By: Joe Pohoryles
The Washington, D.C. sports teams have seen plenty of athletes do incredible things while representing the nation’s capital. One of the most recognizable features of these athletes is the numbers they sport on their uniforms.
As we forge on in these times with little going on in the sports world, I will spend the next week-and-a-half exploring which players were the best to wear every possible jersey number, continuing today with 40-49.
Of course comparing players across different sports is difficult, but this will take a look at the most impactful and iconic DC sports figures. Some of the names on this will be more prominent than others; several lesser worn numbers will merely be default picks. In any case, it should be interesting to see the distribution.
(Note: For NBA and NHL, a player’s tenure is marked by the year their first season ended until the year their final season ended. For example, John Wall was drafted in 2010 and was a rookie in the 2010-11 season, but since the season ended in 2011, his tenure is listed as 2011-present. This is not necessary for MLB — where the entire season is played in the same calendar year — or NFL — where only the postseason is played in a different calendar year.)
*= the player’s tenure on the team extended longer before or after the stated dates, but said player wore a different number in those other years
40) Calbert Cheaney, Washington Bullets’/Wizards’ guard/forward (1994-1998)
Runner-up: Alvin Walton, Washington Redskins’ safety (1986-1991)
Cheaney, one of the greatest Indiana Hoosiers of all time, spent the first six seasons of his NBA career in Washington, mainly as a starter on the wing. Averaging fairly modest numbers while in DC, Cheaney’s best season came in 1994-95, where he averaged 16.6 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists. He helped the team make the playoffs for the first time in nine years in the 1996-97 season.
Walton’s six NFL seasons all came in Washington, where he spent the middle four as a starter at safety. While he was not a stand-out defensive back league-wide, he brought solid play to the Redskins’ secondary, and started at strong safety in the Super Bowl XXII win over the Broncos. He was also on the roster for the Super Bowl XXVI victory, albeit in a much smaller role.
41) Wes Unseld, Capital/Washington Bullets’ center (1974-1981*)
Runner-up: Mike Bass, Washington Redskins’ cornerback (1969-1975)
Unseld spent his entire career with the Bullets’ franchise, starting in Baltimore in the 1968-69 season, where he won Rookie of the Year and league MVP; he was the first and only MVP in franchise history, and the first rookie to win MVP since Wilt Chamberlain. Unseld averaged 13.8 points and 18.2 rebounds that season, and remained a fixture in the Bullets’ lineup for the rest of his career. The Hall of Famer led the league with 14.8 rebounds per game in 1974-75, and he has the most games played and total rebounds in franchise history. Probably the most popular player in franchise history, Unseld was the best to wear No. 41, which has since been retired by the team.
Bass spent seven seasons as a cornerback in Washington, starting all 104 games he played with the team. Bass played a crucial role in the team’s run to Super Bowl VII in the 1972 season, playing lockdown defense against the Cowboys in the NFC Championship game before scoring the only touchdown in the 14-7 loss to the Dolphins in the Big Game. His 30 interceptions are the fourth-most in franchise history.
42) Charley Taylor, Washington Redskins’ running back/receiver (1964-1977)
Runner-up: Greg Ballard, Washington Bullets’ forward (1978-1985)
Taylor was the epitome of “skill player” for the Redskins in the 1960s and ’70s, finishing in the top 10 in rushing yards and receiving yards in his rookie season, his 53 receptions setting a new record among running backs. After being switched to a receiver in 1966, Taylor led the league in receptions two seasons in a row in ’67 and ’68. After 14 seasons in Washington, Taylor retired as the NFL’s all-time leading receiver (9,110 yards and 79 touchdowns on 649 receptions). Taylor is now second behind Art Monk among franchise leaders in receiving yards, and the eight-time Pro Bowler was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1984.
