Jersey numbers take on life of their own

Uniform numbers rest on hangers in all shapes and sizes. They vary from tall and angular 81s to short and stubby 44s. Depending on the shoulders they slip over they convey strength and stability, nobility and leadership. But they are not just fan-friendly aides. They can hold extreme sentimental, psychological and financial value to their owners. Fact is, some players simply feel lost without their favorite number watching their backs.

"When I joined the Giants I wore No. 89 and had it for a couple of years. But I didn't like it," said Amani Toomer, who grabbed No. 81 when Thomas Lewis left after the 1997 season. "I didn't feel comfortable in it and I wanted to get out of it. You get a number that you feel comfortable with and it's like a good pair of shoes."

Numbers have a strange hold over NFL players who decide they can't confidently take the field without their favorite digits.

"You get used to wearing a certain number," said Giants linebacker Carlos Emmons, who favors No. 51. "It's something you are known by. You don't want to change it because it seems you don't even look right in another number. Your number is always worth something."

When the Giants signed Emmons in 2004, No. 51 was worn by reserve linebacker Wes Mallard, a draft pick who'd been with the team for two years.

Mallard, now with the Patriots, said Emmons paid him $4,000 plus a couple of Giants jerseys to get his number. Mallard said the negotiations took place over a few days during mini-camp and Emmons' initial bid was $2,000.

"I high-balled him, he low-balled me,'' said Mallard, smiling.

Mallard said it was all in fun and he knew he'd eventually surrender the number.

"It's just a number,'' Mallard said. "He was a veteran. I understand that.''

If only they all felt that way.

The process of securing favored numbers can be a complicated and costly process. It can cause hard feelings, jealousies and even lawsuits. It's also a potential nightmare for equipment managers.

"You don't want any hard feelings to develop as a result of it," said Joe Skiba, the Giants assistant equipment manager.

Redskins tailback Clinton Portis wore No. 26 during his first two seasons with the Broncos. When Portis was dealt to the Redskins in 2004 he wanted his number. After a long negotiation with its owner, safety Ifeanyi Ohalete, they signed a contract for $40,000 witnessed by Redskins equipment manager, Brad Berlin.

"No way I'm giving anyone $40,000 for a number," Emmons said. "You can burn the number up for all I care. There's definitely a limit."

But Portis agreed to pay Ohalete in three installments – $20,000 immediately, $10,000 by Week 8 and $10,000 by Christmas. Portis paid the $20,000 upfront and Ohalete switched to No. 30.

When the Redskins cut Ohalete during training camp, Portis apparently felt it voided the rest of the contract. A court later awarded Ohalete $18,000 of the unpaid balance.

"I did my half," Ohalete told The Associated Press. "I just wanted what was mine in return."

During Steve Spurrier's reign as Redskins coach, quarterbacks Danny Wuerffel and Shane Matthews were originally assigned 7 and 9. Problem was the numbers previously belonged to franchise legends Joe Theismann and Sonny Jurgensen.

The move caused a commotion, even though the team had retired neither number. Finally, Spurrier relented. Wuerffel was issued 17, Matthews 6.

"It's an upside-down 9," Matthews said at the time, "I'd love to be wearing No. 9, but that's in the past. I don't think what a lot of people realize from the outside is that athletes get attached to numbers.

"But when you've been wearing that same number for 14, 15 years, it's kind of hard to start wearing something else. People may think it's stupid, and it kind of is – but it isn't. Athletes are superstitious."

It's largely superstition that fuels the frenzy around numbers. But some players slowly become identified by their numbers, even though the great Joe Montana could not wear No. 16 in Kansas City [he wore No. 19] because it had been retired for Len Dawson.

When Kurt Warner joined the Giants, Tom Coughlin instructed Skiba to get No. 13 from rookie receiver Ataveus Cash. Cash complied and accepted No. 6. Once Warner left, Cash returned to 13.

"I guess some guys get crazy," Giants tackle Luke Petitgout said. "They get a big check coming in and they figure, ‘what's the big deal with a few thousand when you're making millions?'

"It's not that big a deal with me. I like 77, but I'm not attached to it. Would I offer a lot of money for it? Absolutely not. What would I offer? Zero. All I'd want is something in the 70s."

No player in the NFL understands the phenomenon better than Giants punter Jeff Feagles, a 17-year veteran. Over the last two seasons he's profited handsomely from the good fortune of owning a number a new teammate wanted.

