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Making a number for themselves

There was a time not so long ago when a number in the teens predicted an early training camp demise for a wide receiver. If you didn't get one of those choice numbers in the 80s, chances were -- well, your chances weren't very good.

That was then and this is now in today's NFL:

Randy Moss, once the preeminent No. 84, is sporting No. 18 for the Silver and Black. Plaxico Burress, the erstwhile No. 80 in Pittsburgh, is a stylish No. 17 for the Giants. Even Jerry Rice, the most decorated wide receiver ever -- the ultimate No. 80 -- wore No. 19 in his final days with the Broncos.

"The younger generation, they look at those numbers in the teens as being cool," Rice said. "But back in the day, if you had 80, 81, even 88 -- I was No. 88 in college -- you thought it was pretty cool. But you have a new generation now."

It is the league's hottest fashion trend. A total of 30 wide receivers had numbers in the teens when the season kicked off. These numbers, for the players who wear them, are prime. In March 2004, the NFL -- faced with escalating retired numbers, an increasing emphasis on passing, and with it, more wideouts and tight ends -- allowed wide receivers to start wearing numbers 11-19, even if numbers in the 80s were available. Rookies and veterans changing teams were permitted to make the switch.

The first wave was the trio of rookie wide receivers who went in the top 10 of the college draft the following month. The Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald, the No. 3 pick overall, Detroit's Roy Williams (No. 7) and Reggie Williams (No. 9) of the Jaguars all wore single digits in college (Fitzgerald and Reggie Williams both wore No. 1) and they all chose No. 11 as their new number in the NFL.

To hear them tell it, No. 11 is twice as fun.

"Jerry Rice wore No. 80, you've got 88, Michael Irvin, Randy Moss, 84 -- you kind of want to make your own number," Roy Williams said. "I think No. 11 is the coolest number out there, and I make it look good, too. I'm long and lanky, so the ones just kind of run down my body."

"That sounds like Roy, too," Fitzgerald said. "I think you've got to agree with him, it does make you look sleek."

Said Reggie Williams, "You look good, you play good. It's [about] being original. You just try to identify yourself and you just go by your own code."

There is definitely a new-school, old-school dividing line here. Roy Williams calls his Lions rookie teammate Mike Williams, BMW, as in Big Mike Williams. Coming from USC, against Roy Williams' advice that he go for No. 17, Mike Williams took No. 88.

"He looks like a big box out there," Roy said. "I don't know why he chose that big, boxy number."

What's wrong with the 80s?

"I don't know," Reggie Williams said, "it just looks ugly to me. Even when I was little I never wanted to wear a big number like that."

A rolling stone … Numbers are, to some degree, abstract. But in sports, numbers often define the athlete. It was just this sort of connection that Moss was trying to sever when he arrived in the Bay Area during the offseason. Aware that Jerry Porter had brought his own special qualities to No. 84, Moss went in a different direction.

"I saw 18 on the list and I just went with it," Moss explained. "I just thought about me leaving Minnesota, coming here to Oakland to make a new start, and going back to the number that really brought me into this league. Dangerous -- and I want to get back to being a dangerous football player."

Troy Williamson, the Vikings' No. 1 draft choice from South Carolina, had a different reason for going with his teen number, No. 19: there was only one Vikings jersey available in 80s, Moss's old No. 84.

"That would have been something else," fellow Minnesota wide receiver Marcus Robinson said. "I guess a lot of guys would have started saying, 'Oh, are you trying to fill those shoes?'"

Said Williamson: "That's the number they gave me. Coach Tice told me I could change it if I wanted to, but if I had taken No. 84, a lot more stuff would have come with it. It's a new number, a new team, something different."

According to Burress, he never considered trying to secure his old No. 80, which was worn by tight end Jeremy Shockey.

"As far as I knew, no starting wide receiver in the NFL had No. 17," Burress explained. "I just wanted to be different and start a trend."

But first he had to purchase the number from punter Jeff Feagles. He asked for the cost of an outdoor kitchen in his vacation home in Phoenix, and in a deal brokered by agent Drew Rosenhaus, Burress complied. It was the second windfall for Feagles -- now No. 18. He gave quarterback Eli Manning his No. 10 a year ago in exchange for a family vacation in Florida.

Cleveland's Braylon Edwards, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2005 draft, also chose No. 17.

"It's different, it's unique," Edwards said. "It's something people kind of smirk up their face and wonder what it's about. That's why I chose it. I think 17 and I, we coexist in a perfect world."

