Friday, March 23, 2012

The Numbers Game: Manning, The Trip and #18

With all the media frenzy surrounding Peyton Manning’s decision to join the Denver Broncos, you may have missed the intrigue involving a critical element of the deal:  what number Peyton will wear when he trots onto the field for the first time this fall (though the issue almost got as much press as the actual deal).  Of course, he will be wearing the same orange-and-blue uniform his teammates will have.  The issue is what number his jersey will have on it.

When a player joins a new team, his first personal priority, after finding a good realtor, is keeping his jersey number.  This is especially true for a marquee player like Peyton Manning, who has worn Number 18 for his entire professional career (he wore #16 at the University of Tennessee).  Why?  It depends on the player, but there are several reasons for hanging on to your numeral:  superstition, emotional attachment, or the Benjamins.  For the big-money players, their number is part of their brand and appears on apparel, is emblazoned on merchandise and identifies them in video games.  Oh, and let's not forget the case of Chad Ochocinco (nee Johnson), who legally changed his last name as a (linguistically incorrect) homage to his numero...

However, as the song goes, you can’t always get what you want.  It is fairly common for the new player to discover that his number is already being worn by one of his new teammates.  This isn’t usually a problem, though, as the new co-workers can often work out a deal.  For an interesting article about the deals made between colleagues for jersey numbers, click here. 

In Peyton’s case, however, there was an unusual wrinkle:  the #18 jersey had been retired by the Broncos.  A jersey number is retired to honor a former player who was significant to the team’s history, and it means that no future player for that team can wear it.  Having one’s jersey retired is a tremendous honor, the equivalent to being named to that team’s Hall of Fame (and some players so honored might not have a shot of making the Pro Football Hall of Fame).  It is even more special because it is a rare honor to bestow:  the only other two numbers the Broncos have retired are Number 7 (worn by Hall of Fame QB John Elway) and No. 44 (worn by Hall of Fame running back Floyd Little).

So, who is the man who was the recipient of this tribute in Denver?  His name is Frank "The Trip" Tripucka, who was the first quarterback of the Denver Broncos.  Tripucka had a journeyman career before joining the Broncos when the team was formed in 1960 as one of the original teams in the American Football League (AFL).*  After graduating from Notre Dame in 1949, he was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles.  He never played for the Eagles, being traded to the Detroit Lions before the season began.  After the 1949 season, he joined the Chicago Cardinals, where he played for three seasons.  In 1953, he began a seven-season career with two different teams in the Canadian Football League.

Tripucka was hired by the newly formed Denver Broncos in 1960 to be an assistant coach.  However, the Broncos’ offense had its issues and a change was soon needed.  The Trip's number was called, as it were, and he became the team’s starting quarterback.  He would keep that job for four seasons.  His statistics during this period were not stellar, but in that 1960 season, he threw the first touchdown pass in the AFL and became the first professional QB in the United States to throw for 3,000 yards in a single season.

So, why was Manning seen holding up a Number 18 jersey when he was introduced as the new quarterback of the Broncos?  Tripucka gave his blessing to bringing it out of retirement, even before the team signed Manning.  In fact, the 84-year-old, who is battling Alzheimer’s, said that he would be honored if Peyton Manning, perhaps the greatest quarterback of all time, wore his number.  In a phone conversation with Manning Tuesday morning, he all but insisted on it.  So, should we feel sorry for The Trip?  Nah.  It’s likely that passing his old jersey number to Manning, and knowing that a new generation of football fans will know his name, have brought a little more joy to his golden years.

Tripucka (left) in 2009, making a $10k donation to help rehab his high school field.

Just out of curiosity, I looked to see what other Number 18 jerseys have been retired.  The only other retired Number 18 you’ll find in the NFL is in Kansas City, where it was worn by cornerback Emmitt Thomas from 1966 to 1978. 

*The particulars of the AFL’s history will be explained further as Naptime Huddle continues its review of football’s history in a future post.

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