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Inside the Numbers: There’s more to that number than just digits

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What’s your favorite number and why is that? Without a doubt, mine is 21. I didn’t choose that digit because it’s my birthday or due to the fact that it’s an odd number. My affinity for 21 was inspired by my favorite athlete: former San Diego Chargers running back and current New York Jet LaDainian Tomlinson.

I didn’t wear Tomlinson’s number on the gridiron, but instead donned it growing up on a baseball diamond. While I was diving into home plate to put a run on the board, Tomlinson was diving over a pile of lineman into the end zone for a touchdown. With 21 on my uniform, I had a superstitious power and a connection to my favorite athlete that no one could take away from me.

Each year, at the commencement of Little League, Pop Warner and American Youth Soccer Organization leagues across the nation, children cry, fight and scream at the realization that they are about to embark on an entire season without wearing their favorite number. It may seem childish, but this kind of behavior can be seen amongst high school, college and professional athletes alike. It all relates to obsessive superstitions that are common among a number of athletes of all ability levels.

Upon being traded from the National Football League’s Denver Broncos to the Washington Redskins in 2004, running back Clinton Portis faced a major issue. His concern wasn’t relocating his family across the country or establishing chemistry with his new teammates. Instead, his apprehensions stemmed from his uniform. The number 26, two digits that Portis had worn on his uniform as a Pro Bowl tailback for the Broncos, already belonged to Redskins safety Ifeanyi Ohalete.

Portis challenged Ohalete to a boxing match for the rights to wearing 26, an invitation that Ohalete denied. With a stalemate created by a mutual attachment to a number, Portis decided to negotiate with Ohalete. The two parties agreed that Portis would pay $40,000 for the right to have a “2” and a “6” stitched on his uniform.

After Ohalete was later released from the Redskins’ roster, the controversy ensued. Portis paid an initial installment of $20,000 for the number, but after his teammate’s release, he refused to pay the remaining $20,000.

Ohalete responded by suing Portis for failing to pay him. The safety’s lawyers drafted a complaint claiming that “Professional athletes […] believe that their jersey numbers positively contribute to their performance on the field.” Both athletes felt that the jersey number would give them a much-needed psychological edge over opponents. They reached an $18,000 settlement before going to court.

At UC Irvine, various Anteaters athletes have shown elation, disappointment and nonchalance upon acquiring the numbers on their respective uniforms. The women’s basketball team’s freshman forward Jazmyne White entered Irvine yearning to wear her favorite number, seven, “because that’s God’s divine number,” she said.

In her freshman campaign, White averaged 4.7 points and 6.9 rebounds per game while wearing the 11 on her uniform.

“I didn’t get to choose my number since I was a freshman,” White said, “so 11 is what I settled for … but number 11 grew on me.”

Despite her initial disappointment, White now refers to 11 as her favorite number.

“It’s my number for the next three years,” White said.

Sophomore utility Jordan Fox has played a valuable role on the baseball club this season, playing many positions without committing a single error to date. However, he has still managed to make Head Coach Mike Gillespie shake his head in befuddlement. As a freshman, Fox wore the number 43, because “his favorite NASCAR driver is Richard Petty,” the Hall of Fame coach said.

When Gillespie confronted his versatile ballplayer about trading up in his sophomore season to a more appropriate jersey number, Fox denied the opportunity, deciding to continue to wear his peculiar number.

“I told him that there are lower numbers available (numbers 6, 9 and 10 were all claimable) and he didn’t have to wear that number,” Gillespie humorously said in disbelief.

Freshman pitcher Matt Whitehouse did not receive presidential treatment when it came to jersey selection; however, he explains that he isn’t superstitious when it comes to uniform numbers.

“I would have picked 17,” Whitehouse said. “That’s the number I wore in high school, but it doesn’t matter to me.”

In a sport that is purely based off of individual battles amongst young men in collared shirts, senior golfer John Chin explains that if golfers were to suddenly start wearing numbers on their backs, he would choose number one.

“Because I want to be the best,” Chin said.

Los Angeles Lakers forward Ron Artest wears number 37 in honor of the late Michael Jackson, in order to commemorate his 37 straight weeks in which Thriller was at the top of the charts.

Future Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson wore number 51 for nearly a decade as the ace of the Seattle Mariners. Years after Johnson’s departure from the Mariners, Japanese star outfielder Ichiro Suzuki arrived in Seattle and decided to wear Johnson’s former number. Ichiro, wary of the seriousness of the situation, actually wrote a letter to Johnson promising to never bring shame to his number.

A jersey number can be more than just stitching on a player’s back. It’s an element of sports that often goes unnoticed and unquestioned, but behind many athletes, a deeper story exists behind their number. Perhaps it was inspired by LaDainian Tomlinson, Kobe Bryant or just chosen on a whim. Sure it is ridiculous to get all hyped up over a number, but for many, it can come with a story, a superstition or a deep-rooted tradition.

So if it’s tough to stay focused, as an Anteater fanatic, throughout an entire nine-inning game at Cicerone Field or a five set volleyball match at the Bren, pause and consider the meaning on the back of your fellow Anteater’s jersey. There’s likely more to it than just a number. And just think, if he strikes out, misses a free throw attempt or commits an unforced error, maybe the outcome would have been different if he had been wearing his lucky number.