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The hidden message in Tyrann Mathieu’s potential number change

There’s symbolism in a number change this far into a player’s career.

Super Bowl LV Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

There’s a lot of significance in a jersey number. Athletes cling onto a “lucky number” from their youth; everyone has a story for the numerals they dawn on their uniform. In professional sports, the value of a jersey number is proved by jersey sales and the instant recognition of a particular number on a particular team’s jersey.

When a well-established NFL player changes their jersey number, it changes a player’s on-field aesthetic and leads to a surge in jersey sales — both things that will happen if the Kansas City Chiefs’ proposed rule on jersey numbers passes next month. It would allow skill positions to wear single-digit uniform numbers — and multiple players have publicly teased their consideration of a change.

Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu wants to change his number, too — although the rule doesn’t need to pass for him to switch to his desired digits. He’s worn 32 for all eight of his NFL seasons — and the numbers 14 and 7 in college at LSU — but he says he’s switching to a brand new one:

Number 21 in Kansas City has belonged to cornerback Bashaud Breeland for the previous two seasons — and to safety Eric Murray before that. Other former Chiefs players to don the uniform include running back Mike Garrett and safety Jerome Woods, but Mathieu indicated that the move may be a gesture to another former NFL player.

Hall of fame cornerback Charles Woodson wore number 21 for seven seasons: his entire stay in Green Bay, where he won his only career Super Bowl. He signed with the Packers entering his ninth season; the previous eight were spent with the Oakland Raiders and the number 24.

Woodson’s number change represented a fresh start on a new NFL team. He had dealt with injuries in his final two seasons with Oakland — but revitalized his career with the Packers in a big way. He had a career-high eight picks his first season there, had two first-team All-Pro seasons and four Pro Bowls and scored nine of his 11 career defensive touchdowns with Green Bay.

Could Mathieu’s change to 21 be not only a nod to Woodson — but also a second act in Mathieu’s journey in becoming a Pro Football Hall of Fame player?

Iconic jersey number changes in sports history include LeBron James, Joe Montana, and of course Kobe Bryant — who has two Hall of Fame careers if you take the nine seasons he wore number eight and the 11 seasons he donned number 24.

Bryant had meaning behind his number change, considering it a fresh chapter in his career after dealing with off-court issues.

“It’s kind of a clean slate,” Bryant was quoted in an ESPN article. “I started new. Just start completely fresh, focus on the number that meant a lot to me.”

Bryant wiped that slate clean while staying with the same franchise — and Chiefs fans hope that’s the case with Mathieu as well. That said, Mathieu’s tweet saying he’s “switching to 21 in year 10” might indicate that this career change could come in 2022 — his 10th season in the NFL.

2022 is also when Mathieu is set to hit the open free-agent market. His current deal is up after 2021, and the extension Chiefs fans have been waiting for hasn’t come down the pike. Could the number change be accompanied by a destination change as well?

Woodson played for 18 NFL seasons, and it’s safe to assume Mathieu is motivated by being compared to all-time greats like that. He has the intelligence and has shown the durability in recent seasons that it takes to play for that long.

Could Mathieu be starting a new career chapter in Kansas City with a new number, or could this number switch hint at a different plan in the long-term? If there’s no extension done this offseason, that question will grow into a much bigger one before next year.

Poll

Which number should Tyrann Mathieu wear next?

This poll is closed

  • 35%
    No. 21
    (943 votes)
  • 16%
    No. 7 (if allowed)
    (439 votes)
  • 45%
    He should stay with No. 32
    (1202 votes)
  • 1%
    Another number
    (48 votes)
2632 votes total Vote Now