Top 10 college football nicknames of all time

Top 10 college football nicknames of all time

There are some phenomenal nicknames in the world of professional sports: Black Mamba, Megatron, Great Bambino. But some of the best originated in the collegiate ranks. Here are the top 10 college football nicknames of all time.

Best nicknames in college football history

The emphasis is on college football history. Only athletes who received their nicknames in college were considered for the list. Thus, you won’t see Johnny “Football” Manziel or Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, as they first received their monikers on the high school stage.

Walter Payton, RB, Jackson State: Sweetness

Sweetness usually isn’t a word you’d associate with a football player. But is there a better noun to encapsulate Walter Payton’s rushing style? While he was a charming man off the field, Payton earned his nickname during a practice at Jackson State. After briskly cutting to evade a would-be tackler, Payton shouted, “sweetness is your weakness,” en route to the end zone. Finding the end zone was commonplace for the Tigers running back, as he set the program record for career rushing touchdowns (65).

Jevon Kearse, EDGE, Florida: The Freak

It isn’t hard to imagine how Jevon “The Freak” Kearse acquired his nickname. He stood 6’4″, 250+ pounds, with a 7’2″ wingspan and 11.63″ hands (the Combine record is 11.75). That’s already a shiver-inducing build, but Kearse also ran a 4.43 40-yard dash and jumped 40″ in the vertical.

As former Tennessee Titans teammate Albert Haynesworth said, “He was like a gazelle hunting down a sloth in a quarterback.” Kearse concluded his three years at Florida with 145 total tackles, 34.5 tackles for a loss, 16.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, one interception, one recovered fumble, and 19 pass deflections.

Reggie Nelson, S, Florida: The Eraser

Urban Meyer, Chris Leak, and Florida’s offense garnered much of the attention from the 2006-2007 BCS Championship-winning squad. Yet, the defense held No. 1 ranked Ohio State to just 14 points in the title game and routinely stymied offenses in their 13-1 campaign. The leader of the unit was consensus All-American and Jim Thorpe Award finalist (given to the nation’s best defensive back) safety Reggie Nelson.

So-called “The Eraser,” Nelson’s nickname was twofold: 1) He erased receivers over the middle of the field with his bone-crushing hits, and 2) he erased positive gains in his area, rarely making mistakes as the last line of defense. As a junior, Nelson registered six interceptions and five pass breakups, showcasing the skill set that saw the Jaguars draft him with the 21st overall pick the following April. 

Michael Irvin, WR, Miami (FL): The Playmaker

Typically, nicknames are earned, not created by the athlete. But in Michael Irvin’s case, if you walk the walk, you can talk the talk. Irvin set Miami school records with 142 career receptions for 2,423 yards and 26 touchdowns, winning a national championship in the process (1987).

Irvin called himself “The Playmaker,” but his penchant for big plays in big games likely would’ve led to the moniker regardless. His on-field celebrations and production matched his off-field brashness and charisma, both of which are still visible on NFL Network today.

Joe Greene, DL, North Texas: Mean Joe Greene

Charles Edward Greene. Nowhere on Greene’s birth certificate does it say “Joe.” However, his aunt began calling him Joe as a child due to his resemblance to legendary heavyweight champion boxer Joe Louis, and it stuck. But where does the “Mean” come into play?

Greene played football for North Texas, who were the Eagles back then. Chants began in the stands, “Come on green, get mean … Here we go, mean green.” That quickly became the “Mean Greene” moniker for the ferocious DT’s play on the field. UNT is now the Mean Green, but it’s an adoption of the chant, not of Greene’s nickname: “I’m proud of the tie and my link to North Texas, but I was too busy playing when the chanting started.”

Tyrann Mathieu, S, LSU: Honey Badger

Tyrann Mathieu’s offseason signing with the New Orleans Saints is a return home for the All-Pro safety. You can’t tell LSU’s story without the star defender, especially due to his No. 7 jersey.

