By Doug Harris
Dayton Daily News
Jim Tressel was burrowed in his office, plotting strategy during the week of the Michigan game last year when he heard a rap at his door. Freshman linebacker Marcus Freeman needed to talk.
"He said, 'Maybe it's not a good time, but do you think I could have jersey No. 1 next year?' " Ohio State's football coach recalled with a laugh and a shake of his head. "I'm like, we just lost to Purdue, and we're getting ready to play Michigan. But that's kids. I didn't get up and hit him or anything. I said, 'Let's see how your grades come out and how your bowl practices are and how your bowl game is.'
"All that went by, and he came in right after Christmas and said, 'Could I get that No. 1?' "
Athletes in all sports — at every level — develop attachments to specific numbers, and some are willing to go to extreme lengths to preserve their love affair.
For example, when running back Clinton Portis learned after joining the Washington Redskins last year that his cherished No. 26 had already been handed out, he agreed to pay $40,000 to a new teammate to get it.
Michael Jordan first donned No. 45 rather than his famed 23 when he returned to the Chicago Bulls after a brief fling with baseball. But after several subpar games, he impulsively switched back to 23 — despite having to pay a $5,000 fine for not getting the NBA's permission first.
That kind of devotion doesn't surprise Peter Titlebaum, a University of Dayton associate professor of health and sports science.
"If you're making $5 million, what's $40,000?" Titlebaum said. "It doesn't have the same resonance to our life because we don't have a life where we're making play money. But if that number works for them and (the new one) is out of a comfort zone, then the price to get it is relatively insignificant.
"These people happen to have a unique talent, and they're paid very well. If that gives them a mental edge, who are we to say they shouldn't have it?"
Jersey numbers, though, aren't just meaningful to players. Fans throughout the years have associated athletes with their numerals.
The digits worn by Pete Rose, Larry Bird, Jim Brown, Willie Mays and Wayne Gretzky (14, 33, 32, 24 and 99, respectively) haven't faded from memory, even though those stars have long since retired.
Given that phenomenon, Titlebaum can understand why the current crop of accomplished athletes has developed a powerful bond with numbers.
"This is what they grew up with," he said. "They can tell you, this guy was this jersey and this guy was that jersey. Now, when it's my opportunity, what makes you think I don't want to have that identification?"
Outfielder Jacob Cruz wanted to retain the number he had worn in high school and college when he joined the Cincinnati Reds last year, but the dream never materialized.
"When I was coming up, I said, 'I wonder who's wearing No. 30,' " Cruz said while smiling and nodding toward the locker of superstar teammate Ken Griffey Jr. "I've sort of put that on a back burner."
Cruz is growing accustomed to No. 9.
"It worked well for me last year, and it's working well for me this year," he said. "I'm probably going to stick with it the rest of my career."
Kids count, too
Tom Maloney wishes everyone were that flexible. The director of the Beavercreek Future Stars youth basketball league — a beginner program for kids in kindergarten through second grade — said even novices scrunch up their noses when they don't get their preferred jerseys.
Maloney's 11-and-under AAU girls team is just as finicky. He said LeBron James' 23 is in high demand, and some request numbers worn by older siblings or parents.
But many simply base their choices on what's appealing to the eye.
"I've coached the last four years," he said, "and I can't think of one single kid that hasn't come through at the beginning of the season and asked me, 'Can I have jersey No. X?'
"We had 10 players on our team and picked up another player on the back side of the season. Man, was that person upset when she found out her jersey was already taken."
Brent Moore, coach of the 8-and-under Centerville Reds baseball team, deals with disappointment in his ranks, too. While Griffey's once-popular No. 30 is gradually falling out of favor, Moore said there usually is jostling among players for Adam Dunn's 44 and Wily Mo Pena's 26.
The two blossoming Cincinnati stars still have a following in the area from their Dayton Dragons days. Cianan Moore, the coach's son and a Dunn fan, wears 44 and calls it his "lucky number."
As for how he ended up atop the jersey-picking pecking order, Cianan said, "Well, because my dad's the coach, and I told him a long, long time ago that every year I want to be 44."
Hannah Brown, an 11-year-old from Huber Heights who plays for the Dayton Lady HoopStars, probably will have no trouble keeping her favorite number for life. That's because No. 13 is viewed as unlucky by almost everyone but her.
"I like it because not many people have it," she said.
She's proven to herself that its ominous reputation is nothing to fear.
"I wore it last year, and I made the team," she said.
Target on his back
With roughly 105 players, Tressel is besieged with pleas for certain numbers, but he doesn't veer from his policy. Although almost all recruits make jersey requests, upperclassmen get first dibs.
Asked if he's ever lost a prospect because a jersey was already claimed, he replied: "I think the only way you lose them (over that) is if they're looking for a reason not to come."
Freeman, a Wayne High School product, had to wait a year to get the revered No. 1. He was handed the less-stylish No. 17 when he became a Buckeye and had to share it with an offensive player, quarterback Todd Boeckman.
Although single digits are in vogue, not everyone has the moxie to wear No. 1.
"The first time (other OSU players) found out I got No. 1, Brandon Mitchell came up to me and said, 'Now you've got a target on your chest because people think you must be good to wear No. 1,' " he said. "That excites me. People say, 'Ooh, he has No. 1, let's go get him.' I'm like, 'let's go.' I'm ready for the challenge."
Freeman's only concern in wearing an attention-grabbing number is that fans might get the wrong idea.
"I'm not a guy that has to have a certain number to go out there and play," he said. "Look at A.J. Hawk. He's 47, and he's an All-American. It's the same way with me. A number isn't going to define what kind of player I am.
"But the people who know me know I'm a fashionable guy, too. ... If you look good, you play good."
Contact Doug Harris at 225-2125.