Ever since we posted our Q&A with highly touted 2016 running back recruit Robert Washington, Syracuse fans have been talking about whether the University should take the legendary number 44 out of retirement, since Washington clearly understands and respects the lore and has inquired about carrying on the legacy. The number was retired on November 5, 2005, but its impact has carried on.
As Syracuse has fallen from the national spotlight over the past decade or so, the primary argument against restoring the jersey has been that it wouldn’t make much of a difference to recruits, because they don’t know the history behind the number or appreciate its tremendous significance. But that hasn’t really been true since September 12, 2008. That’s the day The Express hit theaters.
And really, what a tremendous recruiting tool that movie has proven to be. Numerous prospects over the last few years have mentioned becoming more familiar with the Orange simply because they enjoyed that film. Remember, these kids coming though high school right now were at the age when they were just beginning to pick up football, and an inspirational, family-friendly movie about their new favorite sport was bound to stick with them.
And at its heart, that movie was a celebration not just of Ernie Davis, but also the legacy of 44. That’s why there’s a scene in which Ernie goes to Ben Schwartzwalder believing there must have been a mistake, and that he wasn’t truly supposed to receive the great Jim Brown’s number. That’s why there’s a scene at the end showing Ernie helping deliver Floyd Little to the Orange, signifying a passing of the torch to the next great 44.
If you’re reading this site, chances are I don’t need to tell you about the legend and importance of 44. For goodness sake, the Syracuse University zip code was changed to 13244, and the local phone numbers begin with 443, because damnit, 44 has to be a part of the culture of the University.
The legacy has gone beyond football, as well. Two of the greatest players in Syracuse basketball history have also worn 44, with both Derrick Coleman and John Wallace donning the fabled number while leading the Orangemen to appearances in the NCAA national championship game in 1987 and 1996.
The stumbling blocks in restoring 44 are there, and they’re a little tricky to work around. The first is that, as the great Jim Brown said, “I think it’s very difficult to try to pick an individual prematurely that’s going to be able to fulfill the shoes of 44.”
This is true. For every Jim Brown, there’s been a Mandel Robinson. For every Ernie Davis, there’s a Glenn Moore, and so on. The last two truly successful backs to wear the number at Syracuse were Michael Owens (brother of hoops great Billy), who wore it from 1987-1989 and topped the 1,000 yard mark during the 1989 season. At the time, he was just the fourth Syracuse back to ever achieve that feat. The last player to wear 44 was Rob Konrad, who had a tremendous career as a dynamic fullback alongside Donovan McNabb before going on to play for the Miami Dolphins and, apparently, turning into Aquaman recently.
The second stumbling block is the fact that Syracuse had a very public ceremony retiring the number for good less than a decade ago, shortly after Daryl Gross became the athletics director at the University. It might look a little foolish now for the Orange to turn around and un-retire the jersey given the work and money that went into that ceremony, but frankly – who cares?
The third is the fact that players have supposedly turned the number down over the years. One of the players believed to have been offered 44 was Walter Reyes, who preferred sticking with the jersey number 39. And that’s something that you’re going to run into now and then: even if you offer 44 to a difference making recruit, there’s no guarantee he will even want it. He either may have his own favorite number he’d prefer to stick with, or he simply might not want the pressure that comes from trying to live up to the legacy.
But right now, we are high on the list of one of the most high profile running backs in the country. This is a position we have not experienced for quite awhile, even though we’ve certainly had some good backs come through the program over the past 10-15 years (Reyes, Delone Carter, Ant Bailey, Jerome Smith, among others were all good college players, but not nearly as highly touted as Washington when they came out of high school).
The people who are against taking 44 out of retirement might also say that you can’t do it simply for one player, but the fact of the matter is even if you restore 44 and give it to Washington – who, remember, told us he would love to wear it – it’s not just about him. It’s about what it symbolizes for the program. Syracuse needs to start landing these elite recruits to get back into the national spotlight, but that’s kind of a Catch-22 situation. You need elite players to get your program on track, but elite players generally want to play with other elite players.
Enter Washington. If Syracuse is able to land him – and 44 may be the key – it lets other elite recruits know that Syracuse is a school to take seriously. Washington told us he plans on helping recruit other great players to join him wherever he goes, and that could create a snowball effect that leads to Syracuse getting back to national relevancy.
At the end of the day, you’re not tarnishing the legacy of 44 by un-retiring it and giving it to a high profile recruit who has publicly stated wanting to wear it. You aren’t just restoring 44, but you’re taking steps toward restoring the legacy that jersey number stands for.
I think at this point you can guess that I’m very much in favor of taking the jersey down out of the rafters and offering it to Mr. Washington. If that’s going to help put us over the top with that outstanding young talent, do it. It’s the first step toward making the Syracuse football program great again.