It was announced not long after the Pittsburgh Steelers made some roster cuts earlier this offseason that a number of players would be changing their jersey numbers. After the team released Mike Mitchell, Joe Haden jumped at the chance to get his number 23 back.
That made the number 21 that Haden had worn the previous season available. Prior to that, Robert Golden had worn it since coming into the league. But that was Sean Davis’ number, and for good reason, and when it slipped through from Golden to Haden and then to nobody, he, too, jumped at the chance of taking it as his own.
That was the number that Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor wore before he was murdered. Taylor was on his way to being one of the greats, and a lot of young players grew up looking up to him and what he was accomplishing on the field.
Davis was one of them, growing up in Maryland and watching Washington’s games. “I tried to emulate him in my play and hopefully I can continue to do the same”, he recently told the team’s website, saying that he idolized Taylor.
“That was my number since my freshman year of high school. It means a lot to me. When it became available, I had to get on it”, Davis said. “I am really proud to wear his number. I had been wearing it for eight years. Hopefully I can summon up some Sean Taylor talent wearing it. I am going to wear it with pride. I am going to play really hard in it”.
The 2016 second-round pick spent his first two seasons in the league donning the number 28, which Mike Hilton took once it became available. Wearing 31 as a first-year player in 2017, he too jumped at the chance when the number he wore for years, both in high school and college, became available.
There was a chain reaction with Mitchell’s release. Haden, owning Taylor’s number, got his number back. Davis as a result got his Taylor jersey number back, and then Hilton got his own old number from Davis.
And now they’re all more comfortable in their new skins. “I loved number 31”, Hilton said, “but number 28 is personally who I am”, in case you needed some more proof of just how important a jersey number can be to these professional athletes. Look good, feel good. Feel good, play good.
Of course it doesn’t always work out. Ryan Clark long wanted to wear the number 21 jersey in Pittsburgh. He actually played with Taylor while they were both in Washington. But he was never able to, though he wore it in practices.
Now, I don’t think anybody is actually going to play better because they like the number on their jersey more than another. But that doesn’t make it any less personally valuable to these players to have the numbers they’re comfortable in.