A uniform number is an incredibly personal thing.
For some players, it’s a wardrobe accessory, a comfortable shoe they’ve worn forever and don’t ever want to take off.
For some teams, they are historical reference points, things to be retired to commemorate Hall of Fame careers and contributions.
The point is, players will often go to great lengths to maintain their numbers when moving from team to team. They’ll pay cash and offer gifts to whoever was wearing it before them. And organizations will make numbers off-limits so not to risk besmirching the reputation of their stars; the New York Yankees have retired every single digit from 1-9.
Which brings us to the Buffalo Bills and the strangely interesting story of their No. 32, last worn by O.J. Simpson.
The Bills have retired numbers to honor Jim Kelly (12), Bruce Smith (78) and Thurman Thomas (34). But they did not do the same for Simpson, whose tremendous playing, broadcasting and acting career was followed by his notoriety as an alleged murderer and felon.
Instead of officially retiring it – as Simpson’s on-the-field skill would have merited – the Bills just put No. 32 on ice. No one has worn it since Simpson left the team 42 years ago.
According to The Athletic, that will not be the case any more. The Bills have decided to put No. 32 back into circulation. When they began spring workouts, running back Senorise Perry had it on his back.
“Whatever they do is fine with me,” Simpson told The Athletic by phone from Las Vegas. “That’s how I feel. When I played there, I tried to honor the team. Since I left, I always tried to honor the Bills.
“And, to be honest, it’s not something I think about. There’s too much else going on in life.”
As you might have suspected, wearing No. 32 was very important to Perry, a free agent who is trying to make the team as a backup and special teams player. He had to wear No. 34 for the last two seasons because his teammate with the Miami Dolphins, Kenyan Drake, decided he couldn’t let it go.
When Perry signed with the Bills he didn’t give wearing No. 32 a second thought because he was aware of Simpson’s legacy. But when he asked about, the Bills offered him a surprise.
“Boom, I took it,” Perry said. “I know the situation. I know that greatness comes with that number, playing in Buffalo. But I’m willing to take anything that comes my way. I’m going into my sixth year, and I know what it takes to get in this league and stay here. With that number on my back, I know I’m doing well for my family.”
This decision may not sit well with many Bills fans. In fact, The Athletic uncovered a 2011 article on BuffaloBills.com quoting equipment manager Dave Hojnowski saying that team owner Ralph Wilson made it clear no team player would ever wear No. 32 again.
Of course, Wilson has been dead since 2014. And apparently, attitudes have changed.
Simpson remains on the Bills’ Wall of Fame. His No. 32 is retired at USC. He is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and College Football Hall of Fame. While with the Bills, he was the NFL’s MVP in 1973, a five-time, first-team All-Pro who led the league in rushing four times while becoming the first back to gain 2,000 yards in a season.
“Even here in Vegas, I run into Bills fans all the time,” Simpson said. “They’ve always been positive with me. I’ve always been positive with them. In every way shape or form, when I was a player or covering their games for ‘Monday Night Football,’ I’ve always honored the Bills and will continue to do that.
“Whatever they decide to do will not change the way I feel about the people of Buffalo and my time spent there.”
The Bills do have a reputation for re-circulating numbers of impactful players from their history. Jack Kemp’s 15 was given to Todd Collins in 1995. Running back Elbert Dubenion’s 44 was issued to a rookie. Billy Shaw’s No. 66 and Andre Reed’s 83 were also recycled and they both are in the Hall of Fame.
Maybe it’s just our superstitious side coming to the forefront. But there is no way on earth you’d catch any of us wearing Simpson’s number, not even in a bar. That’s just a little too creepy.