For most athletes there is a reason why they wear a certain number on their uniform.
Whether it’s No. 23 because they grew up idolizing Michael Jordan, or it’s No. 80 because they always wanted to play wide receiver like Jerry Rice, athletes like to wear the numbers of their favorite superstar player.
But sometimes the number on their back represents something totally different.
In some cases, a player chooses a number because it’s the only one available, or because a family member used to wear that number when they played sports, and for Gainesville High senior Brock Boleman that’s the reason he wears the No. 87.
But he never knew it until recently.
“As long as I’ve been playing football (I’ve been wearing No. 87),” Boleman said. “I picked it when I was a freshman — it was an open number — and I’ve had it ever since.”
While Boleman doesn’t know why he chose the No. 87, the number has become special. He found out that the number he wears every Friday was the same number his cousin Ricky Boleman wore for the Red Elephants 42 years ago.
“I knew all about him, but I didn’t know he played football,” Brock Boleman said. “Someone told me at Longstreet (Cafe) one day and told me he was happy to see the No. 87 and the name Boleman on the field again.”
Someone had to tell him, because Brock Boleman never got the chance to meet his cousin Ricky.
A year after he graduated from Gainesville High in 1967, Ricky, along with four other students from Gainesville Junior College, was killed when a car they were riding in was struck by a train.
“It was devastating for our family and for the community because there was five young people that died in the prime of their lives,” Brock’s father Tim Boleman said of the tragic night of Jan. 25, 1968. Tim Boleman, who was 10 at the time of Ricky’s death, also was unaware that his cousin wore the same number his son now wears.
The person that made Brock aware of the family connection was Gainesville businessman Jack Waldrip, who was one of the pallbearers at Ricky’s funeral.
“That Boleman name and that No. 87 brings back a lot of memories,” said Waldrip, who was childhood friends with Ricky. “It makes me really proud that (Brock) has that number.”
It makes Brock proud too.
“I think about it when I put it on on Fridays,” Brock Boleman said of his jersey number. “It’s got some meaning behind it now.”
While Brock and his second cousin Ricky share a number, their stature on the football field is different.
The 6-foot-6 Brock, who has 41 tackles this year, is a linebacker for the sixth-ranked Red Elephants, while Ricky was an offensive end during his playing days.
Although their differences on the football field outnumber the similarities, the tie to a lost family member is immeasurable.
“Traditionally, we are a close family and that was one of the brightest people in our family that was lost,” Tim Boleman said. “Now we have a connection with him.
“It’s very meaningful to connect the generations and revive the memory of Ricky,” he added. “I guess people don’t talk about Ricky anymore, and it brings Ricky back in a positive light.”
What led Brock Boleman to the No. 87 was something of circumstance. He was unaware of the tie that binded him to a lost family member. After all, it was just the number that was available. Waldrip believes it was more than that.
“It’s kind of like fate,” he said. “For this to come back after all these years is absolutely great.”
Whether it was fate, circumstance or destiny, the fact remains that the No. 87 turned from a simple uniform number into a tribute of a lost family member that Brock, and the rest of the Boleman’s will never forget.
And although Brock never got to meet Ricky, he wishes that he could send him a message.
“I’d tell him thanks for building up the proud tradition we have here at Gainesville,” he said. “And that I’m playing hard like he played back in the day, because everybody told me that he was a tough player.”
A tough player whose name, and now number will live on forever in the Boleman family.