In last week’s Top 10 Thursdays installment we featured the top 10 nicknames of NFL players from the pre-modern era (prior to 1970). This week, we are going to take a look at the top 10 nicknames of players from the modern era.
In prepping for this, one thing quickly became clear – there are a lot of good nicknames from this era. This wealth of nicknames, for the most part, can be attributed to the increased television exposure that has evolved throughout the modern era. Couple that with the willingness of players to promote themselves along with a very enabling media and advertisers, and you can see why more and more players seem to be getting tagged with nicknames.
Personally, I think the best player nicknames are the ones that just seem to naturally get attached to a particular player. Perhaps they result as recognition of the way a guy plays the game or as a representation of some significant event or characteristic associated with the player. Sometimes, a nickname that stems from a simple play off of the individual’s name will have a certain ring to it that makes it legitimate.
Now there are several categories of nicknames that don’t carry much weight with me. First would be the “initials” nicknames (T.O., LT, etc.). By their nature, they are not very colorful – they’re just letters! And in that same vein, let me get straight to the point on the whole “Ocho Cinco” name. While going with the Spanish version of his jersey number did add a certain flair, it was still after all just Chad Johnson’s jersey number. Besides, when Johnson legally changed his name to “Ocho Cinco” didn’t that automatically negate consideration of the name as a “nickname”?
Another category of nicknames that I tend to discount as being true “nicknames” are the creative yet silly ones that play off of a player’s actual name. Yeah, you know what I’m talking about. The Chris Berman–given nicknames that we heard/hear every Sunday night while watching ESPN’s Sunday night highlight show. Actually, I’ve got to admit that most of his concoctions were pretty creative and entertaining. But come on, can you really say that Curtis “My Favorite” Martin, Mike “You’re in Good Hands With” Alstott and the ever popular Eric “Sleeping With” Bieniemy, deserve to be on the same plane as “Crazy Legs” Hirsch or “The Galloping Ghost”?
So, with all that as the backdrop, let’s get to it:
Deion ”Prime Time” Sanders, the Hall of Fame cornerback played for five different NFL teams. He was considered to be the top shutdown cornerback of his time, and he did it with a style and showmanship that had no equal.
It turns out that Sanders was actually given the nickname “Prime Time” by a friend while he was in high school. The nickname stayed with him through college and in to the NFL. Once in the NFL, he cultivated his flamboyant persona both on and off the field. It got to the point where, when talking about him, you didn’t have to say his name – “Prime Time” was enough.
Because of that, many may wonder why this nickname is not higher on the list, perhaps even number one. Well, the truth is, I didn’t really care much for him during his playing days.
Because I’m an old-school kind of guy, Sanders’ immaturity early in his career and his arrogant self-promoting style that was on display throughout his entire career really did not play well with me. And don’t get me started on his one pretty mediocre season with my Washington Redskins! His most impressive pick that year was when he essentially picked the pockets of Redskins owner Daniel Snyder and then rode off into retirement after that one season.
All of that notwithstanding, I must acknowledge that the nickname is an iconic one. So putting my pettiness aside, “Prime Time” gets on this list. However, I just couldn’t put the pettiness far enough aside to rank this nickname any higher than # 10.
Quarterback Kenny Stabler had an outstanding 15 year NFL career. He enjoyed the bulk of his success playing for the Oakland Raiders through the 1970s, leading them to the Super Bowl title in 1976.
Stabler was given the nickname “The Snake” by his high school coach after he made a long, winding touchdown run. The nickname stuck with him through his career at the University of Alabama right into his NFL career. In reality, the nickname was a perfect fit for the character he portrayed and for the way he played the game.
Stabler was known as a guy who played hard both on and off the field. But it was his on the field exploits that really conjured up visions of a snake. He seemed to have a knack to strike at any time, either with a wild scramble from the pocket or a late game touchdown pass. That was certainly evident early in his career during the 1972 divisional playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Late in that tough, hard fought game, Stabler scrambled for a long touchdown run that appeared to spell victory for the Raiders. It took an Immaculate Reception seconds later to undo that. But more often than not, Stabler’s ability to consistently pull off the late game heroics made him one of the most feared quarterbacks of his time
There have been other players that had the nickname “The Snake”, most notably Jake “The Snake” Plummer, who had a moderately successful 10 year NFL career. But he didn’t come close to reaching Stabler’s level, statistically or otherwise. When it comes to the nickname “The Snake”, the initial reaction of most knowledgeable NFL fans would be that you were referring to Kenny Stabler.
Defensive tackle William “The Refrigerator” Perry, or simply “The Fridge”, played for 10 seasons in the NFL, mostly with the Chicago Bears. He broke in as a rookie in 1985, the year that the Bears made that magical run to their only Super Bowl title.
