Jersey numbers hold a special place in the hearts of sports fans all over the world. When you think of the number 99, more often than not, you think of Wayne Gretzky. When you think of numbers 23 or 80, you would most likely think of Michael Jordan and Jerry Rice. Jersey numbers are not just numerical, they carry an identity earned through the blood sweat and tears of hard work. While the San Francisco 49ers are the only team in the NFL to be named after a number, a select few have worn that number for the franchise. While their journeys in football and in life vary, they share a unique bond.
Born on the Croatian island of Zlarin in January 1923, Visco Grgich's journey to the NFL was unique among his peers. After he and his family moved to Seattle when he was young, he discovered football, starring at West High School and earning a scholarship to Santa Clara College right when America entered World War II.
Although he was drafted in the second round by the Bears in 1946, Visco decided to stay in the Pacific Time Zone, following his old college coach Buck Shaw to the recently christened San Francisco 49ers of the AAFC. Upon signing his contract, Visco Grgich was handed his new jersey, number 49.
During his years in San Francisco, Visco became known for his rousing locker room speeches while showcasing a vicious attitude in the trenches as a two-way lineman. When the 49ers joined the NFL in 1950, Grgich became the first of many Yugoslavs to play in the league. Alas, his promising career ended in 1952 due to a knee injury. He passed away on December 20, 2005 in Modesto, California, having called the Golden State his home for more than 60 years.
Jim Monachino was born on July 9, 1924 in Cleveland, Ohio. After moving to Los Angeles as a boy, he became infatuated with both baseball and football, starring in the two sports at Redondo Beach High School. By the time he graduated, he had earned the right to one day be named one of the school's 100 distinguished graduates in its 100-year existence.
Like many ballplayers of his era, he was talented enough to have the option to play either baseball or football professionally. Jim Monachino chose football and quickly blossomed into a star at Cal Berkeley, going to (and losing) three straight Rose Bowls under the guidance of legendary coach Pappy Waldorf. As he did in high school, Monachino earned distinction at Cal, earning a place in the school's Big C Society Hall of Fame in 1999 after leading the conference in scoring and earning the Most Outstanding Offensive Player honors in the Golden Bears' 1950 Rose Bowl loss to Ohio State.
After losing to Michigan in the 1951 Rose Bowl, Jim Monachino was drafted in the 12th round by the 49ers. Donning the jersey number 99 that year, Jim gained 74 yards on 21 carries and scored twice. After his rookie campaign, he left to serve in the Navy at the height of the Korean War.
When he returned stateside in 1953, Jim Monachino was given a new number: 49. Clearly, that number held no magical potion as he only carried the ball four times for 10 yards the whole season. It would be his last as a 49er. He retired as a Redskin two years later and died on April 28, 2021 in West Des Moines, Iowa, having found a living after football as the manager of the Iowa Clay Pipe Products Company.
Bobby Luna was born on March 25, 1933 in Lewisburg, Tennessee. After starring in football at Huntsville (Alabama) High School and earning high school All-American honors as a senior, he earned a scholarship to Alabama. In those pre-Bear Bryant days, the Crimson Tide was a struggling program, bottoming out at 0-10 in 1955.
Luna missed out on that level of mediocrity, however, as that was the year that he was drafted in the 6th round by the 49ers. That year, old number 49 served a dual purpose, serving 12 games as a safety and a punter, picking off two passes and punting 63 times for a 40.6-yard average. It would be his only year in the red and gold as he spent the next two years serving in the Army.
By the time he returned home, he had been traded to the Steelers. Despite intercepting three passes that year, the Steelers left him unprotected in the expansion draft, giving the Cowboys ample opportunity to take him. In the end, not even the weakest team in the NFL wanted Bobby Luna as he was cut in the Cowboys' very first training camp. After football, he started a construction company and ran it until his retirement. Bobby Luna died on March 14, 2008 in Franklin, Tennessee.
Dwight Lee was born on September 3, 1945 in Mount Clemens, Michigan. Things seemed to fall into place for him very early on in his football career. While in college at nearby Michigan State, he participated in the famous 10-10 tie with Notre Dame and reached the 1966 Rose Bowl where his Spartans would fall to UCLA.
