When Your Number's Up : Some Hang 'Em High, Others Aren't the Retiring Type

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They are some of Orange County's best known names.

No. 11 . . . John Huarte of Mater Dei.

No. 44 . . . Tony Gonzalez of Huntington Beach.

No. 15 . . . Ann Meyers of Sonora.

Like dozens of others countywide, they have had their number retired by their alma mater.

"It is a tremendous honor to be selected to have your number retired," Tustin Athletic Director Al Rosmino said. "It's something not to be taken lightly. It's not something you just do every five or 10 years."

The criteria for retiring numbers varies from school to school, but an informal survey by The Times Orange County turned up a veritable Who's Who of retired jerseys.

Or should we say, Who Was Who?

Huarte, a quarterback, went on to win the Heisman Trophy in 1964 at Notre Dame.

Gonzalez, who led Huntington Beach to Southern Section finals in both basketball and football, is playing both again as a sophomore at California.

Meyers was better known for playing basketball at UCLA than she was for the eight sports she played at Sonora in the early 1970s.

The survey was just as revealing for what it didn't turn up.

Among the Who's Not: Newport Harbor.

One of the oldest schools in the county, Newport Harbor has never retired a player's number, despite graduating players such as football standouts Shane Foley and Dave Cadigan and volleyball player, Misty May, now at Long Beach State. She led the Sailors to the mythical national title last season.

"It's never happened and we just don't know why," Athletic Director Eric Tweit said. "Way back when there may have been a reason to do it, but it just hasn't been done."

Five of the seven schools in the Garden Grove League are without retired numbers, including Santiago, which produced retired Angel pitcher Bert Blyleven. Blyleven, however, has been inducted into the Orange County Sports Hall of Fame.

It's awful tough for school administrators to do something to recognize standout swimmers since Speedos don't come with numbers. Woodbridge High Athletic Director Dave Cowan found that out the hard way when the Warriors decided to honor swimmer Chad Hundeby. Hundeby, a four-time high school All-American as a distance swimmer, graduated in 1989 and has gone on to set several rough-water swimming records. About a year ago he swam the English Channel in a record, 7 hours 17 minutes.

"We plan to give him a jersey with a swim logo on it and to hang it [up in the gym]," Cowan said.

A large majority of the numbers that have been retired have come in the last 10 years. That means athletes such as Norm Veeh, who wore No. 31 for Tustin High, are a rarity in the county, a throwback to when this place had more of the fruit trees for which it was named than housing tracts.

Veeh, a fullback who liked to sneak in a running back pass or two when he caught the defense napping, was the 1943 Southern Section player of the year. He also threw the shotput for the track team.

Those early years in the county were a lot different than today, Veeh said.

"It was good football, we used to give it our all," said Veeh, who still farms oranges in Orange Cove, a small community 30 miles southeast of Fresno. "We had some pretty fair teams around the county, but you can't compare the ages because things change so much. They're doing so much weightlifting today, but for our day, we were pretty good."

Some pretty strange traditions have developed around the retired numbers.

At Anaheim, where the exploits of the Colonists in football during the 1950s and mid-1960s are near legendary, the hallowed jerseys of Mickey Flynn (No. 25), Joe Aviga (No. 24), Tom Fitzpatrick (No. 34) and Gerry (Moon) Mullins (No. 86) are visited by members of the current football team in a bizarre ritual before and after each game.

Players gather in front of a trophy case named for longtime Coach Clare Van Hoorebeke (another legend who, no doubt, would have had his number retired had he worn one). It rests in a tiny hallway adjacent to the locker room.

Someone turns on something called the helmet light, which is "an actual Anaheim helmet signed by Van Hoorebeke with a light bulb in it," said Deborah Fee-Carter, a longtime Colonist volunteer and wife of current Anaheim Coach Allen Carter. It hangs from the ceiling on a chain.

"The players hit their knees, say a prayer, turn on the light and go off and play their game," Fee-Carter said of a tradition that began nearly 25 years ago when her mother, Betty Fee, made the helmet light for Van Hoorebeke.

"When the players come back at the end of the game, they hit their knees again, thank God for no injuries and they turn off the light," she said.

The biggest problem faced by most schools with retired numbers is where to display the jerseys. It's easy enough to hang the jerseys of basketball players, such as Brea Olinda girls' standouts Da Houl (No. 10), Carrie Egan (No. 14), Tammy Blackburn (No. 25), Jody Anton (No. 44) and Nicole Erickson (No. 22) on a wall in the gym, but where does one put the soccer jerseys, of say, Mater Dei's Chris Mastropaolo (No. 14), Sam George (No. 19), Kevin Quigley (No. 2), Kim Donohue (No. 4) and Kirsten Keyler (No. 8)?

