The first jersey I ever owned bore the name of a man whose level of success I will never match, not as a writer, and certainly not as a football player. I tuned in at the very end of Barry Sanders’ ten-year NFL career, but I got there in time to see him trample the Chicago Bears defense for 167 yards and three touchdowns on Thanksgiving Day of 1997. I entered the game a five-year-old Bears fan, somehow drawn in by the mythos of Walter Payton, even though I was too young to have seen him play live. Less than a month later, I tore open the wrapping paper on a blue #20 jersey, with silver trim outlining the white numbers. The youth-medium jersey fit me like a dress, and fell so far below my knees that I had to remove it when using the restroom (the times I didn’t, well… let’s not discuss those times). But I wore it everywhere, until the number 20 began to wear away into a hieroglyph, and “SANDERS” was reduced to something like “S E “.
When I reached the seemingly unreachable point at which the Sanders jersey was too small, my Steve Young, Randy Moss, Tom Brady, Corey Dillon, Eli Manning, Larry Fitzgerald, and Adrian Peterson jerseys followed. These jerseys told people absolutely nothing about my geographic location or which teams I preferred – hell, I actively disliked a couple of the players – but they clearly marked me as a sports fan, and generally indicated which players I respected and looked up to. After a while, even my Peterson jersey began to look like it had fallen into the hands of some merciless Packer fans, and was consigned to the resale shop. So, here I am, seventeen years after I donned my first NFL replica, penniless, friendless, and jerseyless.
No, I kid about those first two! I’m doing okay financially, and I have many friends who are willing to shamelessly plug articles like this one whenever I ask them to. And here’s the interesting part: I’m pretty sure that my departure from jersey wearing (you might say my “jersisprudence”… or you mightn’t. Actually, please don’t say that ever) has something to do with the fact that I’ve grown into a fairly well-adjusted and minimally medicated adult. I’m 22 years old now, and while that may not seem like a very mature age to some of you, I’m certainly a much different person than I was when I wore my soaked-from-the-waist-down Barry Sanders jersey. And I’m too old to be wearing jerseys; that’s for sure.
Wearing the jersey of our favorite sports star is no different than playing dress-up, even though we like to pretend it is. I can envision a fair share of the 40-year-old Polish-American plumbers who wear Colin Kaepernick jerseys making fun of the people who go to Comic Con dressed as superheroes, but it’s the exact same thing. As much as he may deny it, a small part of Joe Kowalski is pretending that either he is Colin Kaepernick, could be Colin Kaepernick some day, or deserves some credit for Colin’s success. But unlike the slew of Spider-Men who infiltrate San Diego each summer, he didn’t even bother to shed the beer gut or get the pants right. If Joe ever feels the impulse to make fun of nerds in costumes, I hope he remembers that his jersey is just a lazier version of that.
When you’re a kid, it’s okay to play pretend, because it’s not as if you have many other skills in your arsenal. When I was a five-year-old who couldn’t tie his shoes, Barry Sanders’ level of football achievement was something to aspire to. When I walked into sports stores, the first place I looked was always the very top of the back wall, where the jerseys hung far out of my reach. They brought a little slice of professional sports to my hometown, where the closest NFL team was three hours away. And they broke up the monotony of the strip-mall shopping experience, what with all its colognes and socks and other boring adult stuff. Now that I’m a 22-year-old who can’t tie his shoes, Sanders’ feats aren’t any less impressive, but I have my own set of strengths and abilities that I can be proud of. And I have to buy my own socks.
Imagine if I walked out into the world today wearing a Cam Newton jersey. Newton is three years older than me, and is essentially my peer, even if our 40-yard-dash times set us apart a bit. I’m sure I could close the gap by helping him revise some essays from his Auburn days, should he ever go back and finish his degree. Is he so worth idolizing that I need to shell out $100 to establish some tenuous connection with him, when I could spend a mere $30 to express my role as a fan by wearing a team tee shirt?
I haven’t even addressed baseball and basketball jerseys. They’re not worn as frequently as football jerseys, but they do pop up from time to time, and I owned several in my youth. Basketball jerseys are nothing more than bulky wife-beaters, and I support federal legislation targeting people who wear them without undershirts. Baseball jerseys are tremendously uncomfortable and oddly shaped garments; the fact that an article of clothing commonly worn during athletic competition incorporates buttons still amazes me. Yet, certain adults enjoy dressing up in these costumes, too.
I want to offer some ideas of jersey etiquette, based on the general principle that the world would be a better place if replica jerseys were only sold in kids sizes. Sure, wearing jerseys is a little cheesy even when you’re young, especially when you’re liable to grow out of them as quickly as just a week or two. But, provided your family is willing to bankroll your expensive games of dress-up, childhood is a time when it’s okay to be cheesy, and have the kind of fanciful goals and aspirations that a grown man or woman shouldn’t be having. Some say athletes are terrible role models for kids, and there’s no argument from me there when it comes to the ones that drive drunk, shoot themselves in the leg, or defecate in laundry baskets. But moms and dads are human, too. Some of them make even bigger mistakes than those athletes (mine haven’t, fortunately; thanks mom and dad!), and others don’t even bother to show up for their kids. If a kid wants to wear a Roethlisberger jersey, let him, with the hope that he’ll strive for Big Ben’s on-field work ethic and find off-the-field inspiration elsewhere.
How do we determine who’s too old to wear jerseys and who isn’t? It seems a little simplistic to draw a line in the sand at a certain age level, which is why I have a solution that’s probably too generous, but will still do some good: If you’re older or fatter than the player whose jersey you’re buying, just don’t do it. You’re not Johnny Manziel, and the money you’re spending to pretend otherwise is embarrassing. Go grocery shopping, or, if you must buy a jersey, get one for your seven-year-old nephew who just swallowed his tooth. Johnny Football could teach him about proper dental care, if nothing else.
And with that, Tony Siragusa jerseys just sold out.