Greatest Cowboys By Their Jersey Numbers: #53

Part of the Greatest Players by Number Series

Jersey #53

Twelve players have worn #53 for the Cowboys, including nine linebackers and three offensive linemen. This number presents another tough matchup.

John Babinecz, LB, Villanova, 1972-73

Statistics: n/a

Accolades: None.

Longevity: Babinecz played two seasons in Dallas.

Intangibles: He was a backup outside linebacker who played very little. He missed the entire 1974 season due to injury and was then traded to Chicago.

Bob Breunig, LB, Arizona State, 1975-84

Statistics: Since tackles were not recorded as an official statistic, it is difficult to state how good Breunig was with stats. Unofficially, Breunig had 466 assists, which was second in team history at that time, according to The Dallas Cowboys Encyclopedia.

Accolades: He was named to three Pro Bowls.

Longevity: He played ten seasons in Dallas.

Intangibles: Breunig was one of the Dirty Dozen of 1975. He replaced Dave Edwards at outside linebacker in 1976, then took over the starting job at middle linebacker from Lee Roy Jordan in 1977. He was strong and fast, and he was a great leader on defense. A back injury ended his career in 1984.

Mike Connelly, C, Utah State, 1960-67

Statistics: n/a

Accolades: None.

Longevity: He played eight seasons in Dallas.

Intangibles: Connelly was picked up by the Cowboys after his release from the Rams in 1960, and he became the team’s first center. He was a regular starter for four years, then served as a backup center and guard. An injury to starter Dave Manders put Connelly back in the starting lineup in 1967, but he was traded during the following season. A former marine, Connelly reportedly stuffed his shorts with weights during annual weigh-ins so that his recorded weight appeared higher than it actually was. He was listed at only 235 pounds.

Ray Donaldson, C, Georgia, 1995-96

Statistics: n/a

Accolades: He was named to two Pro Bowls with Dallas and a total of six overall.

Longevity: He played two seasons in Dallas, ending his 17-year career after the 1996 season.

Intangibles: Dallas signed the veteran Donaldson to replace Mark Stepnoski in 1995. Donaldson was a great addition but suffered a broken ankle against Kansas City on Thanksgiving Day. He was forced to miss the remainder of the 1995 season, including the Super Bowl, but he returned in 1996 and was named to yet another Pro Bowl.

Note: Here is a piece discussing Donaldson’s election to the Georgia Hall of Fame.

Onzy Elam, LB, Tennessee State, 1989

Statistics: n/a

Accolades: None.

Longevity: He dressed for one game with Dallas.

Intangibles: I believe that Elam is the only person named Onzy to play in the NFL. He was not with the Cowboys for long.

Garth Jax, LB, Florida State, 1986-88

Statistics: n/a

Accolades: None.

Longevity: He played three seasons in Dallas.

Intangibles: He was primarily a backup with the Cowboys, but he went on to a lengthy career with the Phoeniz/Arizona Cardinals.

Randy Shannon, LB, Miami, Fla., 1989-90

Statistics: Although Shannon’s official statistics are unavailable, he recorded 11 tackles in his first career start, and he started four games as a rookie in 1989.

Accolades: None.

Longevity: He played two seasons in Dallas.

Intangibles: In 1989, Shannon was the first rookie to start at outside linebacker since Dave Edwards in 1963. The former Miami (Fla.) player saw quite a bit of action in 1989, but when Dallas added talent in 1990, Shannon’s playing time dropped considerably.

Dave Simmons, LB, Georgia Tech, 1968

Statistics: n/a

Accolades: None.

Longevity: He played one season in Dallas.

Intangibles: After playing in St. Louis and New Orleans to begin his career, Simmons played behind the great linebacking corps of Chuck Howley, Lee Roy Jordan, and Dave Edwards in Dallas. Thus, he seldom played and retired after one season with the Cowboys.

Victor Simmons, LB, Central State, Ohio, 1987

Statistics: n/a

Accolades: Replacement player.

Longevity: He played in the three replacement games in 1987.

Intangibles: He is originally from Chicago.

Mark Stepnoski, G/C, Pittsburgh, 1989-94, 1999-01

Statistics: Stepnoski started a total of 121 games with Dallas.

Accolades: He was named to three Pro Bowls with the Cowboys and was named to several all-pro teams.

Longevity: He played a total of nine seasons with the Cowboys, first from 1989 to 1994, then from 1999 to 2001.

Intangibles: Stepnoski was an undersized lineman who earned a job as starting center in 1989. He developed into one of the best centers in the game by 1994, but the Cowboys took a salary cap hit after that season, and Stepnoski was a casualty. He played in Houston and Tennessee for four years before returning as a free agent in 1999. He was not as successful during his second tour of duty, but he was clearly an upgrade over Clay Shiver and Mike Kiselak.

Kalen Thornton, LB, Texas, 2004

Statistics: Thornton recorded six tackles with the Cowboys.

Accolades: None.

Longevity: He played one season in Dallas.

Intangibles: Kalen Thornton is the son of Bruce Thornton, who played three seasons with the Cowboys from 1979 to 1981 (not to be confused with another Bruce Thornton– #25— who played at the same time as Kalen Thornton… too late, I’m confused myself!). Kalen Thornton was a talented college player but suffered a career-ending injury in 2005.

Fred Whittingham, LB, Cal. Poly SLO, 1969

Statistics: n/a

Accolades: None.

Longevity: He played one season in Dallas.

Intangibles: Whittingham had played with three teams in five years before joining the Cowboys in 1969. He was mostly a special teams player and was traded the following season.


Here is your chance to vote for the greatest player to wear #53.

Greatest #53

  • Mark Stepnoski (58%, 76 Votes)
  • Bob Breunig (34%, 45 Votes)
  • Mike Connelly (2%, 3 Votes)
  • John Babinecz (2%, 2 Votes)
  • Victor Simmons (2%, 2 Votes)
  • Kalen Thornton (1%, 1 Votes)
  • Randy Shannon (1%, 1 Votes)
  • Ray Donaldson (1%, 1 Votes)
  • Dave Simmons (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Garth Jax (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Onzy Elam (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Fred Whittingham (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 131

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My Vote: Breunig

Bob BreunigThis was another tough one. I chose a 1990s linebacker (Ken Norton) over a 1960-70s center (Dave Manders) and a 1960-70s linebacker (Dave Edwards) over a very popular 1990s-2000s linebacker (Dexter Coakley). Now I am going to pick a 1970s-80s linebacker over a very popular lineman from the 1990s-2000s.

Few franchises can match the talent of the Dallas linebackers for more than two decades (early-1960s to mid-1980s), and a big reason why this continued into the 80s was Bob Breunig. He was clearly the leader of that defense, from his early years when Dallas was in two Super Bowls to his later years when Dallas couldn’t quite get into the Super Bowl. It is tough to compare him with others because of the lack of statistics, but probably only Lee Roy Jordan played the middle linebacker position with the Cowboys better than Breunig. And even accepting that as true, the results under either were awfully similar.

Stepnoski was a great center, and I don’t quite hold it against him that he left. Nevertheless, his departure meant that he didn’t have quite the longevity of Breunig, and since several factors are quite similar in terms of their importance to their respective teams, I had to go with the guy who did great things with the Cowboys for his entire career.