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August 27, 2013Every sports program in the country revels an esteemed group of former players, whose impact was so great that those in charge raise their jersey numbers to the rafters, to be forever cherished but never again worn.
Before the 2011 season, Michigan had a group of retired jerseys: Tom Harmon's No. 98, Ron Kramer's No. 87, Gerald Ford's No. 48, Bennie Oosterbaan's No. 25 and the Wistert brothers' No. 11.
When the athletic department decided to honor Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard, athletic director Dave Brandon came up with a more creative and interactive way to honor Michigan greats.
Instead of retiring Howard's No. 21 jersey, it was adorned with a commemorative patch honoring Howard and worn by Junior Hemingway, the team's leading receiver.
In 2012, the Kramer, Ford, Oosterbaan and Wistert jerseys were introduced into the "Michigan Legends" fold.
This season, three of the jerseys were open, and Michigan coach Brady Hoke awarded them to deserving candidates this week: fifth-year senior wide receiver Jeremy Gallon will wear No. 21; senior cornerback Courtney Avery will wear No. 11; and sophomore tight end Devin Funchess will wear No. 87.
Redshirt junior outside linebacker Jake Ryan (No. 47) and junior middle linebacker Desmond Morgan (No. 48) will continue to represent the Legends jerseys given to them last season. And a sixth - Ol' 98 - will be introduced after a celebration of Tom Harmon's career before the Notre Dame game, Sept. 7.
"The Legend jerseys aren't simply given, but earned," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "Each of these three young men has done a great job of representing this program, and they understand the significance each of those numbers carries. I think they will do a great job of honoring those legacies."
Gallon, who led the team with 49 catches for 829 yards and four touchdowns in 2012, lit up with a smile when asked about his reaction to earning the No. 21 jersey.
"I am so happy, so honored to be able to represent him and everything he has done," Gallon said. "I didn't really know what to think. I wasn't expecting anything. I was ready to come out and play football, and I didn't expect any jerseys. I expected to wear No. 10 and make the best of No. 10. When they came to me about the jersey, it was a blessing. I had my moments with No. 10, but it's on to bigger and better things."
Last week, Howard came to Ann Arbor - much like New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady - to speak with the team about what it means to play for Michigan.
After his speech, Howard sat down one-on-one with Gallon. The two shared a heartfelt conversation.
"We spoke with each other," Gallon said. "I was talking about my life, and he was talking about my life and his mindset on football. We were just getting to know each other. I started to think, 'Why is this man talking to me? Why is the big man talking to someone small like me?'
"I have met him around here plenty of times, but that was the first time I had actually sat down and had that type of conversation with him, talking about myself and my life and where I come from. We talked about how I grew up and him expressing himself and talking about the same things.
"Since I got the jersey, I have been trying to reach out to him and tell him thank you. I want to let him know that I won't let him down. I want to represent it the best way I can, the Michigan way, the right way. I want to do all I can to keep that number going."
Before Hoke told Funchess he had earned Kramer's No. 87 jersey, the coach decided to have a little fun.
"He came into our meeting room and yelled, 'Funchess, I need you,' like I did something bad," Funchess recalled.
Once Hoke pulled Funchess aside, he assured the tight end he wasn't in trouble. "A huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. And then he told me about the jersey, and I was surprised. It was shocking."
Funchess has done some research about Kramer, a two-time consensus All-American (1955-56) and a three-time All-Big Ten first-team selection (1954-56). Funchess was ecstatic to earn the jersey - and after he learned more about Kramer, he was in awe.
"It's a huge honor that I get to represent Ron Kramer and his family and all that he has done for the university," Funchess said. "He was a phenomenal athlete. He played three sports, had nine letters. He did everything for the football team: offense, defense, running back, quarterback, defensive end, tight end. He did it all. It was a phenomenal athlete."
"Ron was a tremendous athlete, maybe the best athlete ever to play at Michigan," Hoke added. "Because he was a tight end, we wanted to keep it within that position. If you look at the tight end position, we don't have many older guys. Devin, with his growth and what we have seen as a staff, is something that is very special."
The Legends jerseys have their fair share of critics who dislike seeing players change jersey numbers halfway through their careers.
But for the players who have received one, it's a special moment they will remember for the rest of their lives.
"It keeps the memory of the players and keeps their name going," Gallon said. "And it shows the guys who get them how big of an impact they are for the team and what they can do for the team, how much of a leader they can be. It is great on both ends."
Players To Wear Each Legends Jersey
Desmond Howard No. 21: Junior Hemingway (2011), Roy Roundtree (2012), Jeremy Gallon (2013)
Wistert brothers No. 11: Jordan Kovacs (2012), Courtney Avery (2013)
Ron Kramer No. 87: Brandon Moore (2012), Devin Funchess (2013- )
Bennie Oosterbaan No. 47: Jake Ryan (2012- )
Gerald Ford No. 48: Desmond Morgan (2012- )