The Crazy Stories Behind Athletes and Numbers

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It's more than just a number

Much like tattoos or passwords, jersey numbers can be a highly personal affair for their owners. The significance behind a jersey number can sometimes offer a little glimpse into an athlete’s psyche, his past, or his hopes for the future. Other times, the number reflects a team’s plans for the player wearing it. Here’s a sampling from the surprisingly rich world of jersey numbers.

Much like tattoos or passwords, jersey numbers can be a highly personal affair for their owners. The significance behind a jersey number can sometimes offer a little glimpse into an athlete’s psyche, his past, or his hopes for the future. Other times, the number reflects a team’s plans for the player wearing it. Here’s a sampling from the surprisingly rich world of jersey numbers.

Peyton and Archie Manning

18—Archie Manning wore No. 18 during his college days at Ole Miss, where he scrambled his way into the hearts of Dixie and married the Homecoming Queen, Olivia. After Archie left Oxford, the campus posted speed limits of 18 MPH in his honor. Archie’s middle son, Peyton, wears No. 18 in the NFL — not only in homage to his father, but also as a tribute to Cooper, the oldest of the three Manning boys. Cooper wore No. 18 in high school but was forced to give up football when he was diagnosed with spinal stenosis as a true freshman at Ole Miss.

33—Former major league outfielder Larry Walker wasn’t the greatest 33 ever — good morning, Kareem and Larry — but Walker was, without a doubt, the most superstitious athlete ever to wear the number. Walker had a thing about 3s. To wit: He routinely set his alarm for 8:03 in the morning. His parking stall in the players’ lot was 3. He routinely would take three practice swings and dig his foot into the ground three times in the on-deck circle, then take three check swings before heading to the plate. Walker wore 33 in an attempt to derive twice as much luck out of his favorite number. He also got married on Nov. 3 at 3:33 p.m.

Said Walker, when asked back in the day about his thing for threes: “I’d wear 333 if they’d let me.”

17Former Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner was operating on a shoestring budget in the mid-1970s when he signed pitcher Andy Messersmith to one of baseball’s first megabucks free-agent contracts. Turner’s UHF station in Atlanta, WTCG, was struggling to attract viewers, so Turner decided to turn Messersmith into a human billboard. Messersmith wore 17 on the back of his jersey. Above it was the word Channel.
24—Former Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis anted up $50,000 to new Bucs teammate Mark Barron for No. 24, believed to be the highest price ever paid for a number.
10 and 17—Former Giants punter Jeff Feagles sold 10 to Eli Manning for a week-long Florida vacation, then sold his new number, 17, to Plaxico Burress for an outdoor kitchen in his Phoenix home.
28—While today’s players pay thousands for numbers, it wasn’t always that way. Former Phillies lefty Mitch Williams received 28 from John Kruk for the princely sum of two cases of beer.

12—Nine consecutive Super Bowls (VI through XIV) were won by quarterbacks wearing No. 12. 

44—Syracuse football jersey number worn by Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and Floyd Little, among others. The university zip code was changed from 13210 to 13244 in honor of the number, which was retired on Nov. 12, 2005.

72—Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk wore 27 during his days with the Red Sox. After joining the White Sox, he wanted to put his days at Fenway Park behind him, so he switched to 72. The number, he said, represented a turnaround in his career. 

50Red Sox outfielder Shane Victorino wore No. 50 for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic to honor his native Hawaii. Honoring the 50th State is a tradition among Hawaiian players launched by former Mets lefty Sid Fernandez.

76—What, you thought 76 was a football number? Think again. Shawn Bradley was 7-foot-6 and was drafted by the 76ers. Any guesses as to which number he was issued?

72—For whatever reason, 72 inspires nicknames. It was worn by Carlton “Pudge” Fisk, William “The Refrigerator” Perry, Ed “Too Tall” Jones and John “Tooz” Matuszak.

38—Ole Miss football jersey given annually to the player who receives the Chucky Mullins Memorial Courage Award, named after the former player who was paralyzed during the Rebels’ Homecoming game in 1989.

68Future Hockey Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr wears 68 to commemorate the Soviet invasion of his native Czechoslovakia in 1968.

088586—Rockies manager Walt Weiss wears 22 in honor of boyhood hero Mercury Morris, who, incidentally, wore No. 088586 during his stretch in a Florida prison for drug trafficking.

 

Notable Retired Numbers

40—Fallen soldier and former safety Pat Tillman’s number, which was retired by the Arizona Cardinals in 2004.

12—The Seattle Seahawks have retired the number of the “12th Man” — their fans.

42—Jackie Robinson’s number, which was retired across MLB in 1997. Yankees closer Mariano Rivera  was the last player to wear No. 42.

48—Former President Gerald Ford had his No. 48 retired by the University of Michigan.

99Wayne Gretzky’s number, which was retired across the NHL, fittingly, in 1999. 

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