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The Remarkable History of Iconic College Football Jerseys

Iconic — NCAA Jerseys on display at NFL Experience
© Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In the realm of college football, a jersey number is far more than just a piece of fabric adorned with digits. It’s a symbol of legacy, a beacon of pride and a mark of identity that resonates with fans and players alike. From the hallowed grounds of historic stadiums to the roaring cheers of die-hard supporters, certain jersey numbers have transcended the sport, becoming iconic in their own right.

The history of iconic college football jersey numbers is a rich tapestry woven with tales of extraordinary athletes who left indelible marks on the game. These numbers, often revered and sometimes retired, encapsulate the achievements and spirit of the players who wore them.

From the legendary runs of Heisman Trophy winners to the clutch performances of All-Americans, each number carries a story that continues to inspire future generations. This article delves into the evolution of these famed digits, exploring how they came to be associated with greatness and an enduring impact on college football culture.

Michigan, No. 2

The No. 2 jersey at the University of Michigan symbolizes excellence and tradition, particularly among defensive players. This legacy began with Charles Woodson in the 1990s and continues with recent standouts who uphold the high standards associated with the number.

Charles Woodson

From 1995 to 1997, Woodson defined what it means to be a defensive back, culminating in his historic 1997 season when he won the Heisman Trophy. To this day, he is the only primarily defensive player to win college football's most prestigious award. His game-changing plays, including a pivotal interception and a memorable punt return for a touchdown against Ohio State on Nov. 22, 1977, in Ann Arbor, paved the Wolverines' way to the Rose Bowl and established the No. 2 jersey as a symbol of exceptional talent and impact.

In 2018, Woodson was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Additionally, in 2021, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Iconic Heisman Trophy Winner — Charles Woodson Michigan
© Kirthmon F. Dozier via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The torch has been passed: Wearing the No. 2 jersey at Michigan signifies more than on-field excellence—it involves upholding the legacy of Woodson. This tradition is honored through acts of respect, such as players seeking permission from predecessors to wear the number, exemplified by Shea Patterson's request of Woodson. This gesture highlights the jersey’s revered status and the responsibility associated with wearing it.

Shea Patterson

Patterson, a quarterback, wore the No. 2 jersey with Woodson's blessing, emphasizing the number's broad legacy beyond defensive positions. This unconventional choice underscored the number's significance and versatility. While wearing the jersey, Patterson threw for 8,800 yards and 68 touchdowns. He also had 8 rushing touchdowns.

Shea Patterson Michigan
© Mark Hoffman via Imagn Content Services, LLC
Blake Corum

Corum left an indelible mark on Michigan football while wearing the No. 2 jersey. Over four years, he set records for rushing touchdowns (58) and total touchdowns (61), including single-season records in 2023. Corum's performance in the 2024 National Championship, where he earned MVP honors (alongside fellow No. 2 wearer Will Johnson), solidified his legacy. He was a two-time Big Ten Conference Running Back of the Year and the 2023 Big Ten Most Valuable Player. Corum's career concluded with numerous accolades, and his impact continues as he embarks on his NFL career with the Los Angeles Rams.

Blake Corum Michigan
Will Johnson

The latest to don the No. 2 jersey is Johnson, a five-star cornerback. Johnson has embraced the expectations associated with the number, demonstrated by his performance as a freshman in the national championship game against Washington. His key interception in that ultimate contest, reminiscent of Woodson’s heroics, showed that the tradition of the No. 2 jersey continues to thrive.

Will Johnson Michigan

The No. 2 jersey at Michigan is more than just a number—it represents a legacy of greatness. From Woodson to current players like Johnson, each athlete who wears the jersey contributes to its rich history, ensuring it remains a symbol of excellence, hard work, and high expectations. This tradition of greatness will continue to inspire future generations of Wolverines.

LSU, No. 7

Two numbers hold special significance for LSU football fans: No. 18 and No. 7. While No. 18 symbolizes leadership voted on by coaches, No. 7 has become a symbol of elite performance and play-making ability.

Bert Jones

Jones donned the No. 7 jersey for the Bayou Bengals back in the 1970s. As the LSU quarterback, he led the team to a 9-2-1 record and a top-10 ranking in 1972. For his performance, he earned the Sporting News Player of the Year award, marking the initial prominence of the No. 7 jersey. In 2016, Jones was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. He had a stellar NFL career which included league MVP honors in 1976.

Patrick Peterson

After Jones moved on to the NFL, No. 7 remained unworn until 1979 and saw sporadic use until 2008. Then Peterson came along. A top freshman recruit, he brought national attention to the jersey during his decorated LSU career from 2008 to 2011, earning multiple awards, including the Bednarik Award and Thorpe Award.

Patrick Peterson LSU
© Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Tyrann Mathieu

Also known as the "Honey Badger," Mathieu succeeded Peterson. After conversations with Peterson and coaches, Mathieu wore No. 7 and continued the tradition with a stellar sophomore season, reclaiming the Bednarik Award and earning the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year title. However, after being released from the team for violations, the jersey lay dormant for two seasons.

Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu LSU
© Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Leonard Fournette

Fournette revived the tradition, wearing No. 7 as an homage to both his predecessors at LSU and his high school. Fournette turned in record-breaking performances as a running back for the Tigers, earning consensus All-American honors in 2015.

Leonard Fournette LSU
© Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports
Grant Delpit

A standout safety, Delpit honored the No. 7 in 2019, contributing to LSU's national championship run despite an ankle injury. He was a two-time All-American and won the Thorpe Award.

Grant Delpit LSU
© Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Will Campbell

Campbell is set to make history for the Tigers this season by becoming the first offensive lineman to don the revered No. 7. Hailing from Louisiana and typically sporting No. 66, Campbell will display the No. 7 as a patch on his jersey, upholding a cherished tradition in Baton Rouge. Due to NCAA uniform regulations, Campbell must wear the patch rather than the actual No. 7 jersey. This follows LSU's past practices, such as when former center Lloyd Cushenberry was bestowed with No. 18 during the 2019 season.

Penn State, No. 11

The No. 11 jersey at Penn State is one of the most iconic numbers in the program’s history, particularly associated with standout linebackers who embody the tradition of "Linebacker U." This number has been worn by some of the most celebrated players in the school's storied football history.

The No. 11 jersey at Penn State symbolizes excellence, tradition, and the high standards set by those who have worn it. Players who choose this number are expected to uphold the legacy of their predecessors and are closely watched by fans and coaches alike. The jersey represents the pride and dedication required to excel in Penn State football.

Lavar Arrington Penn State
© Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

LaVar Arrington

The legacy of the No. 11 jersey at Penn State began with Arrington, who played from 1997 to 1999. Arrington was a dominant force on the field, earning two-time All-American honors, becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist, and winning both the Butkus Award and the Bednarik Award. His athleticism and memorable plays, including the famous "LaVar Leap," set a high standard for those who followed. He is now enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.

NaVorro Bowman

Bowman followed Arrington, continuing the tradition of excellence. He was a key player in the late 2000s, contributing significantly to the team's defense and further solidifying the reputation of Penn State as "Linebacker U." Bowman was an All-American in 2009 and a four-time All-Pro in the NFL.

Navarro Bowman Penn State
© Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports
Brandon Bell

Another standout linebacker, Bell wore the No. 11 jersey and was instrumental in Penn State's 2016 Big Ten Championship season. He was a three-year starter for the Nittany Lions. As a team captain, Bell’s performance in the title game included 13 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble, demonstrating his leadership and impact on the field.

Micah Parsons

Parsons, who played for Penn State from 2018 to 2019, is another notable player to don the No. 11 jersey. He earned consensus All-American honors and the Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year award in 2019. His standout performance in the Cotton Bowl, where he recorded 14 tackles, 2 sacks and 2 forced fumbles, earned him Defensive MVP honors. He has replicated his excellent collegiate performance in the NFL, where he has been named first-team All-Pro twice.

Micah Parsons Penn State
© Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Matt McGloin

While the No. 11 jersey is primarily associated with linebackers, it has also been worn by notable offensive players like QB McGloin. In 2012, McGloin set the single-season record with 3,271 passing yards (a record since surpassed). He ranks fifth on Penn State’s all-time total touchdowns leaderboard with 53.

Abdul Carter

Carter, a sophomore linebacker, is the current player wearing the No. 11 jersey. With 11 career sacks, 16 tackles for loss and 101 total tackles, Carter is already making a significant impact. Defensive coordinator Tom Allen has high expectations for him, believing Carter has the potential to become an unblockable force on the field.

The No. 11 jersey is a revered symbol within Penn State football, representing a legacy of excellence and tradition, particularly at the linebacker position. From Arrington's groundbreaking performances to Parsons' dominance, the jersey continues to inspire and set high expectations for those who wear it. The No. 11 jersey is a continuing source of pride and motivation for the Nittany Lions.

Texas A&M, No. 12

The No. 12 jersey at Texas A&M University is steeped in tradition and honor, symbolizing the Aggie spirit of determination, hard work and readiness. This storied tradition has evolved over the years, becoming a cherished aspect of Texas A&M football. The significance of the No. 12 jersey goes hand-in-hand with the 12th Man tradition at A&M.

The tradition of the No. 12 jersey dates back to the 1920s, when a player named Ewing Y. Freeland wore it during a game against the University of Texas. Freeland's exceptional performance in that game led to the No. 12 jersey becoming synonymous with excellence and determination.

12th Man Aggies
© Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports

The 12th Man tradition is rooted in the 1922 Dixie Classic, an iconic game in which E. King Gill, a former football player turned student, stood ready to play when the Aggies suffered numerous injuries against Centre College. Summoned from the press box by head coach Dana X. Bible, Gill suited up and stood on the sidelines, prepared to enter the game if needed. This act of readiness and selflessness became a cornerstone of Texas A&M's identity, with the student body standing throughout games to symbolize their willingness to support and serve their team.

