As we tick the days off to the season opener against the Patriots on Sept. 7, each day we highlight the players who wore that particular jersey number during their tenure in Miami. In some cases, the player and jersey number are synonymous. In other cases, the jersey number represents sustained greatness at a particular position. Whatever the case may be, jersey numbers are an important part of the fabric of professional football.
This number is probably best known for two distinctions that should be remembered more than they are, including one named after the uniform number itself. The first person to wear the jersey, Tom Erlandson (1966-67) was selected in the 1966 expansion draft from the Denver Broncos and became one of the first Dolphins ever to receive league-wide post-season honors, as he was named to the AFL All-Star team at the conclusion of the team’s initial season. Unfortunately, he lasted only one more year in Miami. Four years later, another player who wore #53 would help revolutionize the way football was played – linebacker Bob Matheson (1971-79). Matheson was big enough to rush the passer and agile enough to cover receivers and running backs in pass patterns. As a result, Don Shula and defensive coordinator Bill Arnsparger devised a unique role for him. In the early ‘70s, every team in the league just used the standard 4-3 defense regardless of down or distance, but Shula and Arnsparger devised a new way to take advantage of Matheson’s versatility. On passing downs he would enter the game in place of a defensive lineman, and play as a fourth linebacker -- the first “situational” substitution in NFL history. That alignment is now commonly called a 3-4 defense, but back then, because it was so revolutionary, there was no universally accepted way to identify it, so Shula started to call it the “53” defense, in honor of Matheson’s jersey number. The name caught on and for years anytime a team used a fourth linebacker, it was called a “53” defense. Even now occasionally you will still hear that term used to describe a 3-4 alignment. Matheson was an integral part of the great “No-Name” defense of the Dolphins championship teams in the 1970s, with the “53” defense playing a key role in Miami’s wins in Super Bowl VII and VIII. The jersey hasn’t been worn by a starter since then, but it was worn by a Pro Bowl performer, special teams player Larry Izzo (1996-00), who was voted to the 2000 AFC team as a special teams performer. He originally made the Dolphins the same way as a free agent rookie in 1996, Jimmy Johnson’s first season as the team’s head coach. After Izzo blew up a wedge on a kickoff in the first preseason game, Johnson showed the play at the next team meeting and said, “that’s the kind of player I expect to have on this team. I’m looking for 53 guys who can play like that, and right now I have two of them – Dan Marino and Larry Izzo. Larry, you can call home now and tell everyone you just made the Miami Dolphins.”
The complete list of Dolphins who have worn #53 includes Erlandson (1966-67); Norm McBride (1969-70); Matheson (1971-79); Rodell Thomas (1981); Ron Hester (1982-84); Jay Brophy (1984-86); Jack Squirek (1986); David Frye (1986-89); Ned Bolcar (1991-92); Aubrey Beavers (1994-95); Izzo (1996-00); Renauld Williams (2004); Jim Maxwell (2006); Reggie Torbor (2008-09); Erik Walden (2010); Austin Spitler (2010-12); and Jelani Jenkins
Tomorrow: The first player in Dolphin history who was born in Jamaica wore #52. Can you name this starter at linebacker?
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