What's in a number? For NFL players, it's an identity some never lose

Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR.

Take a number: We remember the jersey numbers most.

Whenever a new Browns class of rookies takes the field for the first time, their jersey numbers rekindle memories of previous players who wore them.

The latest batch of Browns rookies – drafted and undrafted – hits the field for the first time on Friday at coach Hue Jackson’s rookie minicamp.

Quarterback Cody Kessler will wear No. 5. That’s Jeff Garcia in brown and orange, for better or worse.

Offensive tackle Shon Coleman will wear No. 72. To me, that will always be Jerry Sherk, the greatest defensive tackle in team history.

Linebacker Scooby Wright – the 3rd, of course – will wear No. 50. Tom Cousineau.

Offensive lineman Spencer Drango drew No. 66. That’s Gene Hickerson, one of the greatest pulling guards in NFL history, a Pro Football Hall of Famer, legendary Browns iconoclast and boyhood pal of Elvis Presley.

Then there is Corey Coleman. The first draft pick of the Browns’ analytics era begins his career wearing No. 19.

Everyone knows that number belongs to Bernie Kosar, the quarterback of the last great Browns teams and one of the franchise’s most enduring icons.

Coleman promptly acknowledged Kosar on his Twitter account. He tweeted, “Just found out I'll be wearing the jersey number of Browns Legend Bernie Kosar. I couldn't be more humbled and excited at the same time! #19”

Kosar’s complicated relationship with the franchise can best be described as estranged. He was booted off the Browns preseason TV telecasts in 2014 by former President Alec Scheiner – who left the organization last month -- and has had nothing to do with the team since.

Whenever a player is assigned No. 19 – receivers Frisman Jackson and Miles Austin are the only ones to wear it since Kosar last fashioned it in 1993 – conspiracists question if the Browns are purposely disrespecting Kosar by giving out the number altogether.

So why don’t they just retire it?

Numbers crunch: Ozzie Newsome is the greatest tight end in Browns history, a Pro Football Hall of Famer and one of 16 franchise greats enshrined in the team’s Ring of Honor. Since he retired in 1990, Newsome has seen his No. 82 reassigned six times.

“Yes, the number is special to me,” Newsome, now the Baltimore Ravens general manager, said to me on Tuesday. “I appreciate when someone says [it should be retired], but I’m not hung up on it. In working in the business now, I know it’s tough to retire numbers. I’m dealing with that now with [Ravens Hall of Famer] Jonathan Ogden and [future Hall of Famer] Ray Lewis.”

NFL teams have been cautioned about retiring numbers because of a real numbers crunch. Rosters are larger than ever, and inevitably numbers run out.

The league mandates what numbers can be worn per position group. Receivers used to be restricted to the 80s, but that was expanded in 2004 to include 10 to 19. Since then, the teens have become increasingly popular with incoming millennial receivers. Coleman wanted a teen, and only No. 19 was available on the Browns.

The Browns have retired only five numbers – No. 14 worn by Otto Graham, the greatest quarterback in franchise history; No. 32 of Jim Brown, arguably the greatest running back and player in NFL history; No. 76 of Lou Groza, the Hall of Fame tackle and place-kicker and greatest team ambassador; and numbers of two players who died as active players, No. 45 of Ernie Davis, who succumbed to leukemia before actually playing a game; and No. 46 of Don Fleming, a safety who was electrocuted on a construction job during the 1963 offseason.

Numbers matter: When cornerback Darrelle Revis was traded from the Jets to the Buccaneers in 2013, he wanted to keep his customary No. 24 so badly that he paid new teammate Mark Barron $50,000 to give it up.

When Shannon Sharpe joined the Ravens in 2000, he asked Newsome to give him his No. 82.

“He knew he was going to break my [NFL receptions record for a tight end] as a Raven,” Newsome said.

When the Browns returned as an expansion franchise in 1999, they didn’t think twice about assigning No. 82 to tight end Irv Smith. Newsome noted it was also worn by Benjamin Watson, a widely respected veteran who this year signed with the Ravens, and currently by Pro Bowler and NFL Walter Payton Man of Year nominee Gary Barnidge.

“I never looked at it as a negative,” Newsome said. “That kid Barnidge, he’s represented it proudly.”

You can tell No. 82 still means a lot to Newsome.

“That number becomes as much a part of you as your name,” he said. “No. 24 is Willie Mays. No. 23 is Michael Jordan.”

The derivation of Newsome’s No. 82 in itself was special. He said he was given the number at Alabama by legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. It was formerly worn by Wilbur Jackson, who was the first African American offered a football scholarship at the University of Alabama.

Newsome tells the story of a Maryland high school coach who visited the Ravens a few years ago, toting a DVD of rare footage of Newsome in action at Colbert County High School in Leighton, Ala.

The high school coach remarked to Newsome, “Yes, No. 82 was good. But I have to tell you, that No. 80 was real good.”

Newsome politely informed the coach that he wore No. 80 in high school.