But while he was enjoying much success at Michigan State and began to draw attention from NFL scouts, he slipped into a drug addiction that would rule his life for the next 25 years. He was drafted in the 5th round of the 1968 NFL Draft by the 49ers but his time with the team practically came to an end the moment that he first put on the number 49 jersey. He played in just two games for San Francisco, carrying the ball twice for a single yard.
Seeing how little they were getting out of the young running back, the 49ers traded Lee to the lowly Falcons in the middle of the season where he tripled his carries to six and gained just as many yards. It would be his only year in the NFL. From there, Dwight Lee bounced around Canada and various lower-level professional leagues around the United States before officially retiring in 1974.
But his story was far from over. He continued to abuse drugs long after his playing days ended and remained enslaved to his vices until he stumbled upon group therapy. Rejuvenated, he got his counseling degree from Lane Community College and used his new skillset to counsel other drug addicts. He died on December 29, 2016 in Eugene, Oregon.
Ralph McGill was born on April 28, 1950 in Thomasville, Georgia. After starring at Tulsa, he was selected in the second round of the 1972 NFL Draft by the 49ers. While it took some time for him to get on the field, once he did he really blossomed into a short-lived star. In 1975, he intercepted five passes and recovered another five fumbles. He was traded to the Saints in 1978 before retiring the following year. Ralph McGill died on March 21, 2015 in Saint Joseph, Missouri.
Vern Roberson was born on August 3, 1952 in Natchitoches, Louisiana. After graduating from Grambling State University, the defensive back went undrafted in 1975, signing with the Calgary Stampeders where he was an All-Star in his first year. But Calgary didn't want his services the following year so he signed with Ottowa before moving on to the NFL's Miami Dolphins in 1977.
But despite a promising first year in the NFL, the Dolphins didn't want Roberson in 1978 so he signed with the woeful 49ers. Wearing number 49, he intercepted a single pass in a loss to the Bears early in the year, returning it 31 yards. Late that year, he returned a punt seven yards in a loss to the Saints. The 49ers ended that dreadful season 2-14 and Vern Roberson was soon discarded, his football career coming to an abrupt end.
Earl Cooper was born on September 17, 1957 in Giddings, Texas. He played well in a hybrid role as a fullback and tight end at Rice University and was drafted in the first round by the 49ers in 1980.
At that time, Bill Walsh was trying to cultivate a winning identity for the 49ers. With Earl Cooper wearing the franchise's number, he symbolized that well as a rookie, rushing for 720 yards and five touchdowns and receiving 567 yards and scoring four more touchdowns through the air.
He was hurt for much of 1981, but Earl Cooper did manage to score a touchdown in the Super Bowl off of an 11-yard reception from Joe Montana. From then on, he was mostly used as a tight end rather than a fullback, switching his jersey number to 89 in 1983. His last truly productive season was 1984 when he gained 459 yards receiving and scored four touchdowns while the 49ers went 15-1 in the regular season and won another Super Bowl. By the close of the following season, Earl Cooper had retired, having set the standard for his jersey number with the 49ers.
Jeff Fuller was born on August 8, 1962 in Dallas, Texas. After starring at Texas A&M, he was drafted in the fifth round of the 1984 draft by the 49ers. He played well that year, recording an interception while he and his teammates powered their way to another Super Bowl title.
Two years later he picked off four passes, staking his claim as one of the game's better defensive backs. He earned a whiff of fame in the playoffs the following year when he returned an interception 48 yards for a touchdown in a loss to the Vikings. Possibly inspired by this, he again intercepted four passes in 1988 while he and his teammates won another Super Bowl.
In the middle of 1989, the 49ers were hosting the Patriots at Stanford Stadium due to the recent Loma Prieta earthquake when disaster struck. In the middle of the second quarter, Jeff Fuller slammed his body against his opponent and immediately went limp. As his teammates gathered around him, it quickly became apparent that he had made his last play in football. While his teammates ended the year with another Super Bowl win, Jeff Fuller slowly began to realize his new station in life. Although he is able to walk, Jeff Fuller no longer has use of his right arm due to the spinal injury he incurred at Stanford Stadium.
