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‘Everybody wants No. 8’: As Ravens QB Lamar Jackson’s star rises, youth football follows his lead

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is asked about the teams slow start in games this season and what they need to do to overcome them.

In August 2020, youth football players and coaches gathered after a Jacksonville Storm practice on a grass field behind a church in eastern North Carolina. They were two weeks into their Pop Warner preseason, and the time had come to pick jersey numbers.

The coaches, volunteers from the military town of Jacksonville, went from player to player, kids ranging in age from 8 to 10 years old, and asked what number they’d like.

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Garnet West, a Storm assistant coach, was only a few selections in before he noticed one of the kids crying. West asked him what was wrong. He said he’d wanted No. 8, but a teammate got it before him. The kid, West recalled, was almost inconsolable. Finally, through tears, came an explanation: “Lamar’s my favorite player.”

Just the idea that he couldn’t imitate Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, that he couldn’t honor the NFL’s then-reigning Most Valuable Player, was enough to ruin the kid’s afternoon.

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“This is when I really understood, like, ‘Damn, this man is really affecting all of us in so many ways,’” said West, a lifelong Ravens fan. “Most importantly, the youth.”

Young Ravens fan Jackson Liu, 9, and his mother Yoyo Xufon, of Catonsville, both wear Lamar Jackson's No. 8 jersey as they watch the team warm-up before a game against the Los Angeles Chargers on Oct. 17 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
Young Ravens fan Jackson Liu, 9, and his mother Yoyo Xufon, of Catonsville, both wear Lamar Jackson's No. 8 jersey as they watch the team warm-up before a game against the Los Angeles Chargers on Oct. 17 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

These are good days for No. 8. On Thursday, Jackson will take his case for 2021 MVP back home, to South Florida, where the AFC North-leading Ravens will face the Miami Dolphins in prime time. On Saturday, Jackson will return to the University of Louisville, where he won the school’s only Heisman Trophy and where he’ll join another Baltimore football icon, Johnny Unitas, as the only Cardinals players to have their jersey numbers retired.

All weekend, from youth fields in Kansas to stadiums in Baltimore to patches of grass across the country, the sport’s next generation will try to follow his lead.

The more Jackson distinguishes himself, the more distinguished his No. 8 becomes. According to the NFL’s official online shop, Jackson’s No. 8 jersey was the eighth-highest-selling jersey in October. From March 1, 2020, to Feb. 28, according to the NFL Players Association, Jackson trailed only Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes in sales of licensed player products and merchandise.

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“It’s just crazy,” Jackson said Tuesday of the number’s burgeoning popularity, almost dumbstruck by the legions of supporters he sees at every game, home and away.

Jackson still seems to play with the glee of a child, and his jersey number in that demographic has become a treasured touchstone. When Ravens defensive back Anthony Levine Sr. looks around M&T Bank Stadium on game days, he sees a constellation of kids delighting in wearing the same thing.

“That’s all you see,” Levine said. “When they introduce 8 coming out the tunnel, you can’t hear nothing. The crowd goes crazy for him. That’s who he is.”

‘He really just wants to win’

On a Saturday in early October, Lex Hector was making the long drive from central Kansas to Denver when she got a notification on her phone. Hours earlier, she’d shared a video on Twitter of her 9-year-old nephew, Rylan Herrod, walking off the field after a dominant game for the Newton Railers Junior Football Club.

“Why do you wear that number?” Hector asks in the clip.

“For Lamar Jackson,” Rylan says, almost bashfully.

Now they were driving to see No. 8 in person, a Week 4 matchup with the Broncos, Rylan’s first Ravens game. But before he could see Jackson in person, Jackson saw Rylan. He retweeted Hector’s video, which she’d tagged Jackson in. And so Hector handed Rylan her phone, the screen open to Jackson’s Twitter page.

“He was speechless for probably about 30 seconds and just had the biggest smirk on his face,” Hector recalled. “He just smiled for the rest of the trip. … He was ecstatic the entire time. It definitely made his entire road trip. It made his whole weekend. He still talks about it.”

Hector joked that the retweet probably meant more to Rylan than it did to her, a rich irony because, well, Rylan isn’t even a Ravens fan. Hector grew up going to Ravens games. Her nephew, however, grew up in Kansas in a boom era for the Chiefs, a franchise with its own prodigy at quarterback.

“It was all Patrick Mahomes, all the time,” Hector said of Rylan’s early fandom.

Even after Jackson was named the 2019 NFL MVP, Rylan was reluctant to acknowledge his greatness. But over the past year, as Jackson led the Ravens to another playoff appearance, Rylan’s attitude softened. He started watching YouTube highlights of Jackson. He began to realize how he wanted to play football. The way Rylan saw it, his notions of leadership and playmaking aligned more with Jackson’s than with Mahomes’.

“He loves the Chiefs and he loves Patrick, but he sees what Lamar does on the field and what Lamar does for the Ravens, and he just wants to model after that,” Hector said. “He wants to be the team leader. He wants to be the guy that gets everyone riled up, gets them going. He just wants to lead his team and get as many touches as possible. He really just wants to win football games.”

