The only thing that truly individualizes a football -- other than performance -- is his jersey number. If being a football player is the job title, then the number on the back of the jersey represents the nameplate or the business card.
I became very attached to my number in high school and college, half-jokingly telling friends that I was "Number 55 in their program but number one in their heart." I even wore a cheesy gold necklace with my number hanging from it.
But all that changes once you make it to the pros, especially if you are a low-round pick or, in my case, an undrafted free agent. Your NFL number is pretty much assigned to you without a whole lot of dialogue. The veteran who is wearing 'your' number couldn't care less about your personal attachment. The truth is, you don't even exist to them unless you make the team, and even then your preferred number is pretty much irrelevant.
As soon as I got the 68 pendant to hook onto my necklace as a member of the Redskins, I was released and claimed by the Cowboys on waivers. Alas, No. 68 was taken so I settled for 69. It was right about then that I realized wearing a chain with my number on it was both expensive and irritating to my then-girlfriend, who is now my wife. I went jewelry-free thereafter, even though no longer having the identifying number around my neck made me feel as if I were driving a car with no license plate.
I was released from Dallas after the 2002 season and went back to my college number (65) during my two years in Buffalo. I revisited No. 69 in New England in 2005 before I gave No. 66 a spin in Cleveland. Finally, my numerical journey ended back where it started at the professional level, wearing 68 for the Washington Redskins in 2007. Along the way, the attachment to any individual number subsided so significantly that I would daydream about some high-priced free agent signing with my team and offering to pay me for the right to wear my jersey number. At that point, I would have sold my number for pretty much anything because it no longer held any special significance for me. It was, in the end, just a number.
Even today when I meet a fan who asks for my autograph, I have no idea what number they want me to put down. What is your favorite team? Do you care what number I put? At this point, I might as well just sign my name "