Make Nicknames Great Again

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Honolulu transplant from Nashville, Tennessee. Teaching high school English during the day, coaching Track & Field in the afternoon, then drinking enough to do it all over again.

Too competitive for an amateur, too amateur to be competitive.

When we talk about the greatest moments in sports and the athletes that gave them to us, they are instantly recognizable thanks to the nicknames we give them. It’s ubiquitous across sports of all kinds and all eras, but the NFL is struggling in this department. Athletes are stronger, faster, and smarter than ever before, but the nickname game is weak. The monikers bestowed upon our favorite players should be fun and often reflect the culture of the times we live in. If that’s the case, though, then the last several years have proven the NFL’s own nickname too true: the No Fun League. Let’s bring them back and make nicknames great again.

There are a few qualities that make a nickname “great,” and this is how I’m judging the awful nicknames we are stuck with today:

  1. The name must be original (many of the OG names are recycled or spun for new names – these new names don’t really count)
  2. The player or event must be instantly recognizable. I say the name and we should all be on the same page.
  3. All kinds of fans, casual and hardcore, are familiar with the name. It’s universal in the sport and basically universal across all sports.

I know that hindsight is 20/20 and we tend to look on the past with rose colored glasses, but let’s look at the glorious nicknames of the old school and how they stack up to today’s duds.

The Good Old Days

“The Music City Miracle” is well remembered in NFL history as is the call that Mike Keith shouts: “There are no flags on the field!” It’s an often played moment in sports history and the debate still rages between Tennessee and Buffalo fans. It reignites the passion of fan bases and recognizes the historical significance of the moment.

Titans celebrate the touchdown of the Music City Miracle
Credit: The Tennessean

“The Catch” is simple and possibly the most famous play by name in NFL history. When Joe Montana ignited the 49ers dynasty in the early 80s, he did it with an improbable pass that was snatched out of the air and has been fixated in the minds of fans since. It was memorable and, again,  signified the beginning of something special.

Arguably the best named play in NFL history? “The Immaculate Reception.” It’s poignant. It’s beautiful. It’s reminiscent of a religious experience. While it might have been controversial, the greatest moments in sports often are (hello, Music City Miracle). Franco Harris and the Steelers didn’t advance to the Super Bowl that year, but this named play is a winner in my heart.

The NFL, being the ultimate team sport, has no shortage of historic group nicknames either, with “The Greatest Show on Turf” being a mainstay of conversation, setting the standard for prolific offenses. Warner, Faulk, Holt, and Bruce might not have their own legendary nicknames, but I’m sure they’ll settle for winning a Super Bowl and a few records

On the other side of the ball, the Purple People Eaters and the Steel Curtain are the pinnacle of defensive names that stand the test of time. One goofy, the other somber, both dominant on the gridiron. What makes these names even greater? The players had their own powerful monikers to support the team’s. Mean Joe Green is still an intimidating one that we try to recycle every so often, but it’ll never quite stick.

But the most deserving nicknames go to the players themselves. The Minister of Defense is strong defensive option, only topped by Deacon Jones because Deacon isn’t even his real name. Air McNair, Sweetness, The Fridge, A-Train, Prime Time, Night Train, are all *chef’s kiss*. These nicknames exude swagger and bring back highlights of crushing hits and narrow escapes. The kind of content that makes the NFL thrive.

Today’s Nicknames Need Help

I love passing the ball in the NFL. We should be showing more bat flips and showboating in baseball. Give me activism and player movement in the NBA. These are examples of how modern sports are more exciting than ever, so why can’t the nicknames keep up?

Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback to ever play the game. We can argue nuances and contexts but Brady is the GOAT. I don’t like it and you don’t have to either, but he is inevitable. And if that’s the case, why is his nickname the most vanilla wafer, unseasoned, watered-down, uninspired, bland phrase to ever come out of the NFL? The same system that lets us use “penetrate” regularly gave us “Tom Terrific.” I’m crying.

