Has the NFL Ever Retired a Player’s Jersey Number League-Wide?

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Tom Brady of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers throws a pass during a playoff game in 2023

One of the highest honors a team can bestow upon an athlete is to retire their number. But did you know some sports have retired a number, prohibiting all their teams from using it? 

Let’s take a closer look at one in particular: the NFL and whether the world’s most popular pro sports league has ever retired a player’s jersey league-wide. 

Has the NFL ever retired a jersey number league-wide?

First: a definition of what it means to “retire” a number. Teams will honor a great player by never issuing that number to another. Many teams have taken part in this practice. According to Vintage Football Card Gallery, all but four organizations have retired at least one number. The Baltimore Ravens, Las Vegas Raiders, Dallas Cowboys, and Houston Texans haven’t retired any numbers. 

The two franchises tied for the most retired numbers are two of the league’s oldest: the Chicago Bears and New York Giants, with 14 each. The Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars, both expansion teams who joined the league in 1995, are tied for the fewest with one each. 

While most franchises retire numbers, the sport has yet to join them. Unlike other professional sports leagues, the NFL has never retired a number league-wide. 

Who would be the most logical NFL player’s number to retire league-wide? 

Tom Brady of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers throws a pass during a playoff game in 2023
Now-retired NFL quarterback Tom Brady throws a pass in 2023 | Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Retiring a jersey number across the sport is a much higher honor than retiring a number for a franchise. It’s recognition that the player transcended the sport in a way. To obtain this honor, it takes more than elite production. It must involve some amount of historical significance. 

With this standard in mind, only one player from the modern era might qualify for this: Tom Brady. Brady set a new standard for excellence at the quarterback position. His seven Super Bowl championships are a feat not likely ever to be matched. The 45-year-old’s longevity also helped him become the greatest ever to play the position. 

That said, Brady’s No. 12 isn’t likely to be retired across the league. For one, there are elite players who currently wear No. 12. Aaron Rodgers likely wouldn’t be too thrilled with the development. Other teams might not mind as much. For example, the Buffalo Bills have already retired No. 12 in honor of quarterback Jim Kelly. 

While Brady was excellent, his No. 12 will probably be safe for other teams to use — at least for the foreseeable future. 

Other professional sports leagues have retired players’ numbers league-wide

When you consider how many players have participated in professional sports leagues, the number of players who have a retired number makes up a tiny percentage. This makes having your number retired across an entire sport even rarer.

While it’s never been done in football and is exceedingly rare in other sports, it has happened before. According to the New York Times, three numbers have been retired across an entire sport. The major sports include MLB, NBA, and NHL:

  • Jackie Robinson’s No. 42: Robinson was a great ballplayer but more important than his on-field play was his status as the man who broke the color barrier in baseball. As MLB’s first Black player, he served as a pioneer who integrated a sport and ushered the game into the future. 
  • Bill Russell’s No. 6: Before Michael Jordan or LeBron James dominated with multiple championships, Russell was the sport’s first elite winner. Russell’s Boston Celtics teams won 11 titles. Russell also had quite an impact off the court as an activist. 
  • Wayne Gretzky’s No. 99: There has never been a hockey player before or since who played the game at a level as high as Gretzky. 

So will a football player ever have his number retired across the entire NFL? Possibly. Brady is probably the best candidate, and that’s a long shot. Only time will tell if any player in the future ever achieves that level of significance.