Why NFL players were drawn to jersey No. 0 after its return

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In 1973, the NFL standardized jersey numbers by position group, at which point the only players who were given single-digit uniform numbers were quarterbacks, punters and placeholders, but there was a catch — no one was granted No. 0.

In 2021, rules changes led to greater flexibility with uniform numbers, but it wasn’t until this spring that the NFL finally brought back No. 0 for everyone but offensive and defensive linemen.

Twenty-two players are currently set to wear zero in 2023, which is more than the total who wore it previously. According to Pro Football Reference, 19 players donned No. 0 or No. 00 before the 1973 rule change.

Perhaps the most memorable No. 0 in NFL history wasn’t an actual football player. Journalist George Plimpton sported a zero on his uniform when he joined the Detroit Lions for training camp in 1963 in preparation for writing his “Paper Lion” book, but he never played in a game.

Tailback/quarterback Johnny Clement was nicknamed Mr. Zero, donning the uniform from 1946 to 1948 with the Pittsburgh Steelers. However, the Steelers, like the New England Patriots, haven’t offered up the new uniform option to players in 2023.

Oakland Raiders Hall of Fame center Jim Otto wore No. 00 as a wordplay off his name (Aught-Oh), but there won’t be any double-zeros in 2023 because the NFL hasn’t given the OK to bring that number combination back.

Now that No. 0 is available after a 50-year absence, what drew players to the unusual jersey option this season? Here’s what some of them told our NFL Nation reporters:

Being the first to be zero

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D’Andre Swift, RB, Philadelphia Eagles

“This is the first year players are allowed to wear that number, so it’s kind of cool to be the first person to put it on, especially being from here,” said Swift, who grew up a fan of his hometown Eagles. — Tim McManus

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Zach Pascal, WR, Arizona Cardinals

When Pascal needed to pick a number after signing with the Cardinals in March, he wanted a single digit after wearing No. 3 with the Eagles last season, but he didn’t have many choices. Only No. 8 was available.

A big basketball fan, Pascal was used to seeing 0 or 00 on NBA jerseys. He thought it was just a matter of time until it came to the NFL.

Now that it’s finally here, he couldn’t resist.

“There’s no meaning behind it,” Pascal said. “Just a cool number. The first time being able to wear zero. It’s almost iconic. First person to wear zero. So just having fun with it.” — Josh Weinfuss

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Braxton Berrios, WR, Miami Dolphins

“I mean obviously it was new, it was different, it was cool ” Berrios said. “When I got here, there wasn’t much open, so I kind of fell into it and I like it. I’m embracing it and it’s the first year … so I think that’s kind of a nuance to it. But yeah, I’m excited for it.” — Marcel Louis-Jacques

Zero as the letter O

Calvin Ridley, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars

Ridley doesn’t look at it as if he’s wearing 0. To him, it’s an O. He said he chose zero because his middle name is Orin and he wanted that link to his family.

“My mom called us the COR boys when we were little because all of us have the same initials,” Ridley said. “So it’s C, O, R, Calvin Orin [Ridley].”

When the NFL announced that players were going to be able to wear No. 0, he became the first Jaguars player to ask for it.

“I wanted to be the first one to get it for sure,” he said. “That’s why when it came out I said, ‘All right, y’all get it out now.'” — Michael DiRocco

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Jonathon Cooper, OLB, Denver Broncos

Cooper, a seventh-round pick from Ohio State in the 2021 draft, was awarded the “Block O” jersey in his final season with the Buckeyes. The award is in honor of the late Bill Willis, an All-American and national champion in his career with the Buckeyes (1942-44). Willis’ No. 99 was retired by the school, but the Block O jersey was added to honor a player’s accountability, character and toughness. Cooper was one of the first two players to receive the honor.

“I had my best year in that jersey. It’s probably the best award I ever got at Ohio State. I have it framed and hanging at my house,” Cooper said. “And as soon as the NFL said we could wear zero, I wanted it. There was a little bit of a discussion between a whole bunch of players here, but I came away with it. It looks cool on a jersey, but it means something to me. For whatever reason, I think that number says whatever the team needs me to do, I’ll do.” — Jeff Legwold

Zero, as in ‘zero chance’

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Byron Young, OLB, Los Angeles Rams

When Young arrived at the University of Tennessee in 2021, he chose No. 0 because it represented how unlikely his path to big-time football had been.

“Where I came from and my journey, [it] was like basically a 0 percent chance for you to make it to this level,” said Young, who had been an assistant manager at a discount supermarket before deciding to give football another chance at a Georgia junior college during the pandemic.

After being drafted in the third round by the Rams, the rookie edge rusher wanted to keep the number to remind himself and hopefully inspire others.

“I fought through it and now I’m here, so I don’t want to forget that part,” he said. — Daniel Greenspan

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Daiyan Henley, LB, Los Angeles Chargers

Henley says wearing No. 0 in his rookie season with the Chargers was a family decision. A native of Crenshaw, California — about 5.5 miles north of the Chargers’ home at SoFi Stadium — Henley says he had about a “zero” chance of being selected by a hometown team until his dream became a reality and the Bolts drafted the Washington State product with a third-round pick.

