Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Reflecting on Club 55

Everyone knows that the sport of football is a game of numbers. While the purists of the sport maintain that the only two statistics that matter are win-loss records and final scores, it’s pretty difficult to not buy into the analytics and numbers behind the game. With the boom of fantasy football and the explosion of social media coverage, football and almost every other major sport has fully immersed itself into the world of numbers, spreadsheets, and averages. Whether you buy into what the analytics guys are preaching to you about Phillip Rivers’ low completion rate with two minutes remaining on the road in indoor stadiums; or whether you are one of those old-timers stressing intangibles and the things that don’t show up on the scoresheet,  statistics have engrossed the modern world of sports.

The USC Football program has its own set of number games. No, not a statistical battle with regards to yardage per game or offensive efficiency, but with the digits that Trojan players sport on their chests. 

There are the obvious suspects when it comes to the revered numbers that have been worn by USC legends. The Peristyle of the L.A. Coliseum displays the six jersey numbers which have been permanently retired by USC: Heisman winners Carson Palmer (#3), Matt Leinart (#11), Charles White (#12), Mike Garrett (#20), O.J. Simpson (#32) and Marcus Allen (#33) have had their digits forever inscribed into Trojan football history. 

While not officially retired by the program, just as hallowed in USC lore are the numbers 5 and 43. El numero cĂ®nco, which most famously belonged to Reggie Bush — the (sort of, well, kind of) 2005 Heisman trophy winner — has not been worn by a player since his departure from the university in 2006. In a 2011 piece for the L.A. Times regarding this very same topic of jersey numbers and their significance at USC, Pat Haden remarked that it would be a very, very long time before another player sported Bush’s No. 5 again due to the controversies surrounding his infamous NCAA sanctions. The No. 43, formerly belonging to All-American safety Troy Polumalu — an NFL All-Pro and Pittsburgh Steelers legend — has not been worn by a Trojan since 2002. 

Also, come to think of it, you can’t talk iconic USC jerseys without the mention of Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott either (#42).

With all that being said, the No. 55 is yet another set of digits which carry a world of importance in the land of Troy. The number has historically been given to a standout linebacker for the Trojans; it cannot be requested by a player; it must be earned and delegated by the coaching staff. In fact, there have been many seasons in which no player was selected to receive the jersey number. 

On the official USC Football website, the team roster — which lists uniform numbers — is constantly being updated. Several weeks ago, sophomore linebacker Cameron Smith was temporarily listed as No. 55, which sent social media and Trojan Football blogs into a frenzy. However, all the hype surrounding the new Trojan-55 quickly died when the roster was updated and Smith was listed back at his normal No. 35. Reasons for the No. 55 listing of Smith have not been disclosed by the university; it is still possible that he could rock the “fives” this fall, but that’s still just speculation at this point.

Whether Smith, a Freshman All-American in 2015, winds up with the revered 55 or not, the number already has as proven a track record as any other digit in the history of college football. Here are some of the most prominent Trojan linebackers who took on the legacy of No. 55:

Junior Seau (1987-1990)
The late Seau was an All-American linebacker for the Trojans in the 1989 season — a year in which he totaled 19 sacks. He would go on to have one of the most decorated professional careers in the history of the NFL: 12 Pro Bowl selections, 8-time First-team All-Pro,  and 1992 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Seau, whose No. 55 jersey with the San Diego Chargers is now retired, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015. 

Willie McGinest (1990-1993)
McGinest was a regular on the All-PAC-10 conference teams during his time with the Trojans. In his senior season, McGinest received All-American honors and was a finalist for the prestigious Lombardi Award, given every season to the best linebacker or lineman in the nation. After being drafted fourth overall by the New England Patriots in the 1994 NFL Draft, McGinest went on to win three Superbowl titles (all with New England) over his 15-year career. He was also selected to two Pro Bowl teams (1995 and 2003).

Chris Claiborne (1996-1998)
In 1998, Claiborne became the first and only Trojan to ever win the Butkus Award, given annually to the best linebacker in the country. After an All-American career at USC, Claiborne went on to be drafted ninth overall by the Detroit Lions in the 1999 NFL Draft; he never had quite the illustrious NFL career that the other members of Club 55 did. 

Lamar Dawson (2011-2015)
Dawson, the most recent Trojan to wear No. 55, may be one of the more underachieving players to bear the hallowed digits. Injuries derailed Dawson’s time with the Trojans; he only made 20 starts for the men of Troy over his five-year tenure with USC. 

As the 2015 All-PAC-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, Smith certainly has the upside that could rightfully earn him the fives on his chest. In the coming weeks, and as the fall approaches, it will be interesting to see if anyone from USC addresses the Cam Smith 55 fiasco as a slip up in the typing of rosters, or as something Trojan fans should get used to seeing on Saturdays. Many speculate that the coaching staff did in fact grant Smith the number, but for one reason or another, a decision was made either for, or by, him to remain No. 35. 

Like most major universities, USC boasts one heck of a Greek life system. Take a stroll through Frat Row on a Friday night and you will be sure to find a plethora of fraternities putting together functions and partying the night away. As illustrious as Alpha Gamma may seem to some, there is hardly any fraternity more revered at USC than that of the Club 55 Linebacking Corp. 

After an impressive freshman campaign, Smith currently stands as an intriguing pledge. 

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