Tom Brady winds up a throw in Buccaneers uniform
Credit: Danny Karnik

Wide Receivers are drama queens, so you would think that the position with the most flair in the sport would get better monikers. That just isn’t the case. My personal favorite of all time is Megatron, and even that nickname isn’t as universal as it deserves. He’s the exception to the rule, as the other great receivers since then have been nameless or just boring. Nuk is okay but less recognizable. Julio is arguably the best in the NFL for a decade and gets no love on the nickname front.

But nothing is worse than the dreaded “initials as a nickname”. The laziest and least creative style of names are also the most common now. AB, OBJ, CJ2K, AP – these are some of the superstars in the NFL and the best we can do is call them by their initials? It’s boring and NFL fans deserve better. The players deserve better.

The NFL is a Copycat League and Should Copy Other Leagues

The NBA is one of the few professional sports where nicknames are alive and well. Amongst all pro sports, nicknames in basketball stand tall (pun intended- sorry, not sorry): Air Jordan (His Airness), The Answer, Magic, Hakeem The Dream, Dr. J, Diesel, and even The Truth are all old school names with staying power. They stand the test of time and are the kind of marketable material that makes the player-centric game so great. Magic, much like Deacon, is not Earvin Johnson’s real name, but people rarely say “Earvin Johnson;” basketball fans simply call him Magic. 

It’s a testament to how powerful a name can be, that your play on the court becomes your identity. Today King James might be controversial, but it’s better than LBJ. Ice Trae, Swaggy P, The Unicorn (Or Three Six Latvia), Greek Freak, Boogie, Chef Curry, The Brow, Joker, Dame Time, and my personal favorite: The Process. 

Each of these names are plastered on merchandise and viral videos all over the internet. It’s ridiculously fun and takes fan engagement to the next level.

Being such a fast-paced game, there are very few Music City Miracles in basketball (though there are plenty of historic buzzer beaters) but we do have the Malice At the Palace. Considered a stain on the NBA by many, the nickname is amazing for modern media and checks all the boxes of a quality name. Older Youtube videos clock in with millions of views of the brawl and the nickname is no small reason why. Imagine trying to Google “NBA fight 2004 pacers pistons.” Would it come up? Sure. But it’s not as cool and might not have the staying power otherwise.

Baseball already has a team of players who lead all sports leagues in nicknames and it’s not even in close. Give me the team with guys named Polar Bear, Cookie, and Smiles over Tom Terrific, AB, Lenny any day. I want to have fun dammit! 

Pete Polar Bear Alonso gets ready to swing
Pete “Polar Bear” Alonso. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

What Does This Mean for the NFL’s Future?

Although the NFL struggles with creative nicknames that evoke the same passion as names past, there are a few reasons to think that might change soon.

Systemically, the NFL finally relaxed their taunting rules and allowed team celebrations in 2017. With the embrace of fun in what is supposed to be America’s Game, the NFL media culture is starting to reflect the product on the field. 

Mina Kimes, fighting the good fight, has attempted to correct the mistakes we’ve made by offering these: Primus Time, Whiteclaw, The Good Doctor. We need more, Mina! Give us more nicknames!

Current players may be fighting against this (Adam Thielen how could you?) but Cam Newton is here to save the day with nicknames for many of his current teammates. 

Recent history still has plenty of names to learn on, so bring back the likes of Cadillac Williams and Beast Mode. Revive Matty Ice. Pocket Hercules is an analyst on tv and I never hear anyone refer to him that way, which is a real shame- though to be fair, I don’t think he loves the name about his relatively short stature.

Give me Muscle Hamster. Give me Legion of Boom. The sports world is worse off without these names in our lives. If we are to take the next step as a species, we must revive our creativity. Human survival is meaningless without the kind of brilliant artistry that we are capable of. If humans are capable of artwork like the Mona Lisa and David, then we can do better than Tom Terrific.

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Episode 159