The Super Bowl of Football Names

The Super Bowl of Football Names

By Nick Turner

Back before the World Series in October, I did a post on the elements of a classic baseball name. The upshot: The sport favors colorful nicknames (Scooter, Bullet, Coco Crisp), and players frequently go by their initials (there were eight AJs on active Major League rosters last year). Casey also was disproportionately popular.

With the Super Bowl coming in a few days, it seems fitting that I now turn my attention to football.

What makes for a quintessential NFL name?

To start, that playfulness you see in baseball doesn’t exist as much in football. It’s a tough sport and perhaps that requires a serious moniker. Players rarely go by cute nicknames. And though initials aren’t unusual, they’re not nearly as prevalent as in baseball.

That said, the names still have swagger — just with more of a straight face.

African-Americans make up the majority of the NFL, and naming trends that are popular in that community are well represented in the league. But there’s something unique about a great football name.

In my view, the best NFL names have three elements:

  • An unusual, multisyllabic first name

  • A shorter surname that’s ideally a common name or word

  • A mixture of panache and gravitas

  • Some of my all-time favorites that fit these guidelines: Orlando Pace, Cornelius Bennett and Plaxico Burress. (Plaxico, whose appellation means peaceful, might not have helped the name by shooting himself in the leg during a nightclub incident.)

    Terrell Owens comes close to the archetype as well, but it loses points for having the same number of syllables in both names. And though I once would have put Emmett Smith in this category (back when Emmett was still unusual in the 1990s), it’s less striking now. Still a solid name, though.

    Among current players, the prime examples include Orlando Franklin, Marqueston “Quest” Huff, Solomon Patton and Charcandrick West.

    These names practically simmer with NFL-ness.

    I’m not quite sure linebacker Barkevious Mingo fits the bill, but I find his name captivating as well. (He goes by “KeKe,” so it shows you that fun nicknames aren’t unheard of in the NFL.)

    Likewise, the Jets offensive tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson is a standout. The moniker actually has a literary provenance: He’s named after Father Ralph de Bricassart from The Thorn Birds — with some spelling/punctuation liberties.

    One exception to my NFL naming rules: If your surname is already flashy, you should dial down your first name to its barest elements. (Nailed it, Joe Montana.)

    Of course, every NFL name can’t be a humdinger. After crunching the numbers on the nearly 1,700 active players in the league, I found the most common name is a variation of Chris. There are 44 named Chris/Christian/Kris, plus one Christine. (The Seahawks running back Christine Michael, whose mom was reportedly going for a “Boy Named Sue” thing, pronounces it Kristin. I’m guessing he doesn’t get teased much for having a girls’ name.)

    Michael/Mike is the second most common, with 40 variations, followed by John at 34 (including one Jonotthan). There also are a large number of Brandons — a name that, not surprisingly, peaked in the early 1990s. There’s exactly one Ha Ha in the league. (Ha Ha ClintonDix was given that nickname by his grandmother.)

    The top surnames:

    1. Johnson

    2. Williams

    3. Jones

    4. Smith

    5. Brown

    What first names are disproportionately represented in the NFL? Well, there are two players named Dion and one Deone (plus a Deonte), which may be an homage to multisport legend Deion Sanders. However, safety Deone Bucannan pronounces his name Day-Own.

    Perhaps the most striking pattern is the number of “Marcus” variations. There are 15 NFL players named Marcus, four Marks and two called Markus, as well as DeMarco, Demarcus, Demarcus, DeMarcus, Demaryius, Jamarca, Lamarcus, Marcedes, Marquis, two Marquises, MarQueis, Marqueston, Marques, Marquess, Marquette and Shamarko.

    A solitary player is named Marc.

    Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, whose name is a twist on the Marcus theme,  is expected to be a star of Sunday‘s Super Bowl. You might think his success would inspire parents to christen their kids Marshawn. In fact, the name’s popularity has dropped since he began playing in the NFL.  There were 63 baby Marshawns last year, down from 100 in 2007.

    There also are a surprisingly large number of guys called Larry — a name that feels out of step with the demographics and ages of NFL players.

    There are seven Larrys, plus four Lawrences (who could become Larrys at any moment). Neither name has been in the top 100 nationwide in decades, so the Larry epidemic is puzzling. I wonder if some of them had Giants great Lawrence “LT” Taylor as their namesake.

    But if you’re really interested in giving your baby a football-inspired name, it’s worth looking beyond the current league and studying the names of NFL yore.

    Here are some of the greatest NFL names of all time:

    Bronko Nagurski

    Cliff Battles

    Red Grange

    Link Lyman

    Bulldog Turner

    DickNight Train” Lane

    Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch

    Emlen Tunnell

    Dick Butkus

    Deacon Jones

    Merlin Olsen

    Mean Joe Green

    Champ Bailey

    Then there’s Johnny Unitas, a quarterback from the 1950s-1970s who may have one of the most recognizable surnames in the sport. The name’s implied message (“unite us”) has strong appeal, though it was actually created as a transliteration of the Lithuanian name Jonaitis.

    I’m not aware of anyone using this as a baby name (it doesn’t register in the Social Security database), but there’s always a first.

    And if we’ve learned anything from NFL names, taking risks is a good thing.

    About the Author

    Nick Turner

    Nick Turner

    Nick Turner is a writer and editor living in New York City (by way of San Francisco). He and his wife have successfully named three kids. Follow him on Twitter at @SFNick.