Why a Jersey Is More Than Just a Shirt


photo credit: T-shirts via photopin (license)
photo credit: T-shirts via photopin (license)

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.

EJP
EJP

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.

Me.

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.

photo credit: 1950's USA Throwback via photopin (license)
photo credit: 1950’s USA Throwback via photopin (license)

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.

jersey quote

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21 Replies to “Why a Jersey Is More Than Just a Shirt”

  1. I never did well in team sports and I am a mediocre runner at best, but my race shirts, the ones I’ve gotten in my swag bag the days of the races, mean the world to me. I’ve never run a marathon with skill and precision but I’ve done them with clarity and hope. And that mylar blanket they handed me at the finish line – the one that took me FIVE hours to get to – has no other purpose right now but to sit in my closet – but I will never throw it out. Perhaps one day I’ll frame it like your girls did with their jerseys. What a compelling post. Great writing.

    1. Yes, race shirts are another thing that should never wind up in the yard-sale pile. Clarity and hope can carry you pretty far, can’t it? I think the jerseys and the blankets mean more when you have to earn them, and even more when earning them is anything but easy.

      It was a collaborative effort for the whole family for me, and the girls have often said they miss wearing those jerseys! I definitely appreciate the sacrifice.

  2. This is a little different, but I have my “France” jersey for when we are in the soccer World Cup (unfortunately, I haven’t had much occasion to wear it these past couple of championships) but it means a lot to me, especially now that we no longer live in France. It’s the same one I wore when France won years ago and I partied in the streets of Paris like there was no tomorrow and it holds a lot of wonderful memories!

    1. That jersey can make the World Cup run feel like yesterday, though, can’t it? And a football shirt can make friends of strangers. On Christmas Eve night, in a busy mall years ago, I was wearing my own France jersey. A guy working at a kiosk excitedly said, “France! France! Parley Voo Frahn-say??”

      I had to break it to him I was just an American who thought the shirt looked cool.

  3. Oh this is so awesome Eli. I love how you shared your passion for sport and for all it truly embraces in your life…and your girls’! You always have a way with making any topic journey through a winding road of intrigue and wonder. I love that about you. 🙂

    1. Thanks Chris! This was a post I didn’t feel much inspiration to write when I started. It was a prompt I’d given myself, and it wasn’t until I started thinking about my own jerseys and my girls’, that I remembered what jerseys really mean to me.

  4. Love, love, love your writing. You have a new follower. My kids are still at the ages where they have to turn in their jerseys at the end of the season, but when they do get to keep them I’m going to do the framing thing you mentioned. Great memories for them.

  5. You know, I never thought of it this way. I have cleaned more jerseys than I care to admit and never thought of it this way. That makes me sad. I wish I would have because I would have washed Nico’s #2 for football and #23 for basketball with a lot more emotion than I did. I would have taken pride in washing Tommy’s #2 for football and #24 for basketball and both their baseball jerseys (especially since Nico has given up baseball). This was eye-opening. Thank you.

  6. My husband says no one over a certain age should wear a jersey, but I still do from time to time, and I like them. I have an old Herman Moore jersey I break out once in awhile that really drives him crazy, lol. I didn’t play sports in high school (people are still thanking me for that, I’m sure), so I don’t have any of my own.

  7. The closest I can come to relating to this is I still have Matt’s t-ball shirt. The Cubs, and his last name was too long to put on the back of it. The one and only time he played team sports, before going into 8 years of martial arts.

    Kid can switch-hit and throw left or right-handed. Now that’s he’s old enough for college, I try to remember why I didn’t push him to consider baseball before??

    1. I have a jersey Grace wore as a guest player on one of my club teams – it’s a black T-shirt with a 4 taped to the back! I believe if you had pushed him to consider it, he might have turned away anyway. And who knows when the experience will pay off? Maybe not as the Chicago Cubs leadoff hitter, but maybe teaching another kid to switch-hit? So many possibilities.

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