This is Rylan’s first year playing tackle football. When his Newton coaches were handing out equipment before the season, Rylan asked when they would get their jerseys. Soon, he was told.

“Do we have a say in what our number is?” Hector recalled Rylan wondering. “If we do, I want 8.”

Young Ravens fan Kamari Key, 7, and father Leonard Key, of Baltimore, both wear Lamar Jackson's No. 8 jersey as they watch the team warm-up before a game against the Los Angeles Chargers on Oct. 17 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
Young Ravens fan Kamari Key, 7, and father Leonard Key, of Baltimore, both wear Lamar Jackson's No. 8 jersey as they watch the team warm-up before a game against the Los Angeles Chargers on Oct. 17 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

Lamar and the kids

During Jackson’s rookie year in Baltimore, Kweisi Ehoize, the president of the Baltimore Terps youth sports organization, visited Ravens training camp with some of the kids in his program. They wanted to see Jackson, and Jackson wanted to see them.

“He talked to the kids, he stayed with the kids, he played with the kids,” Ehoize recalled. “I think that he really, genuinely — not an act, not a show, but genuinely — loves kids.”

In Baltimore, the love goes both ways. Ehoize joked that when he orders jerseys ahead of a new season these days, he makes sure to verify how many No. 8s he needs, and in what sizes.

“Everybody’s going to want it,” Ehoize said, not just the quarterbacks.

When legendary Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was in his prime, No. 52 was the most popular number in Baltimore-area youth football, Ehoize recalled. But its sphere of influence was limited. Defensive-minded players wanted No. 52, not quarterbacks, Ehoize said.

Jackson’s emergence, along with changes in uniform rules, has started to blur those lines. Under the NFL’s newly relaxed jersey regulations, most players can choose to wear any number between 1 and 19. In Baltimore, Ravens wide receiver, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, wears No. 5. Inside linebacker Patrick Queen wears No. 6 — but only because No. 8 was unavailable.

It’s as if the 9- and 10-year-olds on Ehoize’s Baltimore Terps football team finally have permission to honor their favorite player at a different position.

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“It was always explained as, ‘OK, well, you can’t have No. 8 because you’re a tight end or you’re a defensive lineman,’” Ehoize said.

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And now? “Everybody wants No. 8.”

Scarcity can force tough choices, even in youth football. West, the Jacksonville Storm assistant coach, said school grades and leadership might decide any future number claims.

Ehoize said his organization’s coaches tend to favor their quarterbacks for No. 8.

Will King, who coaches a youth travel team for the Southern Maryland Heat program, has taken a meritocratic approach.

“If you’re the quarterback and you are the star, we let you have the first pick,” he said. “It’s just that type of thing. In this business, believe it or not, you’ve got to make sure your star athletes are happy, too, right?”

Young Ravens fan Kensley Chaffman, 10, wearing Lamar Jackson's No. 8 jersey, stands next to her dad Sean Chaffman, of New Market, during warm-ups before a game against the Los Angeles Chargers on Oct. 17 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
Young Ravens fan Kensley Chaffman, 10, wearing Lamar Jackson's No. 8 jersey, stands next to her dad Sean Chaffman, of New Market, during warm-ups before a game against the Los Angeles Chargers on Oct. 17 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

‘Everybody wants to be like Lamar’

Not long after Jackson arrived in Baltimore, Levine pulled the rookie aside in the weight room.

“Man, you have no idea of the impact that you’re going to have on these kids,” Levine recalled telling the first-round pick.

“What do you mean?” Jackson asked.

Levine had followed Jackson’s career at Louisville, maybe more attentively than he’d followed any college player’s since arriving in the NFL over a decade ago.

“Every time 8 was playing, I watched it,” Levine said.

Now, when he talks with young Ravens fans, all he hears about is Jackson. They want to know where he is, how he is. Kids in Baltimore revere Jackson in 2021 the way Levine did four or five years ago before they became teammates.

Wherever Levine goes, Jackson’s presence is almost unavoidable. At local high school football games, Levine will hear players and fans talking about pulling a “Lamar Jackson,” shorthand for shaking past a defender. At home, Levine’s youngest son, 5-year-old Alexander, will ask him to tell Jackson that he’s the quarterback’s biggest fan. Levine grins as he remembers their back-and-forth. He gets it.

“Everybody wants to be like Lamar Jackson,” Levine said. “Every time Lamar goes out there, he goes out there, and everything he does is just natural, right? He’s just a natural-born athlete. He’s a natural-born leader. And kids see that. They’ll tell you, like — kids tell you the truth. Kids don’t sugarcoat nothing. So there ain’t no hiding nothing from a kid. When a kid sees it, a kid sees it.”

Week 10

RAVENS@DOLPHINS

Thursday, 8:20 p.m.

TV: Chs. 45, 5; NFL Network

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Ravens by 7 1/2

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