The official roster of the New Orleans Saints features 93 players, a man for almost every allowable number from 1 to 99.
A quick scroll through the numerical lineup reveals a notable gap between Taysom Hill at No. 7 and Tre’Quan Smith at No. 10. They’re the only single-digit numerals, typically prized by players, not taken. In fact, they’re the only numbers below 43 not assigned.
And it’s not by happenstance.
Nose. 8 and 9 are off limits.
There’s never been an official announcement or public declaration. The decision was not ordained on high from owner Gayle Benson or general manager Mickey Loomis.
But everyone in the organization knows it: The jersey numbers of Archie Manning and Drew Brees have been unofficially retired.
“It’s just an unsaid thing,” veteran running back Mark Ingram said.
It’s the organization’s way of honoring two of its best players, leaders and citizens, an unspoken acknowledgment of their years of service and greatness.
And the men behind these silent salutes are Dan Simmons and John Baumgartner. As the team’s longtime equipment managers, Chief and Bum – as they are universally regarded in the Saints’ facility – are the gatekeepers of the jersey numbers. Since 1973, every Saints player who has requested a jersey number has had to go through Simmons or Baumgartner.
Simmons began the tradition in 1982, when Manning was unceremoniously traded to the Houston Oilers. After the deal went down that morning, Simmons and longtime assistant Glennon “Silky” Powell met Manning in the parking lot of the Saints ’training facility on David Drive in Metairie to give him the boxed-up belongings from his locker.
“As I was saying goodbye, I just kidded with Chief,‘ Don’t ever give that No. 8 to a punter or long snapper, ‘”Manning quipped.
Simmons took Manning’s request a step further. He refused to give No. 8 to anyone.
When new players arrived and asked for it, Simmons informed them it was unavailable and politely nudged them in a different direction. To this day, Manning is the only Saints player to ever wear No. 8.
“Not just myself, but everybody else in the organization thought that much of Archie by doing that,” Simmons said.
When Mark Ingram joined the Saints last season after a trade with the Houston Texans, he learned his first preferences – Nos. 2, 21 and 22 – were taken. So he unwittingly asked for No. 8.
“They told me,‘ It’s gone. That was Archie Manning’s number, ” Ingram said Tuesday after minicamp practice. “I really liked No. 8; it’s a great number. ”
Ingram was so determined that he even asked if he could call Manning and personally ask him if he could wear No. 8 in his honor. But he was told, in no uncertain terms, it was a non-starter. So Ingram settled for No. 14.
“I have the utmost respect for Mr. Manning, ”Ingram said. “He obviously deserves it. He’s the man. You have got to pay homage to the legend. ”
When Brees retired two years ago, Baumgartner decided to do the same for No. 9. No Saints player has worn No. 9 since he trotted off the field at the Superdome.
The gestures are more than simply a nod to the greatness of Manning and Brees as players. It goes beyond that. Manning and Brees both harbored a deep respect and admiration for the roles the equipment staff played on the team.
Manning, Simmons and Powell were more than colleagues. They were close friends and maintained ties long after Manning retired. During his playing days, Manning spent much of his time in the equipment room, hanging out with Simmons and Powell.
Likewise, Brees was revered inside the Saints’ facility for his humility and servant leadership as much as his on-field exploits. Over the years, he regularly collected money from teammates and gave it to members of the equipment staff as a season-ending “bonus” for their hard work. When he retired in 2020, Brees gave every member of the equipment staff – along with other support staff in the organization – gifts of thousands of dollars as a gesture of his gratitude.
“It’s not even a thing (in the locker room),” Ingram said of Brees. “He’s a great dude. Everybody knows that. Very kind, down to earth. And one of the best quarterbacks ever to play. It’s just understood that No. 9 should never be worn in a Saints uniform. ”
Officially, the Saints are one of a handful of teams in the league that don’t retire jersey numbers.
During owner John Mecom’s tenure, the Saints retired Jim Taylor’s No. 31 and Doug Atkins’ No. 81. Both numbers remained retired for decades then inexplicably were reissued in 2001 and 1993, respectively. They’ve been in circulation ever since.
When I’ve asked Saints officials about the policy, the explanation I’ve received is that the league frowns upon the practice. The concern being that clubs will eventually run out of numbers if roster limits continue to increase.
It remains a mystery as to when the policy started, who started it and why.
Clearly, though, the league leaves the decision in the hands of each club, because the practice varies widely from team to team.
The Chicago Bears, for instance, have retired 14 jersey numbers. The New York Giants have retired 12 numbers, including Eli Manning’s No. 10 and Michael Strahan’s No. 92 just last year.
Even the Carolina Panthers, who joined the NFL in 1995, have retired a jersey number, ironically Sam Mills’ No. 51.
Instead of jersey retirements, the Saints celebrate their all-time greats by placing them in the club’s Ring of Honor, a tradition started in 2013. So far, there are seven inductees: Manning, Mills, Rickey Jackson, Willie Roaf, Morten Andersen, Will Smith and Tom Benson.
Manning and Brees are in exclusive company with the unofficial jersey retirements, though. It’s a distinction so rare, an honor so prestigious, only two Saints have earned it in the club’s 56-year history.