It’s natural for most rookies just entering the league to have some degree of interest in what his number will be, especially considering it can help define his legacy. However, most players are not overly rigid in their number preference and typically show willingness to be flexible in their initial request. Some guys will do nearly anything to get the number they want.
They say the number on the jersey doesn’t make the man; it’s the man who makes the number on the jersey. There’s about as much truth to this as there is with fashion.
A charismatic superstar can undoubtedly enhance the appeal of any number, but some numbers are inherently more attractive than others.
Just think about how sleek and elevated Deion Sanders appears when the No. 21 is displayed on his jersey and compare that to when he wore No. 37 for the Ravens. There are clearly limits to how desirable the number 37 can be. But maybe this connection has to do with Deion already establishing himself in the 21 jersey while No. 37 was never given the benefit of the more dominant version of “Primetime.”
To that angle I say this: Randy Moss never really had one specific jersey number most identifiable to his career, and yet the number he looked best wearing was the one he had the least success in, which came when he wore No. 18 while in Oakland.
Ultimately, the jersey number can be of great importance to some rookies entering the NFL. Of course, how much it actually matters all depends on which rookie you talk to. In many cases, an established vet will already have dibs on that special jersey number you’ve worn since you were 11 years old and claiming it just isn’t an option; or is it?
Some guys are willing to pay quite a sum in order to get the jersey number they want. Depending on how important that number is to the current owner, arrangements can be made to deal that number at the right price. Clinton Portis, though not a rookie at the time, was willing to cough up $40,000 to defensive back Ifeanyi Ohalete in exchange for the No. 26 after he was traded to the Washington Redskins.
The offers and requests can also be unique exchanges like kitchen remodels, vehicles or perhaps something fun like the all-expenses paid tropical vacation Eli Manning gave punter Jeff Feagles for the No. 10; other times, the traditional cash transaction is the method of choice, as mentioned earlier.
The fact that there’s a market for NFL jersey numbers is the embodiment of the mentality “everything’s for sale, it’s just a matter of how much someone’s willing to pay.” It also provides some insight into just how much a number on a jersey can mean to a player.
Just as the degree of importance for jersey numbers varies, so too do the reasons. For some, those reasons point to tradition. For others, superstition fuels the flame. Even pure aesthetics can drive a player’s love for a specific number while many players are inspired by a childhood hero or admiration for longtime favorite player.
Personal experience suggests most players care a great deal about what they look like in their uniforms, and the number represented on their jersey serves as an extension of this concept.
When it comes to rookies who are just trying to make it in the NFL, most do care somewhat about what number they’ll be wearing, most are really never given a choice. Typically only the top one or two picks for each team are ever solicited for their input on the matter; the rest are simply assigned a number based on the position and availability.
When I was rookie I was not given a choice on my number. I was assigned No. 57, and it just so happened to be the number I wore when I was a freshman in college.
There is, however, one number preference every rookie in the league cares about.
Heading into their first NFL training camp, no rookie gets excited about being assigned an awkward jersey number rarely seen at their respective position; this is a bit like the kiss of death in regards to the odds of making a roster.
Very few men donning those doomed numbers actually defy the odds and make the active roster. It’s almost as If your entire performance is now subjected to greater scrutiny from coaches, players and executives simply from the visual bias which comes with wearing a number typically associated with a training camp tackling dummy.
Wearing these “castoff” numbers also help solidify a training camp hierarchy, which can often transcend the football field and bleed into areas such as seating priorities for buses and planes during travel.
In the stressful life of the NFL, worrying about what number is plastered on your chest essentially becomes a problem of the fortunate few who have much less to worry about. As for the rest of the rookies, survival-mode takes the forefront of any idle thought among this brutally competitive environment, leaving little room for much else.
For these stressed out rookies fighting for their lives, most jersey number preferences are limited to whichever number can increase their chances of making the active roster. As for the few elite rookies who have already locked up a roster spot, they can afford to entertain themselves with trivial pleasantries such as whether or not to wear No. 25 or No. 24.
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