As we count down to June 24th for the unveiling of new 2011 uniforms for the Buffalo Bills we take a look back at the franchise’s uniform history with anecdotes, stories and recollections from those that experienced the history first hand. Our latest installment is provided once again by long time Bills equipment manager Dave Hojnowski, more commonly known to Bills players over the years as “Hojo”. He shares with us how the jersey numbers of some of the club’s most famous players are in almost all cases off limits to current and future Bills.
Call it an unwritten rule. Call it respect. Whatever you want to call it odds are that you’re very unlikely to see another Bills player wearing one of these jersey numbers ever again.
The NFL does not promote the retiring of jersey numbers by their 32 clubs. Rosters currently number 61 counting the eight-man practice squad during the regular season, and balloon to 80 in the offseason. Knowing there are a limited amount of assigned numbers for certain positions, the idea of reducing the pool of numbers from which to choose is usually not in a team’s best interest.
That’s why most NFL teams honor their best players with a Ring of Honor, or in Buffalo’s case a Wall of Fame rather than retire jersey numbers. However, Buffalo’s equipment staff serves as very effective gatekeepers when it comes to some of the Bills’ most hallowed jersey numbers.
Numbers like 12, 15, 32, 34, 44, 66, 78 and 83. For any Bills fan the names do not need to be mentioned.
“What we did for a lot of those guys that I remember is out of respect to them we didn’t issue those numbers,” said Bills equipment manager Dave Hojnowski. “If no one asked for them we didn’t issue them.”
Players new to the team via free agency or the NFL draft sometimes will request a jersey number, usually one that they wore in college.
“He came in and asked for 34 and I said, ‘That’s not happening. We had Thurman Thomas here and we don’t issue that number,’” Hojnowski recalled. “A lot of these guys know who those players are so we tell them out of respect we don’t issue those numbers. Most of the new guys coming quickly understand they’re not getting 12 or 34 or one of these other numbers.”
What Hojnowski and the equipment staff do from there is give the new players a choice from the rest of the lot.
“We’ll take them in the office and say, ‘This is what’s available,’” Hojnowski said. “And they can pick and choose from there.”
Players wishing to change numbers from one season to the next, as Kawika Mitchell did in changing from 59 to 55, can also more difficult due to league restrictions.
“You have to call the league now with any number changes,” Hojnowski said. “A lot of it is tied to the production of player jerseys. Once the jersey number is sent to the league office, production begins on that player’s jersey for merchandise sales. If the league has produced mass quantities of a player’s jersey and the player wants to change numbers then it becomes a cost issue for the league and the player.”
In most cases rookies just take the number they’re assigned.
Only four other players have worn 12 besides Joe Ferguson and Jim Kelly. Just two others have worn jersey 15 besides Jack Kemp. Four players have worn 32, but O.J. Simpson was the last. A total of nine players have donned 34 including Cookie Gilchrist, but no one else since Thurman Thomas.
There have been three players that wore 44 since Elbert Dubenion, but their careers in Buffalo were short lived. The story is much the same for jersey 66. Hall of Famer Billy Shaw was the first to wear it, the five after him were short term free agents or late round draft choices.
Bruce Smith is the last of seven players to wear 78. Eight other players have worn 83 besides Wall of Famer Andre Reed, including current Bills receiver
“It’s harder to keep people out of 83 only because there are so many wide receivers,” said Hojnowski. “We do hold out as long as we can for some of those guys.”
When Lee Evans came to the Bills as a number one draft choice in 2004, he was issued number 84. Having worn jersey number 3 at Wisconsin, Evans knew that was not an option by league rule for a receiver. But being Lee Evans III and having worn 3 in some form on his jersey his whole football career he wanted 83.
“Basically we don’t use those numbers again until we check with Mr. Wilson,” Hojnowski said. “After getting the okay there I also did have to place a call to San Diego to Andre and tell him myself, ‘Look as a courtesy I’m letting you know that we’re issuing your number.’ So he asked me who and I told him it was Lee Evans and he said, ‘Okay, he’ll do the number proud.’”
Evans is one of the few exceptions on the Bills’ active roster. There have been some practice squad players that have worn some of the so called “untouchable numbers” recently and sometimes they’re used in training camp. If any of those camp players make the 53-man roster however, the equipment staff goes into action.
“We can use them for training camp just because we have so many players at that time, but once the season starts we try to get those guys out of those numbers.”
Hojnowski says 12 is technically the only officially retired number, but he does not expect to see a few others ever take the field again for the Bills.
“I think if you ask Mr. Wilson he would tell you that 32 will not be worn again only because O.J. was our first number one overall pick and first Hall of Famer,” said Hojnowski. “You might be able to throw 34 and 78 in that group too.”