When Feagles joined the Giants in 2003 he was assigned No. 10. But when the team traded for Eli Manning in April 2004, Feagles got a phone call from a Giants official interested in knowing what he'd want for it.

"I was coaching the Little League game of one of my sons when my phone rang and I was told it was done," Feagles said. "I had told Eli what the terms were and he came back to me and said OK."

The terms were a Florida vacation for Feagles, his wife and four sons.

"There wasn't a whole lot of motivation on my part," Manning said. "I was asked if I wanted to wear No. 10 and I said yes, if it could be worked out. And 10 minutes after the trade it was done. I was on my way to Giants Stadium in a big van and my agent [Tom Condon] was on the phone and told me this is what you need to do. So I said, ‘Ok, let's do it.'

"If it turned into a hassle or a big pain, I'd wear No. 12 or something. I didn't wear the number before college."

After the Manning transaction, the Feagles family sat around the dinner table and decided to ask for No. 4, not knowing the Giants had retired it 64 years earlier to honor quarterback Tuffy Leemans. So Feagles settled on No. 17, which he wore during 2004.

And then the Giants signed Plaxico Burress on March 17, 2005. Burress, who wore number 80 with the Steelers, decided he wanted to change his luck after joining the team on St. Patrick's Day.

"It will be a day I'll never forget because [signing with the Giants] will give me the opportunity to prove what kind of player and person I am to my teammates and the fans," Burress said.

Soon Feagles' phone was ringing again.

"The Skibas [assistant equipment managers Joe and Ed] called me and said, ‘you've got to be one of the luckiest guys we've ever met because Plaxico wants your number," Feagles said. "I said ‘Ok, I'll get back to you.' So I got thinking about what I might want and I thought about the new home we'd bought in Phoenix and how we'd be redoing it. And I thought a nice outdoor kitchen would be nice. Plaxico's going to pay for that."

In most cases, uniform numbers are assigned to players based on seniority in the league. A young player is expected to relinquish his uniform to a veteran.

"There's just a rule of thumb," Feagles said. "The older player gets his pick of numbers. That's what happened to me when I signed with the Giants. There was a younger player who had 10 and the Giants simply told him you're not 10 anymore. But if you're not a veteran dealing with a younger player, there are probably other avenues you need to travel to get what you want."

When offensive tackle Kareem McKenzie signed with the Giants after four seasons with the Jets, Giants guard Chris Snee, who had just completed his rookie season, voluntarily offered his No. 67. In return, Snee got his college number, 76.

"It's a number I got used to wearing," McKenzie said. "It's familiar to me. I've worn it forever. It was great of Chris to give his number up. It says a lot about his character as an individual. You don't see many young players in the league that have respect for the players that have been in the league for a while.

"There's a monetary value to the number for me, but it's hard to say what. It would have all depended on the person I was dealing with, what their motivation was. But it was something I didn't need to worry about. It was handled very classy by Chris."

League rules changed two years ago allowing free agents and draft picks to ask for numbers not normally seen at certain positions in the NFL, like Burress' 17.

Sometimes teams temporarily refuse to dispense a number out of respect to a past player, like in the case of Ike Hilliard's 88, which the team held out for a few months until assigning it to tight end Sean Berton, who signed just before the season.

Sometimes equipment managers issue numbers they sense will look good on players, like the No. 91 they gave rookie defensive end Justin Tuck when 93 and 95 were also available.

And sometimes players will turn down a number out of respect to who once wore it, like when Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce refused No. 53, which belonged to the great Harry Carson.

"I'd rather not play the same position in the same number as someone who had a Hall of Fame career," said Pierce, who purchased No. 58 from Reggie Torbor, who in turn accepted No. 53. "I didn't want anyone to draw comparisons because I'm not that type of player yet."

And sometimes players happily give them away.

"I got No. 91 from the Giants when I signed with them [in 2003], then wanted to get rid of the number quick once I got hurt," said Ryan Kuehl, the Giants long-snapper.

"When Lorenzo Bromell joined the Giants, I was still wearing it. He asked me if he could have it. Keep in mind I was going to get rid of it no matter what and that I would have given him the number for a bag of balls.

"So he asked me, ‘how much is it worth?' I said, ‘you tell me.' I finally said $5,000, he came back with $3,000 and we settled for $4,000.

"I would have given him the number for a Big Mac and a Coke."

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