Retiring jerseys is special
What is an athletic jersey anyway? Is it just a bunch of fabric sewn together with a random number plopped on the back with a team name assigned to the front? Or does a jersey represent something bigger?
Coaches and players everywhere can testify to the fact that the day jerseys are handed out can be one of the most hectic and emotional days of the entire season. Nearly every athlete chooses a number that they identify with, one that will later be identified with them.
That number/jersey becomes not just a way to differentiate the players on the field or court, but rather a source of pride each time it’s worn.
Hung neatly, all in a row in my closet at my parents’ house in Wisconsin, are every single soccer jersey I wore from my first YMCA team jersey at age six to my club soccer uniform I wore as a senior in high school.
Nearly every time I’m home for a visit, my dad drops hints about budgeting a few minutes to clean out my closest. I usually go through and throw out a few things here and there, but for some reason, every time I see those jerseys I cannot bring myself to part with them.
I know I’ll never wear them again, but to throw them out would be like throwing out a photo album.
Perhaps years ago it was someone like me who saw similar value and importance in a number or a jersey and hence introduced the tradition of retiring a jersey.
In nearly every professional sports stadium or arena across the country, fans see jerseys of past athletes hanging from the rafters or along the outfield wall. Because of the impact that person had on the sport or the team, no one will ever wear that number again.
It is the ultimate compliment an athlete can be paid.
Last Friday night, I covered the Forest Lake Christian girls basketball game against Woodland Christian. The gym was filled to the brim for homecoming festivities and before the girls game the school held a special ceremony.
A 2005 graduate of the school, Brooke Hodges, became the first athlete male or female in school history to have her jersey retired.
Forest Lake Christian High School Principal David Wickstrom told me later that the school had talked about retiring jerseys before, but felt no one had really earned the honor before Hodges.
“We certainly saw a sense of accomplishment in her that we hadn’t experienced with anyone else,” Wickstrom said.
Hodges was a player who started every single game on the varsity squad during her four years, never lost a league game, was a member of the 2003-04 state championship team, was an all-state selection and a straight “A” student.
It’s hard to argue with those credentials.
But after seeing Hodges’ jersey retired, I began to think about the gyms at Bear River and Nevada Union. How many athletes had enjoyed the same honor at those schools?
The answer – a very select few.
Bear River athletic director Jack McCrory told me that in the school’s 20-year history no jersey has been retired, but it is something that has been discussed.
“I think it would give a historical perspective to what’s been going on here (at Bear River),” McCrory said.
As I was talking to Jack, Scott Savoie, one the co-head coaches of the school’s football team stopped by his office. I asked Savoie what he thought about retiring jerseys.
While he liked the idea of honoring the memory of a player, he was skeptical about how realistic it is to retire a high school jersey.
“We are a high school program,” Savoie said. “What happens if a kid has been No. 32 his whole career and then has to change once he gets to high school?”
Dave Humphers, head football coach at Nevada Union, pointed out similar issues with the idea noting that with some times as many as 90 kids go out for the team and the program simply can’t afford to have certain numbers unavailable because they’d run out of jerseys.
In fact the only Nevada Union football jersey that has been retired was No. 88, which was worn by Adam Strain. Strain, a Marine, died in Iraq this past August.
But the idea of honoring past athletes is something both coaches love. Savoie is in the process of creating a wall of fame for his past players – a way to recognize their accomplishments without having to take a number out of circulation.
Former Nevada Union girls basketball coach Craig Strohm aspired to a similar concept, except he did use the jerseys. During his 20 years of coaching, he “retired” close to 16 jerseys.
But don’t be confused, while he did retire the jerseys, he didn’t retire the numbers. Every couple of years as the program bought new uniforms or changed styles, instead of throwing the old ones out, Strohm took the jerseys and put on them the names of his players. He then added the jerseys to the wall of the West Gym (the House of Pain) next to the player’s accomplishment, like a section or league title.
“It was a unique way of recognizing the kids, instead of just boxing the jerseys up,” Strohm said.
The only other jersey I found to be legitimately retired was that of 2005 Nevada Union graduate Ali Daley. Daley plays outside hitter for the Long Beach State volleyball team and was named Big West Conference Freshman of the Year this fall.
Daley, like Hodges, had accomplished so much in her sport at the high school level it’s no shock to see her jersey hanging in Ali Gymnasium.
While retiring a jersey is a popular idea in the sports world, it has not necessarily became a staple of western Nevada County high school sports.
If any prep athlete in the area ever sees his or her jersey on the wall, they will know they were truly something special.
Sportswriter Stacy Hicklin’s column appears on Wednesdays. To contact her, e-mail her via email@example.com or call 477-4244.
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