By Chris Mahr
Top-ranked USC’s game against Hawaii on Saturday is its first since former linebacker Junior Seau took his own life this past May. The Trojans’ planned tribute to the larger-than-life Seau is a moving one.
At the game itself, 80,000 commemorative “Trojan Pride 55” wristbands will be distributed to the L.A. Coliseum crowd. It will help fans remember “the proud tradition the number 55 represents for elite [USC] linebackers,” according to Deborah Golian Castro of Creative Productions, the marketing agency behind the initiative.
For those that won’t be present at the game on Sept. 1, there’s the Official Junior Seau Tribute Wall (also a Creative Productions creation). Fans can share their condolences and their memories of Seau, a memorial in cyberspace that’s sure to make you misty-eyed.
Both USC and Creative Productions should be applauded for their work leading up to Saturday. But if the Trojans really want to do right by the late and great Seau, they’ll pay him the ultimate compliment for any player … and retire his No. 55 jersey.
I’ll admit that I didn’t come to this opinion on my own. I have former Trojans receiver Keary Colbert to thank for that. On May 2, the day of Seau’s death, Colbert responded with “SC needs to retire #55 forever.”
Scanning the myriad tweets from USC players both past and current that day (H/T @EyeonCFB) and you see a palpable reverence. Every one of them would agree with Colbert in a heartbeat.
And it’s not just a knee-jerk reaction. There’s a deep logic to paying tribute to Seau like this for his college greatness, not his tragic death.
The Trojans currently have six retired numbers: Mike Garrett (No. 20), O.J. Simpson (32), Charles White (12), Marcus Allen (33), Carson Palmer (3) and Matt Leinart (11). All were so honored in light of their Heisman Trophy wins (Reggie Bush was, too, before the vacation of his 2005 Heisman in 2010). All were offensive players.
Yes, USC is famous for being “Tailback U” and the home of a string of golden-boy, Orange County-bred quarterbacks. But the idea of confining the honor of having one’s number retired to Heisman Trophy winners, i.e. offensive players only, is mind-boggling.
Especially considering all the talented defensive players — Troy Polamalu, Clay Matthews, Clay Matthews III, Willie Wood and Ronnie Lott among them — that have passed through Troy. To honor Seau as the first USC non-Heisman winner and defensive player to have his jersey retired would be fitting.
Seau’s 1989 season with the Trojans as a junior was one of the greatest defensive performances in college football history. The All-American finished with 27 tackles for loss, 19 sacks and 12 pass deflections that fall. After his game against Arizona, Wildcats head coach Dick Tomey – later the architect of the “Desert Swarm” defense – declared, “He’s the best player I’ve ever been on the field against as a coach.” Seau declared early for the 1990 NFL Draft and was picked fifth overall by the San Diego Chargers.
I acknowledge that a valid argument can be made to keep No. 55 in rotation in light of all the talented linebackers that wore it after Seau, including three other top-10 NFL draft picks: Willie McGinest, Chris Claiborne and Keith Rivers.
But there’s no denying that the No. 55 Linebacker Club at USC was Seau’s creation. The testimonies of his successors, in a May 2 story by ESPN’s Eric McKinney, prove that.
Claiborne: “No disrespect to those who wore the number before him, but that’s the man who started it. We’ve had some great linebackers. But for me, it was Junior. That guy right there set the whole standard.”
McGinest: “I was given [No. 55] from the beginning. I did a photo shoot with Junior Seau, like he was passing the torch. I don’t think he had to [explain the significance].”
USC’s current No. 55, starting middle linebacker Lamar Dawson, has no doubt been informed of the legacy of his jersey. And the Trojans’ staff wouldn’t have given it to him if they didn’t think he could follow in the footsteps of those who preceded him.
But Dawson should be the last to wear it. It’s time for USC to retire Seau’s number. What better excuse to break from tradition than to salute a man who started one?
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.