In his final season, Mathieu wore the number to honor Patrick Peterson, who had donned it the previous three years. Mathieu forced six fumbles, recovered five, and snatched two interceptions, earning consensus All-American honors and finishing fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting. Since then, the No. 7 has been awarded to LSU’s top playmaker on either side of the ball.

On top of beginning one of the most iconic jersey traditions in sports, Mathieu also obtained one of the most iconic nicknames. In 2011, a viral video of a honey badger doing honey badger things with comedic commentary took the internet by storm. Defensive coordinator John Chavis discovered the video and shared it with the team, explaining how Mathieu’s propensity for turnovers and approach to defense was akin to the fearless creature. And if you’ve seen Mathieu on the field, it’s easy to see why.

William Perry, DL, Clemson: The Refrigerator

Most remember William “The Refrigerator” Perry for his offensive goal-line touchdown in Super Bowl XX. Perry settled in the backfield in his usual defensive tackle stance — one hand on the turf with loaded hips. As the tight end motioned across the formation, Jim McMahon snapped the ball and shoved it inside Perry’s gut — a rather large target. And the 6’2″ and 335-pound defender bulldozed his way for the 1-yard score, cementing his legacy as the largest player to ever score a touchdown.

As memorable as that dive into the end zone was how Perry received his nickname. At Clemson, Perry was already a massive individual. Teammate Ray Brown saw firsthand just how massive, as Perry filled the entire door frame of an elevator as he stepped off. Brown called him “GE” for the General Electric household appliance brand. But it ultimately morphed into “The Refrigerator.”

Perry was a first-team All-American junior in 1983 and obtained ACC Player of the Year as a senior. Duke head coach Steve Sloan had only one plan to prepare for Perry: “To resemble William Perry, we are going to rent a Winnebago this week for our offensive line to practice against.”

Jerome Bettis, RB, Notre Dame: The Bus

At 5’11” and 255 pounds, Jerome Bettis was a bowling ball for Notre Dame … or should I say a bus? “[A journalist at the Observer (ND’s student-run newspaper)] wrote an article saying something about how I looked like a bus or something like that, and I was taking guys for a ride, and it just kind of stuck,” Bettis said. “So the student body would chant, ‘Nobody stops the bus,’ when I was playing at Notre Dame.”

Across three seasons, Bettis turned 337 carries into 1,912 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns for the Fighting Irish. In his sophomore campaign, “The Bus” set Notre Dame’s single-season touchdown record (20), scoring 16 times on the ground and four as a receiver.

Reggie White, DL, Tennessee: The Minister of Defense

Before arriving on Tennessee’s campus, Reggie White became an ordained minister at the age of 17. But what he unleashed on the college level was unholy. From 1980-83, he generated 293 total tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 32 career sacks (a school record until 2016), three forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, and seven batted passes.

As a senior team captain in 1983, White dominated opposing linemen for a program record 15 sacks. For his efforts, he was named the SEC’s Player of the Year and garnered consensus All-American and All-SEC recognition. Yet, the greatest honor bestowed on him that season may have been his nickname: “The Minister of Defense.”

Deion Sanders, CB, Florida State: Neon

This one needs no introduction. Deion Sanders became “Prime Time” back in high school, so that persona doesn’t make the list. However, Sanders gained another nickname during his tenure at Florida State.

For his high-stepping on-field electricity and camera-drawing off-field personality, fans and media referred to Sanders as “Neon Deion.” With Prime Time already a brand of its own, Sanders wasn’t a fan of his new label, but it rolled off the tongue.

Sanders is one of the best all-around athletes of all time. He complemented his football stardom with both baseball and track during college. A two-time consensus All-American and 1988 Jim Thorpe Award winner, Prime left the Seminoles with 14 interceptions and 1,429 punt-return yards. FSU retired his No. 2 jersey in 2003, and in 2011, Sanders was inducted into both the College and Pro Football Hall of Fame.