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VOL. 42 | NO. 36 | Friday, September 7, 2018

Next generation has your number in the NFL

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Fans often identify players by their jersey number. And likewise, many players come to identify themselves with the number on their back during their playing career.

All-time greats in a sport often have their number retired, and certain numbers seem to belong to a player many decades after his career or even his life has ended.

No. 3, for example, belongs to Babe Ruth in baseball and to Dale Earnhardt in auto racing. Any number of Hall of Fame quarterbacks donned No. 12 in their careers.

Numbers become attached to players – and even former players. So what is it like when former players watch their old team and see someone else running around on the field wearing their number?

Former Titans safety Michael Griffin, who wore No. 33 during his nine-year run in Nashville, was back this summer as a coaching intern in training camp. And as he helped coach the Tennessee secondary, he couldn’t help but notice that running back Dion Lewis was making plays wearing his old No. 33.

“I joked with Dion Lewis, ‘Can I get my number back?’ But he’s a great football player, and I’m hoping that what he did in New England, he can do the same for the Titans,” Griffin says.

And Lewis acknowledges that sharing a number with a former player does make those players sort of connected in a way.

“Griffin said if I’m going to have 33 that I’ve got to rep it well, and I told him I would,” Lewis adds.

The connection runs even deeper with cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, who wears No. 25, the same jersey worn by another former Southern Cal star, LenDale White, when he was a Titan a decade earlier.

“I know him fairly well,” Jackson says of White. “The first time I hit him up was when I knew I was going to get No. 25. I hit him up, and he said it was cool. It was another SC guy wearing it, so I think he was cool with it.”

Numbers become part of a player’s identity, and Griffin recalled a story that took place in camp this year. When the Titans signed safety Kenny Vaccaro, he was given No. 30, which was one of the only available numbers left to hand out. That number formerly belonged to Griffin’s long-time Titans teammate Jason McCourty, now with the Patriots. So when Vaccaro donned No. 30, Griffin got a call from McCourty.

“J-Mac hit me up when they signed Kenny Vaccaro. He said, ‘Since Kenny is your boy from Texas, you’re just gonna let him have my No. 30.’ And I told him, ‘The Titans have passed my number around like a prostitute since I’ve been gone. We had a good laugh about that,” Griffin recalls.

Former Titans receiver Chris Sanders admits it took him a long time to get used to seeing someone else in his No. 81, which is now worn by tight end Jonnu Smith.

“To be honest, it was tough to know that somebody else was wearing my jersey, but not just that, to know that my career was over,” explains Sanders, who retired in 2001. “Even though I retired, I still had that bug in me to want to play. I couldn’t go to the games, because I still wanted to play wide receiver.”

Griffin acknowledges he learned early on that numbers might hold special meaning for players and fans, but to the front office, the coaches and the equipment staff, they are not quite as meaningful or sentimental.

“It hit me in reality when Keith Bulluck left. They didn’t re-sign him, and right away they gave 53 to Rennie Curran. I learned then that numbers around here ain’t sacred, that these numbers are just numbers,” Griffin says. “Defensive backs can only wear numbers in the 20s, 30s and 40s, and you’ve got a roster that starts out with 90 players, so you know your number is gonna get passed on to the next person.”

Titans play-by-play voice Mike Keith adds that learning numbers and relearning them when players come and go is a part of his preparation for each season.

“You have to constantly work through it, and it’s probably the biggest reason I come out to practice to get used to watching the guys in their numbers,” Keith says. “Over and over again, you come up with the repetitiveness of, ‘OK, 86 is (Anthony) Firkser, 25 is Jackson’ and I go over it over and over. “

But sometimes old memories die hard, even for seasoned broadcasters.

“There are times you’ll go back and you’ll say something about No. 21 (and you’ll think) Samari Rolle. Well, Samari Rolle hasn’t been here in 15 years. So they all do kind of run together after a while unless you’re cognizant of it all the time,” he points out.

A lot of times, no matter who is wearing it, some numbers just seem to stick to players, especially in the minds of fans. Griffin manages to keep a good sense of humor about it all, even if a reminder comes in a negative way.

“You do pay attention to how a guy wearing your number does. I know that for a while now, if a 33 misses a tackle, I still get reminded about it by people on Twitter,” Griffin says.

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