Adrian Cooper was born on April 27, 1968 in Denver, Colorado. After starring as a tight end at South High School and the University of Oklahoma, he was drafted in the fourth round of 1991 by the Steelers. After three years in the Steel City, he was traded to the Vikings where he spent the 1994 and 1995 seasons.
After signing with the 49ers in 1996 and pulling the number 49 jersey over his shoulder pads, he spent the rest of the year failing to impress San Francisco's coaching staff. In six games, he caught one pass for 11 yards. While he performed better in the playoffs (1 reception for 17 yards), Adrian Cooper was released in the offseason.
Aaron Walker was born on March 14, 1980 in Titusville, Florida, under the shadow of NASA. He starred as a tight end at Titusville's Astronaut High School and the University of Florida, winning the SEC championship in 2000. Walker was drafted in the fifth round of the 2003 Draft by the 49ers who were beginning their descent into mediocrity.
As a rookie, he caught eight passes for 116 yards and a touchdown. He didn't perform much better the following year, amidst the hubbub of a 2-14 season, catching 10 passes for 115 yards. He was cut that offseason and spent the rest of his playing days shuffling around the NFL, staying in cities such as St. Louis, Baltimore and Cleveland. After his playing career ended, he worked on Tommy Baldwin Racing's pit crew during the 2013 Nascar Sprint Cup Series.
Terry Jones was born on December 3, 1979 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He played well at Alabama, earning All-SEC honors as a tight end in 2001 and was drafted in the fifth round by the Ravens in 2002.
While in Baltimore, he never seemed to get settled, catching 20 passes for 152 yards and a touchdown in 2004. By the middle of the following season, Baltimore had seen enough and released him. He didn't have to wait too long for work when he signed with the 49ers soon after. He made nine catches for 76 while donning the number 49 in the latter half of 2005 and was released after the season.
Bruce Miller was born on August 6, 1987 in Canton, Georgia. His star shined bright at the University of Central Florida where he terrorized opposing offensive tackles as a defensive end, twice earning Conference USA's Defensive Player of the Year award. But when he went to San Francisco in the seventh round of the 2011 NFL Draft, he was immediately switched to fullback. Now he had to trust offensive tackles.
As a fullback, he hardly ever rushed and was basically used as a third tight end. As a rookie, he caught 11 passes for 83 yards and a touchdown as the team shocked the NFL, reaching the NFC Championship Game but losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants. The following year, he caught 12 passes for 84 yards as the team reached the Super Bowl for the first time in 18 years, losing a heartbreaker to the Ravens.
In 2013, he caught 25 passes for 243 yards, both career highs, as the team again reached the NFC Championship Game, losing to the rival Seahawks who would go on to win the Super Bowl. Three straight years, the 49ers' season had ended in heartbreak, losing to the eventual Super Bowl champs. something had to give or the team would fracture beyond repair.
It turned out to be the latter. The team missed the playoffs in 2014 and quickly began to disassemble. By early 2016, Bruce Miller's life would get much, much more complicated. He was involved in a hotel fight where he beat up an elderly man and his son. He was soon charged with multiple felonies and just like that, his stay in San Francisco had come to an end and the revered jersey number 49 had been tarnished.
Jim Dray was born on December 31, 1986 in New Milford, New Jersey. He played well at Stanford University to be drafted in the seventh round of the 2010 NFL Draft by the Cardinals. His career was a bit of a whirlwind as he spent time in Arizona (2010-2013), Cleveland (2014-2015) and Buffalo (2016) before signing with San Francisco late in 2016.
In six games as a 49er, Jim Dray didn't record a single statistic and was released when the season was mercifully over. He's now the tight ends coach for the Bears.
Trenton Cannon was born on July 23, 1994 in Hampton, Virginia. After a year at Shepherd University, he transferred to Virginia State where the young runningback blossomed into a 2018 sixth-round pick of the New York Jets. After little success with the Jets, he left New York after 2019 for Carolina (2020) and Baltimore (2021) before signing with the 49ers in the middle of 2021. In 11 games wearing the red and gold jersey number 49, Trenton Cannon carried the ball just once for -1 yard. He is now a free agent.