Imagine there’s a sports heaven;
It’s easy if you try.
Where sports’ greatest legends
Depart to when they die.
Imagine all the athletes, of past and present day.
Now imagine a Cafe;
It’s not that hard to do.
There’s only 101 tables;
It’s open to a select few.
Imagine all the athletes, hoping to get a seat.
You may say I’m a dreamer;
But I’m not the only one.
Deciding the greatest athletes by number;
Who get to enter the Cafe 101.
Imagine this sports paradise and the Cafe 101 is the most exclusive of restaurants in sports heaven. There are only 101 tables with each numbered table being given to the greatest athlete to don that number. Who would get the table, who would just miss out? Who would at least be worthy of placing on a waiting list?
It’s time to introduce the first four members of the athletic afterlife’s most exclusive club.
Quarterback, Denver Broncos (1983-1999)
2x Super Bowl Champion, 5x AFC Champion, 9x Pro Bowl Selection, 1987 NFL MVP, Hall of Fame – 2004
Without a doubt, the number 7 is one of the most sacred jersey numbers in all of sports. To those who love baseball it’s Mickey Mantle, to soccer lovers it’s David Beckham, and for basketball fans it stirs up images of “Pistol Pete” Maravich. Without a doubt, Table # 7 is one of the most exclusive tables at the Cafe 101 because so many great athletes have worn the number but when push came to shove, I had to choose John Elway.
John Elway is one of the top quarterbacks in NFL history. He led a once irrelevant franchise to 5 Super Bowl appearances, winning the last two and leaving the game on top. He is the only quarterback (and one of two players) to have a rushing touchdown in 4 different Super Bowls. He is 4th all-time in passing yards and completions and is one of the winningest QBs of all time. He is 5th in passing touchdowns and one of only four quarterbacks to have passed for over 3,000 yards in 12 seasons. His nine Pro Bowl appearances are second among quarterbacks. While Mickey Mantle could easily lobby the hostess for why Table number 7 should belong to him, I have to give this table to “Mr. Ed.”
RUNNER-UP: MICKEY MANTLE, Outfielder, New York Yankees (1951-1968)
ON THE WAITING LIST: David Beckham, Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Mauer, Craig Biggio, Michael Vick, “Pistol Pete” Maravich, Phil Esposito, Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, Raul Gonzalez, Luis Figo, Anne Donovan, Danica Patrick (Indy Car), and Cristiano Ronaldo
TOO SOON TO TELL: Carmelo Anthony, Christian Ponder, & Lamar Odom
Starting Pitcher, New York Mets, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Houston Astros, & Texas Rangers (1966-1993)
1969 World Series Champion, 8x All-Star, 1977 AL TSN Pitcher of the Year, Hall of Fame – 1999
Table #30 was another tough one but for me it came down to 2 defenders who were leaps and bounds ahead of the competition. There are many who are going to be disappointed that I selected Nolan Ryan over perhaps the greatest goaltender of all time in Martin Brodeur but there is no denying Ryan’s dominance as a pitcher. His 5,714 strikeouts are the most all-time and I believe that no one will ever approach his mark of 7 no-hitters. On top of that he had 12 more games that were one-hitters. Of course on the flip side, Ryan is the only pitcher in MLB history to have walked 200 batters in a season twice. However I think with Ryan, the good outweighs the bad. What I most respect about Ryan is that he excelled as a pitcher over such a long period of time having played in the Majors in 4 different decades. He is so respected that he is the only player in the MLB to have his number retired by three different teams.
RUNNER-UP: MARTIN BRODEUR, Goaltender, New Jersey Devils (1991 – Present)
ON THE WAITING LIST: Terrell Davis, Tim Raines, Magglio Ordonez, & Orlando Cepeda
TOO SOON TO TELL: Ryan Miller & Tim Thomas
Starting Pitcher, Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers (1956-1969)
3x World Series Champion, 9 x All-Star, 1962 Cy Young Award Winner, Hall of Fame – 1984
As we get into larger numbers, the pickings get a bit more slim as many sports rarely have numbers past 40. While the pickings are a bit more slim than 7 and 30 were, there were still some very great athletes the donned jersey number 53. The best athlete to ever wear the number was Don Drysdale who, along with Sandy Koufax, formed the most dominant pitching duo in MLB history.
Don Drysdale was overlooked throughout much of his career because he always pitched in Koufax’s shadow but he was a legend in his own right. In his Cy Young season in 1962, he won 25 games. In 1968, he set an MLB record with six consecutive shutouts and 58 consecutive shutout innings (since broken by Orel Hershiser). Drysdale is also one of the better batting pitchers of all time. In 1965 he batted .300 with 7 home runs. He finished his career with over 2,400 strikeouts, 209 wins, 167 complete games, and 49 career shutouts. What is unbelievable is that he was forced into retirement by a sore shoulder, it’s crazy to think about what he could’ve accomplished with 5 or 6 more seasons in the league.
RUNNER-UP: HARRY CARSON, Inside Linebacker, New York Giants (1976-1988)
ON THE WAITING LIST: Randy Gradishar, Derek Morris, & Artis Gilmore
TOO SOON TO TELL: Maurkice Pouncey & Bobby Abreu
Defensive Tackle, Minnesota Vikings & Chicago Bears (1967-1981)
4x NFC Champion, 9x Pro-Bowl Selection, 6x All-Pro, 3x NFL Defensive Player of the Year, 1971 NFL MVP, Hall of Fame – 1988
I thought I had this great #88 debate solved when I finally decided to take Alan Page over Michael Irvin but then I was reminded that Tony Gonzalez, the greatest Tight End to ever play the game and 2nd most prolific receiver of all time, is also #88. After much consideration I still had to give the edge to Alan Page who was the cornerstone of the greatest defensive line in NFL History – the Purple People Eaters. He may just be the greatest defensive tackle to ever play the game.
He played in 218 consecutive games in which he recovered 22 fumbles and collected an unofficial 148.5 sacks . His three safeties are the second-most of all time. Additionally in 1971, he became the first defensive player to be named the NFL MVP. Page was such a great athlete that he was the first active NFL player to complete a marathon. While I mean no disrespect to other great athletes who wore the number 88, I believe this table belongs to Alan Page.
But seriously, if someone wanted to challenge Alan Page for this table – could they really take it from him?