You'll have to excuse me because I don't remember exactly where I heard this anecdote, but I've always remembered it all the same.
The story goes that, around the time Babe Ruth retired, the baseball writers of the era were all polled and asked who the greatest baseball player of all-time was. Ty Cobb won in a landslide. A decade later, that question was posed to the same group again. This time, Babe Ruth was out.
How in the heck did Babe Ruth leapfrog Ty Cobb in that time despite never playing another game, swinging another bat or hitting another home run?
He won it because time marches on and the new generation's memories and opinions slowly but surely trump those that came before them. Ty Cobb may have actually been better than Babe Ruth, but the people who grew up watching and writing about Babe had a visceral attachment to him that ultimately pushed him over the guy who they only knew about from stories and legend.
In 1998, the American Film Institute polled over 1,500 screenwriters, directors, actors, producers, cinematographers, editors, executives, film historians and critics to select the 100 greatest American movies of all-time. The top three films were Citizen Kane, Casablanca and The Godfather, in that order.
Ten years later, they did the exact same poll. This time, the top three was, in order, Citizen Kane, The Godfather and Casablanca.
Again, both The Godfather and Casablanca had been out for decades by the time the polls were done. Neither film changed or did anything differently in all that time. How could The Godfather suddenly become a better movie than Casablanca?
Because the people who grew up watching, loving and quoting The Godfather slowly but surely took over the industry. Give it time and eventually The Godfather will surpass Citizen Kane on this list. I'm 99% sure of this.
It had less to do with whether or not The Godfather actually is a better movie than Citizen Kane and more to do with the fact that people can't help but feel connected to the things and events that affected them personally. It's also worth noting that Raging Bull, Schindler's List and Star Wars were all ranked higher on the second poll as well for the same reasons. And they'll probably keep going up.
When he decided that Syracuse University needed to retire the legendary Number 44, DOCTOR Daryl Gross said, "If there was ever a number that needed to be retired it is 44. If you can’t take 44 off the table, then you’re just never going to retire a jersey."
I agree with him. That is, I agree with the sentiment, just in the opposite way that he means it.
On the question of whether or not Syracuse should keep the number 44 retired, I have two questions of my own:
First, do you honestly believe that a running back as good as Ernie Davis or Jim Brown will never come to Syracuse again?
Second, and this is the question that might border on heresy...do you actually know for a fact that Ernie Davis and Jim Brown were as good as we're told they were?
I know...I KNOW...that's the kind of question that could get me banned from my own blog. But hear me out...
I was born in 1978. All three of the famous 44s were long gone from Syracuse by then. By the time I started to pay attention to college football, they were ancient history. I had no tangible connection to any of them. I didn't see any of them play at Syracuse. Everything I know about them is what I've seen in grainy game highlights and what I've been told.
And while many of those stories are likely true, it doesn't matter. I'll never really know. Sure, I've seen the highlights and the stats, but I also know they were playing alongside athletes who couldn't hold a candle to the workout freaks of today's game. Were they just that good or was everyone else just not? Could the people who were there even tell me the difference?
Probably not. Because they saw Ernie Davis and Jim Brown and Floyd Little with their own eyes. They saw the magic. They heard the crowds roar. They remember where they were.
I don't. So it just doesn't mean the same thing to me. I honor them and I respect them and they have their rightful place in Syracuse football lore, but...they weren't my guys.
Rob Konrad was my 44. I had the pleasure of watching the last guy to wear the number for two seasons. While he was no world-beater and didn't live up to the statistical hype that comes with being a 44, Konrad was by all accounts a solid player and good enough to get drafted in the second round of the NFL Draft en route to a six-year pro career.
It's not Heisman Trophy Winner or three-time All-American, but, it ain't nothing. And dare I say the guy added an entirely new layer to the 44 lore in recent months.
So let's say Syracuse decides to reinstate 44. I mean, technically, they already have. Floyd Little was adamant about bringing it back and Joe Giansante admitted at the time that it could happen. Plus, we know that someone at SU is using it as a bargaining chip for recruiting, which was part of the point of having it.
If we do bring 44 back onto the roster, there's been a lot of talk about hedging out bets. That, instead of handing 44 out to a freshman who may or may not live up to the hype, we should wait until a player has proven themselves worthy of the honor and then allow them to wear the coveted number.
What a bunch of crap.
