Why do jersey numbers play such a big role in the minds of athletes who wear them? Where does the attachment come from? A name is one way we identify ourselves in life, but in the sports world a number reflects something unique to each athlete who wears it. As we begin to contemplate what numbers mean, I will reflect on my own personal relationship with my jersey number.
My number story started in high school when I saw an offensive lineman by the name of Tabika Hickson, who played varsity football for the Freeport Red Devils. I was not yet on varsity, but I respected him because he was a talented player and he was also the biggest dude on the team.
Our paths crossed when I played varsity a year later. Tabika wore number 65. I choose what seemed to me to the next best thing and also the available numbers were scarce (younger players didn't get the first pick of the litter). I choose number 60. I liked 60 and played with that number throughout high school.
When I started getting attention from colleges for my performance on the football field and started making my official visits, I was told by many colleges that I would be able to retain number 60. I was so certain I would wear number 60 in college, I asked my father to buy me a necklace with a #60 pendant for my birthday.
Imagine my surprise when 60 was not available at Virginia , the school I finally decided upon. Senior defensive tackle Andrew Hoffman wore that number and again I was forced to select another number. I decided to pick number 66, and no, number 65 was not available for my choosing, either.
Sixty-six was my number throughout my college career. But when I started getting attention from NFL scouts and eventually got selected to the Jets in the first round in 2006, I was certain that I would be finally in the position to retain my number and the history of switching jersey numbers would be a thing of the past.
So I walked into my the new locker and spoke to our equipment manager, Gus Granneman — and he told me that number 66 was unavailable. I was stunned. This time it was in the ownership of starting Left guard Pete Kendall.
Now Pete wasn't known for his pleasant attitude and I, being a rookie, was not really excited about having to ask for my number from a veteran lineman of 10 years. I decided to just do what I was so accustomed to doing by this point and select another number. It was a pleasant surprise to find that the number that I had worn in high school was available. And no, number 65 was still not to be had.
I have been wearing number 60 for all of my NFL career and sometimes I think what if I actually retained my college number 66. What would have happened to me if Alan Faneca, perennial Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion who wore number 66 and joined the team in my third season, would have asked me to give up my number? I am glad that was something I never had to experience, but it was something that I witnessed.
Jason Taylor, number 99 as the former Miami Dolphins defensive end, was known for his skill and athleticism. In fact, I would not at all be surprised if he is considered for the Hall of Fame at some point. In 2010 Jason left the Dolphins and landed with the New York Jets. However there was a slight dilemma. Bryan Thomas, our veteran linebacker, wore number 99 as well.
I played against Taylor and considered him to be one of the best defensive ends out there. When I was a rookie, my offensive line coach, Tony Wise, a former coach of the Dolphins, had shown me many video clips of Taylor, and he indeed was a talented player. When he eventually came to the Jets, I had a certain image in my mind, so when he wore number 95 during camp I was confused. I couldn't have cared less about the team he was formerly associated with — it was his number that was meaningful. It actually bothered me that he wasn't wearing 99.
Now Bryan Thomas was a first-round pick and had a very successful career, yet did not share the same number of accomplishments and accolades as Jason Taylor. So ultimately, who deserved to wear the number, Jason Taylor or Bryan Thomas? To me it was clear. But is there a fair way to determine this? In the end Jason did receive number 99 but this rule doesn't always hold true.
Last season Ed Reed, number 20, former safety for the Baltimore Ravens, came to the New York Jets. Ed Reed is a nine-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion whose accolades surpassed even those of Jason Taylor. But Kyle Wilson, who was selected in the first round like Bryan Thomas, also played with that number but not as long as Bryan had with 99. So who deserved 20? This time Kyle decided to retain his jersey number, while Reed wore 22 with us. But does that change who Ed was as a player or what he has accomplished? I would say no.
In the end I would argue that a number is but a constructed thought in a person's mind. It has no meaning by itself, but only the value people attribute to it. It can mean different things at different times and even when a situation appears to occur again, its result can be completely opposite. As athletes, we are drawn to the numbers we wear, and are faced with a dilemma when the numbers we have identified ourselves with no longer represent us. But that shouldn't change who we are, unless our number is what ultimately defines us.