“Once it happened and then zero was available,” Henley explained, “and [my family] was telling me, like, I’d be the first one ever to [wear] it, I was just like, I got to go with the family’s choice.” — Lindsey Thiry

Fire and ice

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Parris Campbell, WR, New York Giants

Campbell didn’t like his choices after he signed as a free agent. It was either 19 or 80-something because of all the retired single-digit numbers for the Giants. Luckily for Campbell, the new rule allowing players to wear zero passed less than two weeks after he signed.

“I saw on Twitter that it was available. As soon as I saw it, I hit up the [equipment] guys and was like. ‘I need zero,'” Campbell said.

Why?

It “looks fire!” — Jordan Raanan

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Ugo Amadi, DB, New Orleans Saints

“I wanted a single digit, and it went pretty well with my name. One day at practice, Coach was like ‘Hey, Sub-Zero, get in real quick!’ I thought ‘Sub-Zero’ sounds really cool and that name went with this number, so that’s pretty much why I went with it.” — Katherine Terrell

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Marvin Jones Jr., WR, Detroit Lions

During his previous stint with the Lions (2016-20), Jones wore No. 11. However, upon returning as a free agent this offseason, the number was already taken by teammate Kalif Raymond, so he leaned on his three oldest children, Marvin III, Mareon and Murrell, for the new number selection.

“It was a decision from my kids, so they actually made it,” Jones said. “There were a couple of numbers available, so they were like, ‘Daddy, get 0.’ So, I’m like, OK. I’ll try it.

“Then I put it on, and I was like, ‘This is cold.’ So, I’m glad I got the Sub-Zero stuff going on.” — Eric Woodyard

A new beginning

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Roquan Smith, LB, Baltimore Ravens

“Before you start with ‘1,’ you start with ‘0.’ I feel like it’s just the start of something,” Smith said. “This is my first start of a season with the Ravens, and I see no better number that represents that journey to greatness. I want to make a name for myself here. I want my name to be cemented here. So, I’m the first to wear ‘0’ and I want to be the first person to do a lot for this organization.” — Jamison Hensley

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Marcus Davenport, OLB, Minnesota Vikings

Davenport wanted a fresh start when he signed with the Vikings as an unrestricted free agent. In five seasons with the Saints, Davenport had been a pass-rusher without the sack numbers to prove it. He managed just a half-sack in 2022, despite a solid pressure rate of 14%, and his desire to begin anew flowed all the way through his choice of number for 2023.

“I had a couple options and asked my wife about them,” Davenport said. “It was really between 11 and 0, and she said, ‘Just go be different. Be zero.’ So that’s what it was. For me, it was just part of having a new beginning, you know?” — Kevin Seifert

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Sean Murphy-Bunting, CB, Tennessee Titans

Murphy-Bunting chose the number because he wore No. 23 with the Buccaneers, but Tre Avery has that number with the Titans. He figured since no one wore No. 0 before and it was available, it was a good choice.

“It was that simple,” he said. “The number I had was taken, so it was something where I thought, ‘New situation, new environment. Why not start fresh?’ That was my mindset going into it.” — Turron Davenport

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Greg Newsome II, CB, Cleveland Browns

Newsome said he “wanted a fresh start” after an up-and-down second season in 2022. He also thought it was “pretty cool to be the first Cleveland Brown to wear zero.”

Newsome was moved from outside cornerback to nickelback last season and struggled at times with the transition. He has yet to record an interception in the NFL despite starting 26 games for the Browns. He’s hoping the new number will bring him more luck in making plays.

“I hope so,” he said. “Get a little bit more production, I hope that’s what it causes. … I think I’m ready to really make that next jump.” — Jake Trotter

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Brian Burns, OLB, Carolina Panthers

Burns liked the number before it became popular, so when the Panthers hired a new coaching staff, made the switch to a new 3-4 based defense and moved the two-time Pro Bowler from end to outside linebacker, he decided a new number would be appropriate.

“I feel like it’s a lot of new around here,” Burns explained. “So I feel like, why not do it? It’s a new beginning.” — David Newton

Being a good teammate

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Devin Bush, LB, Seattle Seahawks

Bush ended up wearing No. 0 out of necessity — and his own benevolence. Bush wore 55 with the Steelers, but that was already taken when he joined the Seahawks. He initially picked 11, but then the Seahawks drafted Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who wore 11 in college.

“I gave it to the rookie,” Bush said. “He can have it. And then I found out zero was open and it kind of just fell into my lap and I’m kind of liking it now.”

Bush knows he could have charged the 20th overall pick a good amount of money for No. 11, but he didn’t charge him anything.

“You only get drafted once,” he said. — Brady Henderson

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Lorenzo Carter, DE/OLB, Atlanta Falcons

Carter’s path to No. 0 started because of his quarterback, Desmond Ridder, who wanted No. 9 last season, although Carter wasn’t changing his number for a rookie. However, after Ridder won the starting job and Carter returned for 2023, he decided to give it to Ridder.

Carter liked the concept of No. 0 because “it holds some weight to it, definitely. You’ve got eyes on you.” Carter saw fans tell him on social media “that’s how many sacks you’re going to have,” which he laughed at.

He also spoke with his sister, Larrisa, who had worked with the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers, so she helped him understand the importance of No. 0 because of NBA stars like Damian Lillard and Gilbert Arenas. She’s the one who made it clear to her brother “there’s a fraternity of zeroes, and zero in athletics is held high.”

“You got to bring it,” Carter said. “You got to earn that number and earn your right to wear that number.” — Michael Rothstein

Mike Reiss and Brooke Pryor contributed to this story.

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