First of all, let's say a blue chip RB is deciding between Syracuse and some other schools, something that doesn't really happen all that often these days. In this highly-hypothetical-and-not-at-all-real situation, let's say that the RB makes it clear that the chance to wear 44 is a big part of the appeal for choosing Syracuse and that if he is handed 44, he will choose Syracuse over those other schools. Do you think Scott Shafer is going to tell that kid, "Sorry son, you'll have to wait a couple years so we can find out if you're actually good or not." Or do you think he's going to shove a 44 jersey into the guy's hands ASAP? Of course he's going to play the 44 card because THAT'S THE POINT OF HAVING IT.
Second of all, just look to Syracuse Lacrosse. They give storied No. 22 to a newbie every time it comes up, taking a risk that this guy might not be as good as Gary Gait, Mikey Powell or Casey Powell. You know what, he probably won't be, because those three guys (as well as other players who wore it) are some of the best college lacrosse players of all time. But...at the same time...you're Syracuse Lacrosse. Who are you recruiting if not the best lacrosse players in the country? We always seem to find new guys to carry on the tradition, that's kinda how it works.
Third of all, and this one is just dumb...if you're going to make a guy prove that he's amazing before you give him the jersey, and you claim to be a fan of college football, what part of your brain thinks that this amazing player is sure to stick around long enough to wear the jersey? Sure, college football isn't college basketball and we're not dealing with one-and-dones or even that many two-and-dones, but if you're telling me a guy has to prove himself as a sophomore and junior before he gets to wear 44 as a senior, clearly this guy must be good enough to warrant some consideration for the NFL before he even makes it to senior year.
Even if he does stick around, what is the point of having a guy who wore No. 33 for three years wear No. 44 for one season? Do you get to count his statistics as No. 33 when describing his place in The Legend of 44? Because the entire point to me is that Brown, Davis and Little put up those amazing stats and seasons while wearing 44, not by working their way towards it. And honestly, by that point in a guy's career, he'll probably want to just keep his number anyway since it's the one he's been wearing and the one he's put together his stellar career while wearing. While you were busy trying to find someone to carry on your legacy, he went and created one of his own.
Finally, and this is the whole point for me, I hate, hate, HATE the idea that we're saying there will never be a player as good as those three 44s ever again.
First, that's just asinine.
Second, going back to SU Lax, aren't the odds decent that, sooner or later, the next Gary Gait or Mikey Powell is going to show up? There was a time when a Powell wasn't a big deal...until it was. That's how it works. You can't predict the future but to err on the side of caution just shows a lack of foresight and faith.
Third, THE ERA YOU GREW UP WITH IS NOT THE GREATEST ERA THAT EVER WAS OR EVER WILL BE JUST BECAUSE ITS THE ERA YOU GREW UP WITH.
Fourth, if you don't let the players of today become the heroes of tomorrow, then we won't have any. Syracuse Football will perpetually exist in this state of "honoring the past" but never quite living up to it. I don't want to watch a collection of guys waiting their turn to honor people who played the sport forty years before they were born. I want to watch players who are so good, so dynamic and believe in themselves so much that they create their own legends. I don't want Syracuse's next-great running back to get a courtesy nod when he's a senior. I want him to take the number 44, own it, live up to it and surpass everyone who came before him. And if you're telling me a couple busts might wear the number in order for that to happen, so God damn be it. May we be so lucky.
Here's what Rob Konrad once said about wearing No. 44:
"I ran on the field for the first time and I got a standing ovation. They weren't cheering for me, they were cheering for the number. From the start, (former head coach) Paul Pasqualoni made it clear I was carrying on the tradition, that I had to be a little cleaner, never be in trouble, carry on that tradition with honor."
Is any of that a bad thing? Isn't that a fantastic opportunity for a young man with dreams of becoming a college football star? Come to Syracuse, bring your hype with you. Wear it like a badge. But also, know that you represent something bigger than you. We expect more from you than if you were wearing No. 25 or No. 37. But you kinda like that, too, don't you?
To me, Syracuse's 44 should be like Doctor Who. Out of necessity, they're always changing the actor who plays The Doctor. As such, each actor brings their own take, their own skills and their own understanding to the character. Sometimes it works out better than other times, but now it's part of the charm of the show. The Doctor is an idea that just wears a different face (and coat and hat and tie). What came before the current incarnation is not lessened by what the current one does. It was just different. You can choose to like the new Doctor or you can choose not to. Regardless, he'll be gone before you know it and the next one will bring all their potential with them to start the entire cycle over.
That thrill of the unknown ahead is what makes it so interesting. And exciting.
(and if you want to see some OTHER way to handle this, I'd recommend reading John's piece on waiting for someone to earn it first)