Certain numbers mean more than others. Not in the sense that five is greater than four, or that two is not always better than one (?), but that sometimes hard truths can take a backseat to how things make us feel (that’s still a truth, just a different one). That the meaning we attach to indifferently neutral figures is still…meaning. Organized athletics are, by now, slavishly dedicated to hard analytics, minuscule but replicable advantages, and the stark realities of mathematical calculation, sure. But they also have the ability to warp our perception of simple ones and zeroes, and to intertwine them with aesthetics and nostalgia more than they have any business doing.
During one of the final live basketball contests before, well, you know, I was struck by the simple aesthetic pleasure of the number 88 on a Lakers uniform; four symmetric block circles centered in crisp purple, white, and yellow, providing some additional color to a game whose result I surely forgot almost immediately. One of the several cloth masks I’m now resigned to owning is patterned with cartoon jerseys — last name SPORTS, number 8. What’s on the mask is nothing compared to the simple fact that I have to wear a mask, but the number still means something to someone who grew up playing baseball around Baltimore in the late ‘90s and early 2000s.
All this is certainly relevant to college athletics, and especially to Notre Dame football, where numbers aren’t retired but passed on, and where athletes might only see their name on the back of a jersey four times, if they’re lucky. The articles of clothing hanging in the Bookstore have their own unspoken legacy — the number 3 jersey I grew up wearing was tied to jumping up and down on an armchair as Arnaz Battle criss-crossed through Spartan defenders and kept the Irish on life support for one more week; it was tied to Darius Walker torching Stanford and clinching a BCS berth (podcast plug goes here!); it was also tied to one of the best football players of all time.
This train of thought led me to try and quantify which numbers have accumulated the most weight through the program’s history. I don’t aim to demystify these incongruities, but to acknowledge the shared history that generations of Notre Dame student athletes have built. Alright, this has turned into a bit much, let’s get to the dang numbers. We’re sticking with the offense for now.
*I limited the dataset to individuals who totaled over 1,000 career yards passing/rushing/receiving, plus players who accounted for at least 150 points. Number changes in the more distant past weren’t really possible to account for, but I did my best to check when the data was available. Spreadsheet is HERE for those who want to dig in*
Thanks to the Montana association, green #3 might be the most recognizable jersey in school history, but Jimmy Clausen and company arguably catapulted #7 into the top spot here, claiming more touchdowns and yards, with a materially better completion percentage, passer rating, and TD/INT split to boot. That’s despite fellow #7 and longtime pro Steve Beuerlein throwing for *seventeen* more picks than scores, which I’m having a hard time believing. The Faust years were, presumably, rough as all hell.
Brady Quinn almost single-handedly keeps #10 in the game, seeing as he threw for about 3,600 yards more than any other signal caller in school history and totaled 56 more touchdowns than interceptions, even after starting his career in the red. Personally, as someone whose truly formative Notre Dame fandom days were the Weis/BQ era, I think #10 is the perfect number for a quarterback. Do not fight me on this, it just is. There’s more work to be done on #12’s legacy, but Ian Book can push it further towards the pantheon whenever he next takes the field, having already left it with the second best TD/INT split to date.
Unsurprisingly, players who made the cut in this category almost doubled the total in the passing game. Also unsurprisingly, good running backs are very much into wearing jersey numbers that start with the number 2; the 20-29 range accounts for almost 40% of total yardage and touchdowns, led by Allen Pinkett’s #20 (Dexter Williams’ #2 has far less mileage, but his 19 touchdowns and 6.6 YPC might help get the ball rolling). #22 looks to be the next most prominent, even if I’m showing my age by only remembering Julius Jones off the top of my head.
The single digits have some heavy hitters — Darius Walker, Ryan Grant, Armando Allen (single digit career touchdowns? sure, he wasn’t exactly a goal line back, but, what?), Jerome Bettis, and hey there, Tony Rice — but not enough of a lineage to break into the top ranks. If I’m remembering right, we don’t yet have jersey assignments for incoming freshman, so I’ll be keeping an eye on where Chris Tyree lands (recruiting pictures showed him wearing #4, but that’s taken by Kevin Austin). This choice will, of course, set his legacy as the next great Notre Dame running back in motion. My personal aesthetic preferences dictate that, as a smaller and faster back, he should stick in the single digits, but we’ll respect that call no matter what.
Here’s where the race gets considerably more wide open, largely thanks to the fact that there’s only one repeat in the top ten (#7 is an iconic quarterback choice, but recently it’s been reserved for undersized speedsters). It’s also thanks to the fact that the only group to reach 400 catches doesn’t make an appearance until we’re far down the top gainers on this list — shoutout to the humble #6, with no top-line legends in its history but plenty of incredibly effective contributors. Unsurprisingly, Will Fuller’s squad (for the last couple years of his Irish career) is the most efficient at getting into the end zone — he scored on more than a fifth of his receptions at ND! What a cool guy.
Jeff Samardzija and Chase Claypool made #83 matter in the new millennium, sort of taking over for the now old school #85, which holds a solid lead in total receiving yards but hasn’t been a factor for almost *four decades*. Having logged more than 2,500 yards, Derrick Mayes is a prominent #1; I’ve just now talked myself into the absolute need for Jordan Johnson or another top receiver recruit to pick this (or the newly allowable #0!!!) and make their mark.
There’s only one #25 on this list, but when your nickname is Rocket and you average 22 yards a catch, who needs company (Braden Lenzy don’t read this, he definitely needs your company). Same goes for all-time leaders Michael Floyd and Golden Tate, who are the only receivers in school history to eclipse the century mark while donning those jerseys. Similarly to that Laker #88 striking a chord with me, for whatever reason, Tate’s #23 feels like it will always be a singular one, even if the school’s all-time leading rusher also wore it.
Justin Yoon rules. Justin Yoon forever a hundred years. We love you Justin Yoon. And *checks notes* Jim Sanson, too. Definitely Jim Sanson. Good job, number nineteens.