Ballard was a rookie on the 1978 championship, averaging 3.7 points and 4.2 rebounds playing roughly 10 minutes per game in the Finals. Ballard did not elevate to a starting role until 1979-80, and he became the team’s leading scorer in 1981-82, averaging 18.8 points to go with 8.0 rebounds. The small forward also shot 40.9% from three-point land, his best rate by far as a starter. The Bullets consistently made the playoffs with Ballard leading the front court, but rarely got past the first round.
43) Larry Brown, Washington Redskins’ running back (1969-1976)
Runner-up: Jeff Ruland, Washington Bullets’ forward/center (1982-1986)
Legendary coach Vince Lombardi spent just one season as the Redskins’ coach before his death in 1969, so it would be no surprise if he never had enough time to make a massive impact on the franchise. But he did; Brown had issues with timing and ball security when he entered the league, but Lombardi coached him up to greatness after noticing Brown’s hearing impairment (and adjusting how Brown listened to snap counts). After several solid seasons in a pass-heavy offense, including an Offensive Rookie of the Year season in ’69, Brown helped lead the team to Super Bowl VII in ’72, leading the league in rushing yards per game (101.3) and total scrimmage yards (1,689) to win league MVP. Brown spent all eight of his NFL seasons in Washington, and was named All-Pro three times.
Ruland brought physicality and accurate inside shooting to the Bullets’ front court, finishing with the 10th-highest field goal percentage in the league during his rookie season, earning him All-Rookie honors. Ruland stepped up in ’84, averaging 22.2 points and 12.3 rebounds per game to go with a career-high 57.9 shooting percentage to make his first All-Star Game. He made the All-Star Game again in ’85 after averaging similar numbers, and spent five of his seven NBA seasons as a main contributor to several playoff teams.
When it’s all said and done, the Capitals’ Tom Wilson may contend for best 43, or at least runner-up.
44) John Riggins, Washington Redskins’ running back (1976-1985)
Runner-up: Harvey Grant, Washington Bullets’/Wizards’ forward (1989-1993, 1998)
Riggins had some of his best career seasons in his mid-30s, leading the league in touchdowns in both 1983 (24) and ’84 (14) at 34 and 35 years old, respectively. He owns one of the greatest moments in franchise history, with his late-game, stiff-arm 43-yard touchdown on fourth & inches in Super Bowl XVII. His 166 rushing yards on 38 attempts earned him MVP of the game and led Washington to its first Super Bowl win in franchise history, as well as its first championship since 1942. He was a fan favorite throughout his tenure on the team, and was voted to the Hall of Fame in 1992.
Grant held a large role in the team’s front court during the early 1990s, with his scoring taking a leap from 8.2 per game in 1989-90 all the way up to 18.2 in 1990-91, where he finished second for that year’s Most Improved Player award. He played on some pretty poor Bullets teams before getting traded to Portland and eventually returning for one season in 1997-98. His three sons, Jerai, Jerian and Jerami, starred at DeMatha in the late 2000s/early 2010s, and the latter two made it to the NBA themselves.
45) Phil Chenier, Capital/Washington Bullets’ guard (1974-1979*)
Runner-up: Barry Wilburn, Washington Redskins’ cornerback (1985-1989)
The three-time All-Star Chenier started with the Baltimore Bullets in 1971-72, and was a high-impact player from the jump, averaging 30.9 minutes per game in his rookie season. Chenier soon developed into one of the top shooting guards in the league, averaging no less than 19.7 points per season from 1972-73 to 1976-77. A back injury in the 1977-78 prevented him from playing in the championship that season and dramatically altered his career path, and he eventually retired after the 1980-81 season with the Golden State Warriors. Chenier came back to Washington and served as the full-time TV color commentator from 1987-2017, cementing his legacy as a big-time part of this organization.
Wilburn was the star corner of the Redskins’ 1987 championship season (even with Darrell Green playing opposite him). Wilburn led the league with nine interceptions that season and was voted First Team All-Pro, capping off a tremendous season with two interceptions in the Super XXII victory over the Broncos. That was his best season by far, but his impact on that championship team will live in history forever.
