It’s not very often that retired numbers become unretired, but that’s what happened for 11 games in 2004 when Jerry Rice wore No. 80.
At a first blush, it feels like there’s some poetry to Rice wearing Steve Largent’s number. Largent retired as the greatest receiver of all time in 1989 and owned every notable receiving record. By that time, Rice was finishing his fifth NFL season and already had four All-Pro campaigns under his belt.
The writing was on the wall: Rice was destined to be the GOAT.
“Of course I was looking over my shoulder and here comes a great receiver for the San Francisco 49ers,” Largent said on the latest Talkin’ Seahawks Podcast. “I knew he was going to eclipse my records.”
Two players who made the No. 80 famous. But here’s where things get weird. Rice and Largent never discussed the number.
Instead, it was GM Bob Whitsitt who orchestrated the entire thing.
“It was a little bit of a scam in that he called Jerry and said, ‘Hey Jerry, Steve Largent really wants you to wear his number in Seattle.’ Jerry wasn’t even thinking about that,” Largent said. “Then (Bob) calls me and says, ‘Jerry really wants to wear your number, can he wear it?’”
Rice corroborated Largent’s recount of how it went down.
“I had no intent on wearing his jersey when I went to Seattle,” the 49ers legend told NFL Network. “He’s a legend, and I would never cross that line. I guess we both got played by management.”
Largent allowed Rice to wear his number thinking it was the receiver who made the request, even though he was a bit (and understandably) uneasy about it. He felt slighted that the organization that retired his number would even make such a request. A retired number doesn’t mean “retired until an opportunity presents itself for it to be worn again.”
The crux of the issue was presenting the option to Rice as if it would be this huge honor for Largent. We are talking about Steve Largent, the man who retired with a laundry list of records and was the first player in NFL history to reach 100 receiving touchdowns. He didn’t need any sort of validation.
“Exactly. That’s the way I felt, too,” Largent said on the podcast.
If there’s any silver lining to this story, it’s that the two legendary wideouts have become good friends over the years as fellow Hall of Famers. They see each other every summer in Canton, Ohio and at other various events.
As for the No. 80, well, let’s hope it’s now officially retired in Seattle.
Listen to the FULL ‘Talkin’ Seahawks’ episode here.