There are no real rules on retiring numbers. It’s a formality, a sign of respect; when a number is retired, it shows that the organization views the wearer of that jersey in a dignified, honored manner. In fact, there is only one real rule when it comes to retiring jersey numbers: no one is allowed to wear that number for that team ever again.
Unless your name is Peyton Manning, of course.
During his announcement on Tuesday afternoon, Peyton Manning flashed a big smile as he held up the orange jersey, freshly pressed with “Manning” on the back and the number 18 stretched across it. He spoke with grace and dignity about Frank Tripucka, the original owner of the Broncos No. 18 jersey. He said all the right things.
“I had the privilege of speaking with Frank Tripucka this morning,” Manning said at the press conference. “It really goes against everything I believe in being a guy who appreciates the history of football and I believe when a number is retired it should stay retired; but in talking to Frank Tripucka, I feel he really wants me to wear his number. It was a very humbling conversation and I am honored to wear his number.”
He wasn’t the only one saying the right things on the subject. Tripucka, a man most football fans did not know until this week, is quoted in an article from First-and-Orange, a Denver Broncos fan blog, as saying that he would be “honored” if Manning wore his jersey number. Both Manning and Tripucka are fine with unretiring the number. And if there were a right way to go about this process, they would be successfully doing so.
Unfortunately, there isn’t.
Whether or not Tripucka is okay with having his number unretired, it was retired for a reason. Tripucka was the Broncos’ first quarterback in history, and whether or not his on-field performance is as impressive as Manning’s, he serves a place in Denver Broncos history. If unretiring a number really “goes against everything” Peyton believes in, he should’ve proved that by finding a new number to represent. The truth is that Manning had to say what he said, but it is clear that the number 18 is very significant to him. If it weren’t, he wouldn’t have gone against what is a very rare honor in the Broncos franchise.
The Broncos have retired only three numbers, which greater shows the significance of Tripucka’s spot in franchise history. Of the three retired numbers, only two are in the designated quarterback number range: 18 and 7. This means that Manning had 17 numbers to choose from when choosing his new number. He could have gone with 16, the jersey he wore the last time he donned an orange jersey, at the University of Tennessee. He could have thrown a curveball and went with another number like 1 or 8.
Everyone who is okay with Peyton bringing 18 out of the Ring of Fame talks about the production of Manning, and that is hard to argue against. Peyton Manning is a once-in-a-generation quarterback, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime. His numbers are astounding, and there are few football fans who don’t think of Peyton when they think of the number 18. For a quarterback that has done as much as he has, maybe the rules shouldn’t apply. After all, there’s no precedent for a surefire Hall-of-Fame quarterback changing teams late in his career, is there?
Enter Joe Montana.
Joe Montana’s 1993 trade from San Francisco to Kansas City is similar to this offseason’s situations in many ways. Both Montana and Manning had brought a championship (or more) to their team. Both were undeniable Hall of Famers for their first team. Both brought relevance to their franchise and city. Both were supplanted by young quarterbacks who represented the future. And both, in their late 30s, went to a team where the number they had worn their entire career was already retired.
For the Chiefs, it was Super Bowl Champion Len Dawson’s 16 that had been retired. In a New York Times article in 1993, Len Dawson is quoted as saying that he didn’t want them to unretire his number. Montana obviously respected his wishes, as he played the rest of his career wearing 19.
However, like the current situation, their opinions shouldn’t matter. Because when a number is retired, it should stay retired. Dawson said that he was told “No Chief would ever wear 16 again.” I’m sure a similar sentiment was promised to Tripucka. That’s how retired numbers work. No matter who you are. No matter if you’re Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, or anybody else. Going against that counteracts the point of retiring numbers. If a retired number has the potential to be unretired any time a popular and celebrated star moves to another team, what’s the point of retiring numbers in the first place?
There isn’t a set rulebook on retiring numbers, but if there were, the Denver Broncos just threw it out the window.
Nathan Raby is co-founder and writer of The Footbawl Blog.
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