46) Alfred Morris, Washington Redskins’ running back (2012-2016)
Runner-up: Patrick Corbin, Washington Nationals’ pitcher (2019-present)
“Thoroughbred Fred” was the most recent example of Mike Shanahan finding a running back diamond in the rough, as the 2012 sixth-round pick finished second in rushing yards as a rookie with 1,613 yards. The only man who had more was 2012 MVP and Comeback Player of the Year (and current Redskin) Adrian Peterson, who finished with a near-record breaking 2,097 yards. Morris and Robert Griffin III headlined a rookie backfield that led the team to its first division championship since 1999, and while Morris never returned to the level of his rookie season, he made the Pro Bowl twice in 2013 and ’14, starting all 64 games he played in a Redskins uniform and rushing over 1,000 yards in every season except his last (751 in 2015).
Corbin has been on the Nationals for just one season and still has five years left on his $140 million deal, but the lefty not only pitched in the three-headed monster with Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, but he also played a significant role out of the bullpen during the World Series run. His three shutout innings in relief in Game 7 of the World Series was among the clutchest performances in team history, and hopefully he is just getting started in Washington.
47) Chris Cooley, Washington Redskins’ tight end (2004-2012)
Runner-up: Gio Gonzalez, Washington Nationals’ pitcher (2012-2018)
Cooley spent much of the 2000s as one of the team’s leading receiving threats, holding down the tight end position for around six seasons from 2005-2010, making the Pro Bowl twice in 2007 and ’08. Having literally the coolest name on the planet (pun very much intended), he was an easy fan favorite, and his eccentric personality off the field endeared fans as well.
Gonzalez spent six seasons mainly as a high-end third starter, having his best season in 2012, where he was named an All-Star and led the majors in wins. He finished third in Cy Young voting, after pushing the team to its first ever postseason appearance, but he never returned to that level. Still, he remained a fixture in the rotation before being traded to Milwaukee as the Nats fell further out of the playoff race that season. He didn’t get to win the World Series, but he still contributed a lot to the franchise in the years leading up to it.
48) Stephen Davis, Washington Redskins’ running back (1996-2002)
Runner-up: Ken Coffey, Washington Redskins’ safety (1983-1984, 1986)
Davis began his career primarily as a fullback before breaking out in 1999, setting the single-season franchise record with 1,405 rushing yards and leading the league with 17 rushing touchdowns. Davis was voted to his first Pro Bowl that season, and made it again in 2000 after rushing 1,318 yards and 11 touchdowns. Davis led the league in rushing attempts with 356 in 2001, allowing him to break his own single-season rushing record with 1,432 yards. His reign in Washington did not last long, but that three year stretch was among the most dominant for a running back in franchise history.
Coffey spent three total seasons as a safety, finishing tied for third on the team in 1983 with four interceptions. He was never a dominating, ball-hawking safety, but he turned in three solid seasons. While he does not have the most impressive resume, he is still one of the best players to wear No. 48 in the city’s history.
49) Bobby Mitchell, Washington Redskins’ running back/flanker (1962-1968)
Runner-up: Billy Brewer, Washington Redskins’ safety (1960)
Mitchell, who died just days ago on Apr. 5, was the first black player in team history. The speedy, versatile Mitchell led the league in receiving yards two years in a row from 1962-63, with 1,384 and 1,436 yards, respectively. A three-time First Team All-Pro, Mitchell was ahead of his time and was a major offensive contributor for the Redskins in the ’60s. He was voted to the Hall of Fame in 1983. Rest in peace, Bobby Mitchell.
Brewer played just 11 games in the NFL, starting six. He recovered one fumble during the 1960 season, but had no interceptions. He was an alright player, at least not a defensive liability, but his NFL career was short. Still, he remains the second-most impactful player to wear No. 49.