Retire Leroy Kelly's Number 44 Jersey
(The History of Cleveland Browns Jersey #44)
Several good and not-so-good Browns players have worn the number 44 jersey for Cleveland throughout their history. However, only one player is a Hall-of-Famer (Don Shula was enshrined in the Hall of Fame as a coach). I think the time has long passed for Leroy Kelly's number, number 44, to be retired from the Browns' sidelines.
The first player to wear #44 for the Browns was offensive and defensive tackle Lou Rymkus beginning with the team's inaugural AAFC season in 1946. Rymkus retired after the 1951 season. In 1952 the NFL instituted a rule which assigned certain number ranges to particular positions on a football team. During the 1952 season three players ended up variously wearing the #44 jersey. Sherman Howard wore it until the 5th game of the season when he injured his shoulder on a pass play in a 19-15 victory over the Washington Redskins. Don Phelps wore it for one game and finally cornerback and future Hall of Fame coach Don Shula wore #44 for five games. The Browns traded Shula to the Colts after the 1952 season and the number would not be used again until halfback Chester "Chet" Hanulak wore it during the 1954 season. Former Notre Dame halfback Johnny Petitbon wore #44 for the Browns' 1955 and 1956 season. In 1957 Chet Hanulak once again took over the #44 jersey. In 1958 the Browns drafted TCU cornerback Jim Shofner who wore the #44 jersey through the 1963 season.
In 1964 the Cleveland Browns drafted from Morgan State their greatest halfback ever. Leroy Kelly wore the #44 jersey from his rookie season until the 1973 season ended. Kelly had helped the Browns win their last championship in 1964. He went on to lead the Browns to three more championship games in 1965, 1968, and 1969. He led the NFL in rushing in 1967 and 1968. He led the NFL in scoring in 1968 with 120 points scored on 20 touchdowns. He became only the third player along with Jim Brown and Jim Taylor to have three 1000-yard seasons since the NFL began in 1920. He was the fourth all-time leading rusher when he retired from the Cleveland Browns behind Jim Brown, Joe Perry, and Jim Taylor. Both Brown and Perry have had their numbers retired by their teams. It would be eleven years before another player wore #44 for them. However, that would not have happened had the Browns honored Leroy Kelly by justifiably retiring his number. After all, although Don Fleming's death in 1963 was tragic his play for the Browns was not extraordinary yet they retired his number 46 jersey.
In 1984 the Browns drafted East Carolina University running back Earnest Byner who became the first Browns player to wear #44 since Leroy Kelly. He was a somewhat successful running back during his tenure with the team. After he was traded to the Washington Redskins in 1989 Stefon Adams wore #44 during the 1990 season. Running back Lee Rousson wore it for the 1991 season. In 1992 the Browns drafted a promising fullback from USC named Tommy Vardell who wore #44 through the 1995 season. However, Vardell did not follow the Browns tradition of great running backs. After that season Art Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore.
The first player to wear #44 for the Browns after their return to the NFL in 1999 was former Notre Dame fullback Marc Edwards. He lasted through the 2000 season. Receiver Mike Sellers played one season with the Browns wearing #44 in 2001. No Browns player wore #44 until the Browns drafted another promising running back in 2003 named Lee Suggs from Virginia Tech. He lasted through the 2005 season. Beginning in 2011 and through the 2012 season, running back Eddie Williams from the College of Idaho wears the #44.
Please Cleveland Browns, it is time to retire number 44 from the team roster because the greatest halfback to ever play for you, Leroy Kelly, wore that number and you owe him that final honor!
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