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I Love Donovan McNabb But He's Wrong About 44 And Here's Why

No. 5 doesn't like what Syracuse is doing with No. 44. And that's a shame.

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe I'm naive but when Syracuse Athletics announced Tuesday that it was un-retiring No. 44, I didn't expect to hear any kind of negative reaction from the Syracuse Orange community.

I know not everyone's totally on board with the decision but if you care about about Syracuse Football, and Robert Washington committed to SU in part to wear No. 44, why in the god damn world would you say no to that?

Anyway, anytime you deal in the kind of emotions that No. 44 invokes, I guess I should have realized someone was going to react in opposition to the idea.

I'm bummed out to find out it's Donovan McNabb:

Okay, so...

First of all, McNabb is entitled to his opinion. As someone who has their jersey in the rafters of the Carrier Dome, I'm sure he's got a personal attachment to the idea that any number, especially his, could come down and be given to someone (though technically his number is not retired, only his jersey).

Second of all, can we all admit that Donovan McNabb got a shit jersey retirement ceremony? It was a DOC Gross Spectacular more concerned with DOC's photo op than giving McNabb the moment he deserved. Considering his status as one of Syracuse's Greatest Living Football Alums, McNabb deserved better.

I understand what Donny is saying. In almost every situation, when a number is retired, it's retired. The Yankees wouldn't dream of un-retiring Lou Gehrig's or Derek Jeter's numbers now that they've done it. When a number's retired, it's retired.

But when it comes to 44 and Syracuse Football, it's like Scott Shafer said Tuesday. It's not a number, it's a culture.

McNabb played with the last No. 44: Rob Konrad. I don't know how important that number was to Konrad before he took the field, but once he did, he understood what was happening.

"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."

If it was just about the number, then it should have been retired after Jim Brown wore it. Who was this Ernie Davis kid to come in here and think he's Jim Brown? There's only one Jim Brown, right? According to the kind of thinking McNabb is using, 44 should have begun and ended with Brown.

But it didn't. We gave it to Ernie. And then we gave it to Floyd Little. And by then the legend was affirmed. And so it was passed along to the next generation, all of whom wore it with the reputation and expectations that came with it. Most didn't live up to the hype but the importance never faded.

College football exists in a weird bubble that no other American sport still shares. It's national but also super-regional. It's forward-thinking in ways and stuck in the past in other ways. Traditions are a little stronger in college football. Maybe a lot stronger. Players come and go but the traditions are what bind teams and generations together.

Every Texas A&M fan is a 12th Man.

Every Ohio State fan dreams of dotting the I.

Every Clemson fan wants to see their boys rub Howard's Rock before taking the field.

Every Auburn fan wants to roll Toomer's Corner after beating Alabama. It's not complete until they do.

Every Penn State fan wants a statue of Joe Paterno because they're all a bunch of super-creeps.

Seriously though, think about that. In spite of everything that happened at Penn State, the majority of that fanbase still want to put traditions and symbols first because that's what unites them. That's what they root for.

And that's what makes 44 different for Syracuse. Again, it's not a number. It's a tradition. It's a culture. It's what separates us from them. It's what every Syracuse fan can point to and say, "Hey, that's OUR thing and NOBODY else's."

Every team has retired numbers. That's not special.

The one thing every Syracuse fan can't say is that they saw their 44 play. I was there when Konrad donned the jersey and flattened opponents to make way for McNabb. Any Syracuse student since then only knows 44 as a number. Future Syracuse students and fans would have known it as that thing older SU fans could appreciate but they never really would. And that's not good enough. That doesn't work in college football.

Donovan McNabb wonders what message we're sending to the rest of the nation by un-retiring 44. I say we're sending the message that Syracuse is reclaiming it's culture, it's tradition and it's future. It's making a promise to find the next Jim Brown, the next Ernie Davis and the next Floyd Little. It's saying we're going to make The Legend of 44 even stronger than it is now.

We're telling the rest of the nation that when you think of 44, you should think of Syracuse Football. And we're going to give you more reasons to make that connection.

I love you, Donovan. You were my guy when I went to SU. The Virginia Tech win was one of the most fun sports days of my entire life. And you were really nice to me on the South Campus Shuttle that one time.

You're No. 5 to me and you always will be. As far as I'm concerned, that number belongs to you.

When it comes to No. 44, there's a few guys I think of. The number doesn't belong to any single one of them. It belongs to all of them. And it belongs to Syracuse Football. And it belongs to Syracuse fans. And it belongs to whoever has the temerity to put on a No. 44 Syracuse jersey and think themselves worthy of it.

44 in the rafters just collects dust. 44 on the field grows a legend. I know which one sounds better to me.