Keeping Score

Peyton Manning Will Wear Number 18 In Denver. Why, Exactly, Do We Care?

Manning's decision to wear a previously retired number turned off some commentators. But all this fuss about numbers is just silly.

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Rick Wilking / Reuters

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning holds his new jersey in Englewood, Colorado on March 20, 2012.

On the day that Peyton Manning was introduced as the newest quarterback of the Denver Broncos, the buzz about the number Manning would wear for his new team, his familiar 18, seemed to equal that of the signing itself.

You see, Denver had retired number 18 back in 1963, in honor of Frank Tripucka, the franchise’s first quarterback. Tripucka wasn’t necessarily a great player. Some of his statistics, in fact, are pretty awful. He threw 85 interceptions and 51 touchdown passes during his three-plus seasons with the Broncos from 1960-63. His career record in Denver: 13-25-1.

But in 1960, he became the first U.S. pro quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in a season. (These days, Aaron Rodgers can pass that mark before the bye week.) And more importantly, he helped establish Denver as a viable pro football town.

Denver’s decision to unretire Tripucka’s number rubbed some commentators the wrong way. After all, what’s the point of retiring a number if you’re just going to bring it back decades later when a big name like Manning really wants it? Doesn’t such a change-up dishonor Tripucka’s accomplishments?

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At the start of his introductory press conference Tuesday afternoon, Manning tried to clear up any controversy. Manning said he, too, thought retired numbers should remain in the rafters. But, he added, Tripucka encouraged him to wear number 18. Peyton was just following an old pro’s wishes. He did not swipe an honor from someone living in a New Jersey retirement community.

The debate calls attention to one of the more baffling traditions in sports — the obsession over uniform numbers. It’s cloth, people. After jocks join a new team, they are famous for bribing the player who happens to wear their precious digits. When former outfielder Brian Jordan joined the Atlanta BravesĀ in 2005, for example, he gave third base coach Fredi Gonzalez a $40,000 motorcycle for No. 33. Hall of Fame baseball player Rickey Henderson once paid a Toronto teammate $25,000 to wear No. 24. And when Chad Ochocinco signed with New England last off-season, he reportedly was willing to pay top dollar for no. 85, which belonged to tight end Aaron Hernandez. It’s his namesake, after all. But Hernandez gave 85 to Ochocinco for free, and gladly took No. 81, the number he wore in college. Hernandez thrived with his new number, while Ochocinco stunk with his old one.

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Number deals can get downright bizarre. In 2004, when former Denver running back Clinton Portis joined the Washington Redskins, he initially offered to box Ifenyi Ohalete for No. 26, which he wore with the Broncos. (Surprisingly enough, Peyton did not invite Tripucka into the ring.) After Ohalete (wisely) passed on the offer, the two agreed to a contract: Portis would pay Ohalete $40,000 and provide him with some other gifts. But after Ohalete was released that summer, Portis refused to pay the remaining half that he owed Ohalete. What claim to No. 26 did Ohalete have now, since he was no longer with the team?

The case nearly ended up in court, before Portis and Ohalete settled for $18,000 — or 90% of what Portis owed. (If you’re pretty much paying someone what they ask for, can you really call it a settlement?)

Any cash handed to a new teammate just to secure a silly number can certainly be put to a more charitable use. Only the numbers produced on the field matter. But we’re glad Peyton is wearing 18, because we got to learn a little bit about Frank Tripucka. His son Kelly, for example, was a hoops star at Notre Dame, a two-time NBA All-Star with the Detroit Pistons, and owner of a pretty sweet perm. Plus, Tripucka, who is 84 and battling Alzheimer’s, according to the Associated Press, seems to be enjoying this late-life recognition. “I’d be honored if he wants to use it,” Tripucka told the Newark Star Ledger. By wearing his number 18, Peyton is lighting up Tripucka’s golden years.

Maybe this is another reason why Peyton’s Number 1.

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