Star Search: Sifting through Packer greats

Part two in a series of columns examining the Green Bay Packers' retired numbers.

No doubt, the Packers are one of a kind: They own the most titles; they are the NFL's only publicly-owned team; and they hail from the smallest hometown in major pro sports. Green Bay also distinguishes itself by making its retired numbers an honor reserved for the most elite. With the addition of Reggie White's No. 92, the Packers' five retired numbers represent less than one-half of one percent of all Packer players.

I'm not advocating a dilution of the honor. In fact, the extreme selectivity is just one more source of pride for the Packers, and it doesn't come at the expense of deserving players. The existence of the Packer Hall of Fame -- another unique aspect of the franchise -- allows the team to acknowledge great players in far larger quantities than the numbers game allows.

If the Packers did follow the path of most other NFL franchises and retire a host of greats rather than just the demi-gods, who else would join this elite club?

The first installment in this series unveiled my first nominee in Jerry Kramer, and assumes the eventual addition of Brett Favre. Now let's look at others whose accomplishments put them in the ring.

A long list of Lombardi Era players who deserve consideration. Among them are Willie Wood, Willie Davis, and Henry Jordan. Of this trio, Wood is my favorite. His story begins with him sending postcards to NFL teams asking for a tryout when he came out of USC, and culminates in his becoming one of six non-drafted free agents enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The great free safety was an eight-time Pro Bowl selection and an All-Pro for six consecutive years. Wood led the league with nine interceptions in the Packers' amazing 1962 season and went on to a 12-year career in Green Bay.

How about good old No. 5, Paul Hornung? His stats and fame certainly make him a candidate, but a costly suspension for gambling and playboy reputation keep his number off the wall of fame.

That said, No. 5 hasn't been worn by a roster player in nearly 20 years. During the late 80s under coach Forrest Gregg, however, the team seemed set on giving it away. The first man to wear it after Hornung was QB Vince Ferragamo in 1985-86. It was a forgettable run, to say the least. The Packers then gave their 10th round draft pick in 1987 a shot at reviving No. 5. But after an extremely short stint in the uniform, along with the blessings of Hornung himself, rookie Don Majkowski took the high road and exchanged the famous shirt for No. 7. Next came the ultimate insult. No. 5 was allotted to a replacement player, QB Willie Gillus, during the '87 NFL players strike.

Hornung isn't the only player knocked out of the running by controversy. Great player and less-than-great coach Forrest Gregg tarnished his image by presiding over an era where the team's pride was at low ebb, and as a coach he didn't possess the personal communication skills to overcome that adversity. Star receiver and eventual Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee James Lofton was part of the problem. Besides the legal troubles that paved his road out of Green Bay, Lofton embarked on an NFL tour that rivals prolific travelers like Jim McMahon and Doug Flutie. Time has softened the sharp disappointment that accompanied the end of Lofton's career here, No. 80 will never be Lofton's alone.

Coincidentally, one of a few current players (besides Favre, of course) I think could eventually join the Packer elite is also No. 80, Donald Driver. He has a long way to go to reach the heights of the legendary receiver already on the retired numbers' list, but Driver's consistent display of on-field dedication gives him the potential to get there. Add his inspirational life story, and Driver would make a nice fit.

No. 80 has been worn by a considerable list of players ranging from respectable (Bob Long 1964-67 and Jackie Harris 1990-93) to forgettable (Bucky Pope 1968, Derrick Mayes 1996-98) to a bit embarrassing (Frankie Neal, 1987). That could discourage the Packers from following the Lions' lead and retiring a number in honor of several players. Last Thanksgiving the Lions hung up No. 20 in honor of Barry Sanders, Billy Sims and Lem Barney.

The '70s didn't yield many wins for Green Bay, but the decade did bring some memorable players. If the team wanted a reprersentative uniform number from this era, my leading candidate would be No. 42 John Brockington. He was the ninth overall pick in the 1971 draft and the Packers saw their choice pay off immediately. Rookie of the Year in 1971, Brockington eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark his first three seasons in Green Bay. Brockington led the team in rushing five consecutive seasons, and also was the top receiver in '74. He helped the team climb back into the playoffs in 1972, but unfortunately that was the only post-season appearance for the rest of Brockington's Green Bay career (and the last division title for the Packers until 1995). Injuries and a poor supporting cast caused the promising back to go out with a whimper. He still led the team in rushing in '74-75 and was second in '76, but never even reached the 500-yard mark again. In his final season in Green Bay, Brockington gained 25 yards on 11 carries and had been replaced due to injury by Eric Torkelson and Barty Smith.

Had safety Darren Sharper stuck around, maybe No. 42 could have been considered for a multi-player deal. It also could have included Curly Lambeau, who briefly wore the number, or even Packer Hall of Famer Andy Uram, a great halfback who played on the 1939 championship team - but definitely not LeShon Johnson. Due in part to the perils of the Pack during the 70s, not many players got to shine bright enough to be considered for a retired number. Would things have been different for greats like Johnny Gray and Steve Odom if they had played on stronger teams?

Lack of a supporting cast certainly isn't a problem for players in the current era. How will the players of the 90s and today be remembered?

Favre is a given. Driver is a subjective choice. Two other players have a realistic shot based on sustained excellence, league-wide recognition and concrete contributions to the championship cause while spending their entire careers in a Packer uniform: William Henderson and LeRoy Butler.

Part three of our series examining retired uniform numbers will make the case for these stars of the '90s and beyond.

Editor's note: Laura Veras Marran grew up in Green Bay, Wis., and is a longtime sportswriter. Her column will appear regularly on

Packer Report Top Stories