Few athletes are more closely associated with their jersey number than Mississippi’s most famous No. 4, Brett Favre.
Favre threw for more yardage than any quarterback in NFL history. He was three-time league MVP. He is pro football’s all-time iron man and quarterbacked the Green Bay Packers to a Super Bowl victory about an hour from where he grew up in Kiln.
For today’s purposes Favre also is one of a precious few famous football players in history who wore No. 4.
Think not? OK, name another.
Lou Gehrig and Ralph Kiner wore No. 4 in baseball. Bobby Orr wore No. 4 in hockey. Charles Barkley wore 4 when he played for the Houston Rockets. (Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer, the late, great Wendell Ladner wore No. 4 when he was an all-star in the old ABA.)
Football? Well, there was Byron Leftwich. And Adam Viniateri. Other than Favre, the No. 4 hasn’t been a particularly successful or sought-after football number.
No question, the two most famous No. 4s in sports history are Gehrig, the Iron Horse, and Favre, the Iron Quarterback.
Any baseball historian worth his notebook can tell you how Gehrig got his jersey number. When the New York Yankees began to put numbers on jerseys, the numbers corresponded directly to where the player hit in the batting order. Babe Ruth batted third, so he wore No. 3. Gehrig batted clean-up so he wore No. 4. Interestingly, the Yankees didn’t even wear numbered jerseys until 1929.
The story of how Brett Lorenzo Favre became No. 4 is a lot more complicated — and I think more interesting — than Gehrig’s story.
You see, Favre wore No. 10 when he played for the high school team coached by his father, Big Irv Favre, at Hancock North Central.
So when Favre reported to fall training camp as a 17-year-old freshman at Southern Miss, he asked for No. 10.
“Sorry, you can’t have that one,” the equipment manager said.
“Why not?” Favre asked.
“Reggie Collier was No. 10 at USM and no other player will ever wear that jersey again,” came the answer.
Being from the Gulf Coast, Favre knew all about Reggie Collier.
“I certainly could understand that,” Favre said recently. “Reggie was a great, great player. He deserved to have his jersey retired.”
So Favre asked what jersey numbers were available for quarterbacks.
“To tell you the truth, the only number we’ve got left for you is number 4,” the equipment manager said.
“Well then, number 4 it is,” Favre said and he took it.
Asked about it recently, Favre laughed. “To tell you the truth I was happy to have any jersey at all. I was sixth or seventh on the depth chart when I got to Hattiesburg. I got the last scholarship that was available on the day before signing day. I thought I was going to either Delta State or Pearl River Junior College. I didn’t even know for sure I was going to play quarterback. I think they listed me as a defensive back.”
So the great Brett Favre, the most famous No. 4 in football history, got No. 4 by default. He wore it for a productive four years at USM and then for a remarkable 20 years in the NFL.
“No regrets. It worked out OK,” he said.
It did, indeed. No USM player will ever wear No. 4 again. No Green Bay Packer, for that matter.
Rick Cleveland (email@example.com) is the executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.