarterback.
5. Plaxico Burress, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
The rangy wide receiver—who famously shot himself in the leg at a nightclub while carrying a concealed weapon, thus screwing the Giants out of a possible Super Bowl victory—has two brothers. They are named Ricardo and Carlos. In a related story, they do not play in the NFL. An athlete with this fantastic of a name just had to go pro.
4. Johnny Unitas, QB, Baltimore Colts
Considered the best quarterback of all time until the recent influx of superior talent, he rocked the crew cut like nobody’s business. His unique name is also what coaches implored him to do during time-outs. Johnny, unite us!
3. O.J. Simpson, RB, Buffalo Bills
After June 12, 1994, the name of this rental-car pitch man, secondary character actor, color commentator, and Kardashian associate carried a different connotation. But in 1973, when he became the first running back to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season—he remains the only player to do so in 14 games—the name was perfect. The unusual initials (his full name is Orenthall James) gave him a sobriquet no less cool for being ready-made: The Juice. He’d top this list if he’d, ahem, acquitted himself more honorably after his retirement.
2. Bo Jackson, RB, Oakland Raiders
The All-Star outfielder and subject of Nike’s best commercial campaigns may have been the best athlete who ever lived—he was certainly the best in Madden NFL. The name helped. Simple, honest, unique. Bo knows nomenclature. Which is why we know him as Bo, and not as Vincent.
1. Bronko Nagurski, RB/DT, Chicago Bears
One of the biggest, strongest, toughest players to ever put on a helmet—and the helmet he put on was made of leather. Played both ways, and when he got hurt and couldn’t carry the ball, played on the offensive line. Possessor of the largest ring size (19½) of any man measured for an NFL championship ring—no small feat (or small hand). If you put him in a time machine and marched him on the field today, he’d still be bigger and stronger than most comers. The famed sportswriter Grantland Rice (for whom Bill Simmons’s site is named), wrote of him: “Who would you pick to win a football game, eleven Jim Thorpes, eleven Glen Davises, eleven Red Granges, or eleven Bronko Nagurskis? The eleven Nagurskis would be a mop-up. It would be something close to murder and massacre. For the Bronk could star at any position on the field, with 216 pounds of authority to back him up.” Did I mention he moonlighted as a champion professional wrestler? The Denver football team is named Broncos for a reason.