During his tenure as coach, Jackie Sherrill further solidified the 12th Man tradition by creating the 12th Man Kickoff Team in 1983. This team, composed entirely of walk-on players, directly linked the passionate student body to the field, embodying the spirit of readiness and selflessness. David Coolidge, a member of the 12th Man Kickoff Team from 1985-1987, contributed to three consecutive titles in the former Southwest Conference. His participation highlighted the honor and lasting relationships formed through this unique tradition.

In the 1990s, Coach RC Slocum built on the precedent established by Sherrill—allowing one walk-on player to wear the No. 12 jersey for special teams plays. This was a tip of the cap to the hard work and dedication of walk-on players who often go unnoticed. Coach Dennis Franchione continued this tradition, solidifying the status of the No. 12 jersey as a symbol of perseverance and tenacity at Texas A&M.

In 2018, senior fullback Cullen Gillaspia made history by becoming the first 12th Man in Aggie history to score a touchdown. His achievement, which took place in the Gator Bowl, underscored the enduring legacy and significance of the No. 12 jersey.

The tradition of the No. 12 jersey at Texas A&M is a proud and enduring one, rooted in the history and spirit of the university. From Gill's selfless act in 1922 to the modern era's recognition of dedicated walk-on players, the No. 12 jersey symbolizes the heart and soul of Aggie football.

Syracuse, No. 44

The Syracuse Orange No. 44 jersey stands as a symbol of excellence and tradition in college football, worn by some of the greatest running backs in college football history, including Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and Floyd Little.

Jim Brown - Syracuse No. 44
© Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The number 44 holds legendary status in college football, having been worn by 11 players since 1954. Three of these players—Brown, Davis and Little—earned All-American honors as standout running backs. The significance of the number 44 in Syracuse's football history is further reflected in the University's 13244 ZIP code and phone numbers starting with “44.”

Jim Brown

The No. 44 jersey was first made famous by Brown, who played for Syracuse from 1954 to 1956. Brown is widely regarded as one of the greatest college football players of all time, and Syracuse retired his jersey number in 2006 to honor his remarkable legacy. After an NFL career in which he was MVP three times, Brown was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.

Ernie Davis

Following Brown, Davis wore the No. 44 jersey and became the first African-American player to win the Heisman Trophy. Davis played from 1959 to 1961 and remains one of college football's most revered players.

Floyd Little

Another legendary running back, Little donned the No. 44 jersey from 1964 to 1966. He was a three-time All-American and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983, solidifying the number's legendary status. Additionally, in 2010, he joined Brown in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In 2015, Syracuse announced the restoration of the No. 44 jersey to their active roster. This decision was celebrated by fans and alumni, who viewed it as a tribute to the legacy of the outstanding running backs who previously wore the number.

Today, the No. 44 jersey remains an iconic symbol of Syracuse University football, representing a rich history of excellence. Current players continue to wear the jersey, honoring its storied past and inspiring future generations of Syracuse football players.

USC, No. 55

The No. 55 jersey occupies legendary status in the USC Football program, worn by some of the greatest defensive players in the program's history. It represents excellence, tradition and greatness, making it a highly coveted number.

USC has a tradition of giving the No. 55 jersey to promising freshman linebackers, a practice that has yielded mixed results. Some players, like Willie McGinest, Chris Claiborne and Keith Rivers, have lived up to expectations and carried the number to new heights. However, others have struggled to meet the standard set by their predecessors.

Junior Seau

The late, great Seau made the No. 55 iconic with his standout performances, earning the Pacific-10 Conference Defensive Player of the Year award in 1989 and All-American honors. His impact on the field set a high standard for future players wearing the number. He is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Willie McGinest

McGinest carried on the tradition, earning all-conference honors for three consecutive years. In 1992, he led USC with 23 tackles for losses, including 16 sacks and was a finalist for the Lombardi Award in 1993. McGinest’s achievements further solidified the prestige of the No. 55 jersey. He went on to have a stellar NFL career and was a three-time Super Bowl champion.

Keith Rivers

Rivers preserved the greatness of the No. 55 by becoming the third All-American in the jersey. He earned his All-American plaque as a senior in 2007, continuing the legacy of excellence associated with the number. He was selected in the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft.

Lamar Dawson

While Dawson's career had its ups and downs, he was still part of the exclusive "Club 55," symbolizing the high expectations and honor of wearing the jersey. His tenure highlights the pressure and prestige that come with the number.

Lamar Dawson tackling Tommy Rees
© Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Since Dawson wore the No. 55 jersey in 2014, no Trojan defender has worn it. This absence has sparked a debate on social media regarding its future. Questions have arisen about whether it should be given to a promising freshman linebacker, awarded to an upperclassman, or retired altogether.

Like the other iconic jersey numbers featured in this article, the No. 55 jersey at USC is one of the most revered numbers in college football history, symbolizing excellence and tradition. Whether the jersey continues to be awarded or is eventually retired, its legacy will remain a significant part of USC Football.


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