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Special jersey honorees selected not solely for on-field performance

Nick LaMantia last wore Texas A&M’s No. 12 jersey nearly a decade ago. John Youngblood just completed his season wearing the No. 38 at Ole Miss. Christian LaCouture has not even donned LSU’s No. 18 in a practice yet, although he will wear it during games this fall.

No matter how much time passes after their college careers have ended, all three players know they will see fans wearing their jersey numbers when they return to campus on fall Saturdays. Not that it will necessarily be in tribute to anything they accomplished individually.

“If you just go to the Ole Miss store and go pick out a jersey or something, 18, 10 and No. 38 are going to be some of the top ones that are sold and worn. Now it’s kind of funny because it’s, ‘Hey, thanks for wearing my number,’” Youngblood chuckled.

Nos. 10 and 18 would be understandable picks for Rebels fans, based upon on-field performance. Those were the uniform numbers of former Ole Miss stars Eli and Archie Manning, two of the best quarterbacks to ever play in the SEC. The No. 38, though? That represents something bigger -- same as the 18 at LSU and the 12 at A&M.

Those are among the few special jerseys across college football that go to team leaders who wear them as part of their schools’ proudest traditions.

“That jersey represents more than what you are, and you have to live up to the name that it has and not vice versa,” said LaMantia, who wore No. 12 in 30 games as an A&M player between 2006 and 2008. “I was aware of how much that it meant, probably aware as much as you can be as a 20-year-old kid. But definitely as time passed on, I see the value of what that had. It was a great honor.”

At Ole Miss, No. 38 honors Chucky Mullins, who died nearly two years after breaking his neck while making a tackle in a 1989 game against Vanderbilt. The Chucky Mullins Courage Award originated in 1990 and goes each year to a senior defensive player who best represents Mullins’ spirit. That player wears No. 38 during the season in Mullins’ honor.

“You definitely hold yourself to a little higher standard,” Youngblood said of winning the award. “Don’t cheat a rep, don’t cheat anything in practice. A lot of guys look up to you, and a lot of people in the community do, so you definitely can’t mess up anymore.”

Winning the award is a huge deal for Ole Miss players. Outstanding defenders like D.T. Shackelford, Mike Hilton, Mike Marry, Kentrell Lockett and, perhaps most notably, Patrick Willis have worn the jersey in recent seasons.

When Youngblood learned last spring that he was next in line to wear the number, he understandably needed time to process the news. “I just kind of sat there like, 'I can’t believe this happened,'” Youngblood said. “It’s awesome, it’s a huge dream come true that I can be honored by my coaches and my peers, my teammates, and they think this highly of me that I could represent the highest honor an Ole Miss player could have. It all hit me at once, as you can imagine. But after that, many things were shared, and hugs and some tears eventually.”

LSU coach Ed Orgeron first offered that program's No. 18 to LaCouture in December as a way to convince him to return for a fifth season with the Tigers. Orgeron accidentally broke the news last week that LaCouture would in fact wear 18, breaking from the tradition of Tigers coaches awarding the number during preseason practice.

LaCouture initially had his mind set on entering the NFL draft, even after missing the 2016 season while recovering from a torn ACL suffered in preseason camp. However, Orgeron’s pitch that he could follow in the footsteps of previous 18s like Matt Mauck, Jacob Hester, Bennie Logan, Brandon Taylor and Tre’Davious White was one factor that helped convince him to spend one more season in purple-and-gold.

“The guys that have worn it and the tradition of it, on and off the field, and what it carries is something that I sat down with my family and talked about,” LaCouture said. “Like, if I do end up coming back, I could wear this number, that’s something that you’ll be in the history books for that. You can’t pass up an opportunity like that.”

Unlike the jerseys at Ole Miss and LSU, Texas A&M’s No. 12 has not always been handed out on an annual basis. Although special teams wild man Cullen Gillespia wore it for the entire 2016 season and Sam Moeller set a school record by wearing No. 12 for the three previous seasons (39 games), there was a time when Aggies coaches gave the number before each game to a walk-on who starred on special teams -- a tradition whose roots stretch back nearly a century.

