The Buffalo Bills announced Wednesday that Thurman Thomas’ number 34 would be retired this season during the October 29th Monday Night Football game against the New England Patriots. Seen as one of the highest honors for a player, Thomas became just the third player in Bills’ history to have his number retired, joining Jim Kelly (12) and Bruce Smith (78). With the conversation started from the exciting news, is there one more number to go? Here is the case for Hall of Fame wide receiver Andre Reed.
The first necessary question is what makes a person worthy of this honor? Is it stats? With over 13,000 yards and 86 touchdowns while playing for Buffalo, there’s an argument to be had in Reed’s favor. Is it a Hall of Fame jacket? If so, Reed checks another important box. While these are excellent benchmarks for a career, this honor needs something more incredible, but less tangible.
Looking at the three retired numbers, there’s something beyond the stats. The idea of “legacy” became bigger than all the prior accolades. Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith, and Thurman Thomas all have several things in common which elevates them beyond the stats and gold jackets. Despite the passage of time, these players have endured in ways that even the Hall of Fame can’t reproduce. Jim Kelly’s every move and comment is covered by the NFL. Bruce Smith remains the benchmark for bad things when analysts talk shop. Thurman Thomas has become so intertwined with Buffalo that the phrase “look it up” has a higher meaning. The players that have had their numbers retired have distinguished themselves by being indistinguishable from the team. There is no conversation about the team that won’t inevitably find it’s way to their hallowed names.
Andre Reed is one of those names. He’s been characterized as abrasive at times. In fact, he is likely an excellent candidate for the most cocky member of a team that was in no short supply of players with that trait. We all know that swagger helped him produce and set a high bar for those around him, though. Reed is inseparable from any conversation discussing the “Buffalo Bills” just as the names above are.
One of the strongest arguments comes from how the team already perceives Reed and the number 83. Reed’s number is already on what was termed the “untouchable” list by former equipment manager Dave Hojnowski. Per Hojnowski, Reed’s number was one of a short list that the equipment staff would generally refuse to issue. While not officially retired, it’s been close.
Astute fans recall Lee Evans wore number 83. Fans with access to Pro Football Reference (all of you for the record), can also list Dave Moore, Ruvell Martin, and Mike Caussin as players to wear the number following Reed. For Caussin and Moore, the wiggle room to wear Reed’s number lies in the fact they played a different position than he did (tight end). Martin was a wide receiver but wasn’t allowed to wear 83 when the games meant something. In his 28 regular season games in Buffalo, Martin wore number 82.
Lee Evans is the only wide receiver to represent number 83 since Reed doffed it for the last time on January 8th, 2000. Before Evans was assigned the number, Hojnowski made some phone calls. At the time, use of the number needed to first be cleared by Ralph Wilson. After his approval was granted, Hojnowski called Reed himself to say, “Look, as a courtesy I’m letting you know that we’re issuing your number.” Reed inquired who would be wearing it and was told Lee Evans. Per Hojnowski, Reed remarked “Okay, he’ll do the number proud.’”