I wore a jersey today to work. I know. That goes against my rule of not wearing one past age 40.
I don’t feel like a superstar, but I do feel like a player.
I’m cutting through my work today with skill and precision. Or, at least, clarity and hope. I will probably spill something on this jersey. It’s a soccer shirt, for Newcastle United, with my name and Elise’s old number on the back.
Despite the cool gray piping and official colors, I don’t feel any more like a champion while wearing it as I would if I were in a blue T-shirt and olive green vest – like I probably will be tomorrow.
But a jersey is more than just a shirt.
It’s polyester-made. Screen-printed. Torn, tattered. Stained, by grass and Gatorade. Memory-laden, by glory and grief. Made of colors expressly the team’s; emblazoned with a number exclusively the player’s.
Soccer players exchange their jerseys with respected opponents after a match.
When a player is drafted, the moment his dreams come true, what does he hold up for photos? His new jersey.
When a player reaches legendary status with his team, they retire his number – preventing future players from wearing it – and it’s lifted to the rafters.
It’s colors and emblems and loyalty. It’s also undying memory and agony and all-out hate for a rival.
So let’s forget for a moment that a jersey is just glorified laundry. Because when you put one on, it feels like so much more that that.
Even for a guy like me.
# # #
I wore No. 54 in football. I was one of the last to make the team. By the time I filed into the room the coaches had separated jerseys by 10s, the starters and players who easily made the team had already snatched up the numbers their heroes wear – 10, 21, 33, 55. Among the 39s and 41s and 79s was the 54 I’d make mine.
Perfect for a third-string fullback and linebacker.
I can still see the bright red mesh jersey, with white numbers. No stripes. No piping. No frills.
The number could have been pi squared, for all I cared. I.had.a.jersey.
No one famous ever wore No. 54, but I definitely knew who else did. Keith Bishop. Grant Feasel. Popeye Jones.
I wore 44 in basketball, 8 in baseball. I missed layups in that No. 44, turned the ball over, watched crunch time from the bench. I even scored like an all-star while hyped up on Actifed as a fourth grader, only to foul out of the next game without my lucky allergy pill.
I struck out more times than hit safely with No. 8 on my back. Commited two errors in an inning to help my high school team to an embarrassing forfeit. I was hit in the head more times than I hit the ball. Let’s be honest.
But those numbers, those jerseys … I’ll never ever forget them.
# # #
My girls don’t care much about the number on the back of the jersey. There are no heroes on posters lining their walls, save for Grace’s recent poster tribute to Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III and Rockets shooting guard James Harden. No one to emulate. Only themselves, to perpetuate. I love that.
I’ve often implored my teams to play with unity, citing the name on the front of the jersey, not the one on the back. One girl who got the message put it her own way before a huge match – “today, it’s all about the blue shirt!”
That team in blue shirts won a title by beating three teams in three nights, the last on a 32-degree November night. A great early birthday present for their bundled-up coach.
# # #
My girls sacrificed jerseys from their championship seasons for one of the greatest Christmas presents I ever got – each of them framed, like hall of famers.
There are others. In the girls’ rooms, they have every jersey from every season, and to them, they’re something to wear to practice. I can pick each of them up and remember something from that season, struggles, triumphs, teammates, rivals.
They’re nostalgia for a guy like me, whose jersey number was never coveted by the next guy to come along, who decided that he was just too old to throw on a hockey sweater or football jersey like he used to for everyday use. I’ve hung them up, figuratively, at least.
They still give me clarity and hope.
I’ll leave the skill and precision to my girls.