It was during a 1922 game against Centre College when then-A&M coach Dana Bible summoned student E. King Gill from the stands to the sideline to bolster his depth-deprived roster. Gill did not get into the game, but his willingness to be ready when called upon inspires Aggies to this day.

The Aggies hold tight to their traditions, and the 12th Man is perhaps the greatest example of that. The student body is traditionally known as the 12th Man, and students in attendance stand throughout football games to show their support for the 11 players on the field at any given time. Kyle Field’s nickname is the “Home of the 12th Man.” Heck, the address for the school’s athletics website is even 12thman.com.

Coach Jackie Sherrill kick-started the 12th Man tradition in 1982 by building a kickoff coverage team composed of all walk-ons. In 1991, A&M altered the tradition to have a single player wear No. 12 each game to represent the student body on kickoff coverage.

When LaMantia was an active player, coach Dennis Franchione handed out No. 12 on a weekly basis, and LaMantia was a regular recipient. He vividly remembers the feeling when he’d take the field wearing the number during pregame festivities, which included a hype video centered around the 12th Man tradition.

“It was one of the most amazing things that you’ll ever experience and can never duplicate,” LaMantia said.

Youngblood probably understands. Imagine wearing your school’s honored jersey and making a huge play in a big game, as the native Alabamian did last season against top-ranked Alabama. Youngblood scooped up a fumble and ran 44 yards for a touchdown to put Ole Miss up 24-3 against the defending national champs. (Alabama would eventually win 48-43.)

When that kind of play comes against a team of Alabama’s caliber -- especially when you grew up just down the road in Birmingham -- it means even more to be wearing a special jersey.

“Wearing 38, scoring a touchdown against Alabama and just about my entire family was at the football game. And that was a lot of their first time being in Oxford. It was a real emotional day and time for them,” Youngblood said. “Whenever I talk to my friends or my mom or my girlfriend or anybody else that I’m really close to, when they were in the stands, they said they just immediately started freaking out. Of course my mom and my family started crying and just going crazy.”

It’s not necessarily about what these jersey recipients do on the field that makes them deserving candidates, however. Sure, some of them have been All-Americans, but it’s more about what they represent and the people they are.

Only a few programs single out players in such a way, but for the ones who earn that recognition, it’s an honor that lasts a lifetime.

“Talking to some of the guys that have worn it before, they said it’s just a brotherhood and you embrace it,” LaCouture said of becoming LSU’s newest No. 18. “When I found out a couple days ago, it was crazy. It’s just surreal.”

SPECIAL NUMBER TRADITIONS

LSU, Ole Miss and Texas A&M are not the only college football programs that have special jersey traditions to honor team leaders. Others do so in ways both formal and informal. Here are five notable examples:

No. 1 at Michigan: Some of the best receivers in program history have worn the No. 1 jersey -- a group that includes Anthony Carter, Braylon Edwards, Greg McMurtry and David Terrell. Devin Funchess in 2014 was the last star wideout to wear the jersey, an honor that last season went to freshman receiver Dylan Crawford.

No. 12 at Alabama: No. 12 was Bear Bryant’s uniform number when he played for the Crimson Tide, but it was made famous by prominent quarterbacks. Joe Namath and Kenny Stabler both wore No. 12 at Alabama, and Brodie Croyle and Greg McElroy emerged as standout QBs for the Tide in recent seasons.

No. 14 at Penn State: Another legendary jersey among a college’s quarterbacks, this one was worn by Nittany Lions championship quarterbacks Todd Blackledge and John Shaffer. Other QBs like Chuck Fusina, Wally Richardson and, more recently, Christian Hackenberg wore the number while taking snaps at Penn State.

No. 25 at Virginia Tech: Hokies coach Justin Fuente announced a new tradition last year in which he would pick a different special teams player each week to wear No. 25. Fuente's intent is to honor longtime Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, who wore No. 25 as a Hokies player, and who was known for exceptional special teams play.

No. 44 at Syracuse: Legends Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and Floyd Little all wore No. 44 during their playing days, setting a bar so high that it would probably be impossible to clear. The school retired the number in 2005, then created controversy when it temporarily brought the number out of retirement in 2015. We might see a Syracuse player wear No. 44 someday, but it hasn’t happened yet.