One of the oldest sayings in sport is “You can’t tell the players without a scorecard.”
That goes back in time to the first and most basic team marketing efforts, that of selling scorecards for a penny (prices have really gone up!) to the fans in the stands.
Ever since teams started putting numbers on players’ jerseys — a practice which began in the 1920′s — what number a player wears has become as much an identification of some athletes as their name. I was just doing a little research into Denver Broncos all-time player numbers, with this being the 50th anniversary of the franchise, and here are a few Bronco number notations.
Every jersey number has been worn at least once in francchise history.
Three are retired: 7 for John Elway — one of three players ever to wear No. 7 — 18 for Frank Tripucka, and 44 for Floyd Little.
Three players have worn three different numbers: offensive lineman Sam Brunelli wore 64, 68, and 72; tight end Nate Jackson wore 14, 81, and 89; linebacker Keith Burns, now a Broncos special teams coach, wore 51, 55, and 56 while firing up the fans.
There are three numbers that have each been worn just once: Tripucka is the only Bronco ever to wear 18, placekicker David Treadwell is the only No. 9 in franchise annals, and the legendary Johnny O (John Olszewski, a well traveled NFL veteran fullback who concluded his playing days as a Bronco in 1962) always liked to wear a uniform number that symbolized his nickname: the nickname was Johnny O, hence the number was 0.
American Football League fans will remember that the Oakland Raiders’ great Hall of Fame center Jim Otto went Johnny O one farther by wearing 00 on his back, the lowest number ever worn in sports history.
Despite great research efforts by the public relations department, the Broncos have three early year players whose uniform numbers remain unknown: tackle Leo Reed (1961), halfback Harold Williams (1962) and end Hugh Smith (1962). Early record keeping was very sporadic, and it’s amazing how much we actually do know about the early years, but we don’t know the uniform numbers of those three men.
The highest number ever worn is 99, which has been used ten times, always by a defensive lineman.
Lots of players have worn two numbers, and among the most prominent are linebacker Randy Gradishar, who was 52 as a rookie before becoming the legendary number 53, and tight end Shannon Sharpe, who was 81 for two years before donning his familiar 84.
In the early years, Cookie Gilchrist wore number 2 his first time with the Broncos and then opted for number 30 when he returned to the club.
And everbody knows John Elway’s No. 7.
But before Elway wore it, Craig Morton had it from 1977-82, and since John’s arrival was 1983 that means the Denver quarterback wore 7 from 1977 through 1998, 21 consecutive years.
But the first number 7 was Milton (Mickey) Slaughter, who wore numbers 7 and 14 duing his early 1960′s Denver career. Although not familiar to many Bronco fans today, Slaughter continued in the game as a fine coach and his most notable player was Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw, tutored by Mickey Slaughter while a collegian at Louisiana Tech.
So it is still true that you can’t tell the player without some form of scorecard, but it’s also true that even a scorecard does not tell you the history behind a number.