By Jason Menard
It’s a practice long held sacred in our sporting environments. We honour our greats by retiring their numbers and hoisting commemorative banners. But we’ve come to a time when we need to re-examine this practice and bring about a new way to recognize our past heroes – by celebrating them in the present.
Instead of shining a light on our athletic greats, the process of removing their numbers from circulation only serves to keep today’s fan in the dark about past exploits. Instead of keeping these players at the forefront of our thoughts, retiring their numbers only creates an out-of-sight, out-of-mind scenario.
It’s time to honour our past by embracing it and making it a part of us – not hanging it in a corner only to collect dust. Whether your favourite game is played on ice, grass, turf, or hardwood, embracing its past and learning about its greats enables fans to gain a greater appreciation of the sport. That’s why Halls of Fame are so popular – the past comes to life again, memories are rekindled, and we can celebrate our history in living colour (or black and white, as the case may be.)
Most casual fans – the ones that sporting leagues covet and woo – aren’t steeped in the history of the game. They know what they see and, if their interest is piqued, they’ll go on to learn more about the game. But watching on TV or listening on the radio, you’re not going to be exposed to the uniform numbers that aren’t there. Most fans don’t get to an arena, stadium, or court – their exposure to the game is no closer than their living room – so they don’t get the benefit of seeing the banners or commemorative photos.
That’s why we need to bring these numbers down from the rafters and back to the playing field – with a twist. Teams should allow players to wear honoured numbers, but something should be done to the uniform to make it stand out from the crowd. Whether it’s using gold or silver numbers instead of the team’s normal colour, or the addition of an insignia or border, something should be added to the uniform to draw attention to it.
Really, what greater honour can we give to our retired greats than the gift of relevance for future generations? Is Maurice Richard best served by hanging a dusty piece of cloth from the rafters of the Bell Centre or by a young boy or girl asking their father why that player’s number 9 is different from the rest?
For the players, what greater honour would there be than to don the number of the heroes they emulated growing up. A few years back, Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning expressed a desire to don retro footwear to honour Johnny Unitas – but imagine how much more impact it would have been for him to run out of the tunnel wearing Mr. Football’s number 19.
And while many may say that keeping the uniforms in circulation may allow present and future players to tarnish the memories of the past, they’re forgetting that it wasn’t the uniform that made the player great – it was the player who brought honour to the uniform. The number on the back was often a matter of circumstance or luck – but the player who wore it – that’s what was truly special. No dishonour could ever be brought to the players’ names by new competitors bearing their numbers. While the curmudgeons among us will look at a player’s number and say, “Well, he’s no…” what’s lost in the negativity is the simple beauty of that sentiment. For that brief moment, we’re able to remember the past, to see our favourite player in our memory as if they were right in front of us.
It’s a win-win situation all around for players and fans alike. The exploits of retired players will continue to be retold each and every time a new fan asks for the story behind that specially designated number that a modern player is wearing. They’re no longer on the shelf, simply to be overlooked like any other decoration, but rather they get taken down and become a vibrant part of today’s game.
The players get to honour their idols on the field of play. While many of these players have chosen uniform numbers to pay homage to their heroes throughout their lives, now they can do the same on the largest stage possible. And, if their exploits warrant it, they can have the ultimate honour of being recognized alongside their heroes in perpetuity.
For the fans, it gives them a chance to relive their memories, stir up debate, and swap stories with friends and families. And, for the new fans and the kids, it allows them to learn and appreciate the history of their game. It gives generations an opportunity to bond through the sharing of stories about a common love. And, most importantly it gives the gift of memories that will last a lifetime and will be passed down from generation to generation.
Our hearts have long been in the right place when it comes to honouring our athletic greats. But their greatness was exhibited on the field of play and that’s where they would best be honoured – on the very stage that they once owned and in the hearts and minds of the fans that appreciated them.
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