The NFL marketing folks would agree.

The No. 1-selling jersey across the country is Moss' No. 18. That is hardly surprising, but consider that three other, less iconic players are ranked among the top 25. Roy Williams' No. 11 Lions jersey is ranked No. 15, while the No. 17s of Burress and Edwards place No. 22 and No. 25 overall, respectively.

This trend toward teen numbers can be traced directly to the Dallas Cowboys' No. 19.

"Follow me," Keyshawn Johnson said in the Cowboys' locker room. "It's nothing new. Seems like I always set a standard."

According to the Jets, all of their jerseys in the 80s were taken when Johnson was the No. 1 draft choice in 1996. He was given No. 19, standard procedure for a new player. But after the final cuts were made and some 80s became available, Johnson fought hard to hang onto No. 19. For reasons even the NFL can't quite explain, Johnson was allowed to keep the number.

That same year, some veteran receivers petitioned the league for numbers in the teens, but were denied.

"Keyshawn found a loophole," explained Gene Washington, the NFL's director of operations. "He was very persistent. The next year, we closed the loophole."

"I always wanted to be different," Johnson said. "I didn't want to be like everybody else. And the one thing I could do to identify myself to the fans and the world was by wearing a different number as an outsider."

Rice, the game's most decorated wide receiver ever, wore No. 80 for 16 seasons in San Francisco, more than three seasons in Oakland, and in 2004 with permission from Hall of Famer Steve Largent, 10 games with Seattle. When he arrived in Denver this year, looking to make the Broncos' roster as the third wide receiver, Rice found his No. 80 on the back of Rod Smith.

He took up the issue with his 9-year-old daughter, Jada.

"When I went to Denver my daughter was saying, 'Dad, what number are you going to wear?'" Rice said. "And she said, 'I think you should wear 19.'"

And so he did. Rice and 49ers quarterback Joe Montana, who made No. 16 famous but finished out his career in Kansas City, might have been the best wide receiver-quarterback tandem in the history of the game.

In a piece of irony, they both finished their careers wearing the same number: 19.

Nothing new? In 1973, the NFL -- bent on a more, uh, uniform product and in an attempt to give officials an easier time identifying illegal receivers downfield -- began slotting numbers.

But back in the day, those glorious, carefree years before the AFL-NFL merger, there were no mandated numbers by position. Growing up in the Bay Area, Washington was a big fan of Lance "Bambi" Alworth, the dashing wide receiver for the San Diego Chargers.

"Alworth might have been the first really good receiver that I saw wearing a teen number," Washington said. "And he looked so good in that powder-blue uniform with the thunderbolt on the helmet. It was great."

As a quarterback at Stanford, Washington wore No. 18. When he matriculated to the San Francisco 49ers, he kept the number and made it his own. He wore it for a decade, catching 371 passes for 6,664 yards and 59 touchdowns and playing in four Pro Bowls.

That was a quarter century ago. Washington, a thoughtful man with a good sense of humor, admits he's slightly amused by these new-school wide receivers clamoring for a new identity.

"I think they like to be creative and be first, but they're so young they don't realize they weren't the first," Washington said. "If you hang around long enough and it's good quality, it will come back in fashion. Teen numbers are back in fashion."

Amani Toomer, the Giants' all-time leader in receiving yards, also grew up in the Bay Area, in Berkeley, Calif. He was a 49ers fan, and although Washington's career ended when he was very young, Toomer was aware of the career of No. 18. Toomer, too, wore No. 18 at De LaSalle High School and later at Michigan. He was No. 89 for two seasons with the Giants, but when Thomas Lewis left after 1997, Toomer went to No. 81, the mirror opposite of his old, familiar No. 18.

Because Toomer hasn't changed teams, he isn't permitted to switch numbers.

"Eighty is still a good-looking number," he said. "But if I could change, I'd probably go with No. 11. I think 18 has run its course. I would try to do something new. Double ones would be cool."

Actually, the consensus among wideouts is that single digits would be even cooler.

"I'm happy they did [teen numbers], but I wish they would open up single digits," Roy Williams said. "I would have been four -- again.

"We'd love to get in the ones."

"Hopefully," Reggie Williams said, "they change the rules so we can wear single digits, because I'm going to be wearing No. 1 if they do."

Williams smiled.

"Or," he said, "I could just turn to being a kicker."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.