Perry was only about 6’2” in height, but he weighed in at around 325 pounds. With those measurables, he at times looked to be about as wide as he was tall. He took on a lot of blockers and occupied a lot of space in the middle of the Bears defensive line. Well, the fact of the matter is, he occupied a lot of space no matter where he was. And it was that characteristic that earned him his nickname.
As the story goes, “The Refrigerator” nickname was given to him by a teammate while he was playing for Clemson University. Supposedly, when the teammate had to cram into an elevator with Perry, he suggested that Perry was about as big as a refrigerator. No doubt he was thinking industrial size.
As is often the case, his nickname followed him to the NFL. Although Perry had a pretty solid career in the NFL, it was by no means spectacular. His is a clear case where the nickname defined the player much more than the career accomplishments.
But fans were quick to embrace the nickname in his rookie season. That was likely fueled by the fact that Bears coach Mike Ditka occasionally would use Perry as a running back, either to serve as a lead blocker for star running back Walter Payton or at times even as a ball carrier.
The spectacle of seeing this huge, hulk of a man lining up in the backfield was something that fans couldn’t get enough of. That, combined with his lovable character and toothy grin, made him a beloved player to fans all around the league. Little wonder then, that “The Fridge” would make just about anybody’s list of top NFL nicknames.
So who the heck is Charles Edward Greene? That of course would be “Mean Joe” Greene, the Hall of Fame defensive tackle who played for 13 seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Greene’s nickname could not have been more suitable. Beginning with his rookie season in 1969, Greene quickly became known as one of the meanest and nastiest players in the league.
However, Greene’s style of playing with and often uncontrolled, aggressive attitude was not the only thing that people noticed. He was a talented defensive lineman who could control the line of scrimmage. Greene quickly became respected, not just for his demeanor on the field, but for his ability as well. He won the Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 1969, even though he played on a Steeler team that went 1-13 that year. He was a 10-time Pro Bowler and he was selected as an All-Pro 5 times.
Green actually acquired two nicknames through the years. First, as a young boy growing up in Texas, family and friends did not use his given name when speaking to him. For whatever reason, they simply began calling him “Joe” and that nickname stuck.
Green went on to play his college ball at North Texas State, a school that became known for its tough, outstanding defense. There was an effort to try and come up with a nickname for the defensive unit and since one of the school’s colors was green, the defensive unit became known as the “Mean Green”.
When Joe was drafted by the Steelers, fans mistakenly assumed that “Mean Green” was actually his nickname. Thus, Charles Edward Greene’s nickname journey was complete. From then on he was “Mean Joe” Greene.
Even though Greene had a long, illustrious career, he may perhaps best be remembered for his famous 1979 Coca-Cola commercial. In it, a tired and battered Greene is trudging through a tunnel underneath a stadium to the locker room with his # 75 Jersey draped over his shoulder. Along the way, Greene encounters a young boy a holding a bottle of Coke. The boy innocently offers the Coke to Joe who takes it and downs it in in several gulps as the boy starts to walk away. Upon being refreshed by the soft drink, Joe calls to the kid and shows his appreciation by tossing his jersey to the boy. The wide-eyed youngster then responds by saying “Thanks Mean Joe”!
The commercial depicted Greene in a softer light that was in stark contrast to his nasty reputation. Fans loved it and it became an instant hit. The commercial tugged at your heart strings and added a new dimension to the public’s perception of Greene. The result – “Mean Joe” became significantly more popular by going “out of character”. Who knew?
Given all that went into the development of the “Mean Joe” nickname and the fact that it was truly one of the first great nicknames of the modern era, it indeed is worthy of inclusion on this list.
Not many wide receivers burst on to the NFL scene with the kind of impact that Calvin Johnson brought to the Detroit Lions in 2007. Very early in his now, six-year career with the Lions, he established himself as one of the best, if not the best, wide receiver in the league today. He uses his size, speed, and athleticism to consistently put up the kind of numbers that most teams can only dream about getting out of there top wide receiver.
Certainly a guy with those credentials deserves to have an impactful nickname. And apparently, that is just what Johnson has acquired. Early in Johnson’s career, Lions teammate Roy Williams nicknamed Johnson “Megatron”, after the robot character from the Transformers toy line that was created by the Hasbro toy company in the mid-1980s.
Although my son was at just about the right age to get sucked into the Transformers phenomenon, in all honesty, I never paid attention to the names of the characters and associated storylines. But as best as I can understand it, Megatron is a large robot who is the leader of, for lack of a better phrase, the bad guys.
I guess he is known for having a rather large hands because reportedly Williams bestowed the nickname on Johnson in recognition of Johnson’s large mitts. However, the bottom line is, it seems that Megatron is one really bad *** character!
So, if indeed that is the case, then “Megatron” is a very appropriate nickname for Johnson. Given my indifference to and shaky understanding of the whole transformer thing, I will just have to trust that “Megatron” is the really cool, intriguing nickname that others make it out to be and thus deserving of inclusion on this list.