Brea placed a plaque in the ground near the soccer field to honor the No. 14 worn by Brad Rusche. He died of a heart attack while attending college after graduating from Brea in the early 1990s.

The Lady Cats, who won four consecutive State girls' basketball titles from 1991-94 and five in the last seven years, can't afford to retire too many more jerseys for fear of running out of numbers.

At Trabuco Hills, where the county's most specific criteria for retiring jerseys exists, the gymnasium is home for the No. 14 worn by 1988 quarterback and Southern Section player of the year David Lowery, 1989 All-Southern Section quarterback No. 22 Tim Manning, the No. 31 worn by All-Southern Section basketball player Richard Swanwick and the No. 31 of 1990 soccer and softball player of the year Linda Lunceford. The golf shirt of 1992 standout Mark Christensen and a T-shirt from 1991 All-American swimmer Amy Ward are also on display.

Some schools just plain don't display the jerseys for a variety of reasons, some good, and some, well, not so good.

At one central county school, which the athletic director asked not be identified for fear of creating a minor uproar with alumni, the jersey of a former star quarterback was apparently taken down during remodeling several years ago, and has not been seen since.

There's a good chance it might be in a closet somewhere in the principal's office, school officials think, but it's also possible that the principal may not have understood its value to the school and tossed it out.

Remodeling has forced Huntington Beach to rethink what it wants to do with the three numbers it has retired, including the one worn by three-year varsity starter and two-time All-Southern Section girls' basketball player Clare Walker (No. 41), a 1993 graduate.

"The jerseys used to be in the locker room, but with renovations we had to take them down," Vice Principal Darrell Stillwagon said. "We're trying to get the history and the pride of the program visible again, so I think we will have them back up soon."

Some schools, such as Tustin, where Veeh's jersey can be seen along with the No. 50 worn by 1990 linebacker Aaron Gutridge at the main entrance to the school, prefer trophy cases. Others choose to designate halls or walls of fame for displaying retired numbers.

Huntington Beach football boosters earn the novelty award for the way they have honored Gonzalez, however. His name was slipped into the numerical football roster in his old No. 44 spot in this year's game program. Under positions he is listed as "retired," his height is listed as "1994" and his weight is listed as "Cal."

A great gag, but the reappearance of Gonzalez's name in the program touched a nerve with some alumni, who felt that such an act slighted Danny Thompson, a running back/defensive back in the early 1980s. His number was retired after he was named All-Southern Section two consecutive years. He went on to UCLA.

Then there is the case of the No. 44 worn by Dana Hills boys' basketball Coach Bryan McSweeney, who was a standout player at the school in the mid-1980s. As the story goes, sometime after the jersey was retired, it ended up in a trophy case that became hidden behind various pieces of furniture. Later, when the gymnasium was repainted, it ended up in a closet.

"When I came back, they figured they better do something, so now it is in a trophy case again," said McSweeney, in his second season with the Dolphins.

McSweeney is a rare breed, one of the few county athletes with a retired number who has returned to work at his alma mater. Others, such as Magnolia's Brian Downing, the former California Angel, have donated time and money for special projects, but few have come home to work.

"It was pretty neat having my number retired, but I haven't really told anyone here about it," said McSweeney, who teaches world history. "It's not something you want to walk around campus boasting about. Some of the basketball players know, but I don't think most of the students do, and I like it that way."

Meyers, widow of former Dodger great Don Drysdale, was equally excited about Sonora retiring her number in ceremonies before a basketball game in 1995. What made it even more exciting, she said, was that girls in her day were not recognized for their athletic achievements.

"You heard the word tomboy a lot," she said. "You don't hear that word today. It was a lot different back in the 1960s and '70s."

Meyers, who has a niece who plays volleyball at Huntington Beach High, might be happy to note that girls' sports have accelerated the pace at which numbers are being retired across the county. Tracy Titus (No. 33) of Loara, who scored a county-record 61 points in a 1991 game, former La Quinta and UCLA center Amy Jalewalia (No. 25), Century's Nina Alexander (No. 50) and Costa Mesa's Olivia DiCamilli (No. 22) all have had their numbers retired.

Alexander, who set 24 school records in four seasons on the varsity, represents the first attempt at recognizing a standout athlete at Century. The Centurions have fielded varsity teams for only five years.

Small schools, too, have had their share of jerseys hung from the rafters.

An interesting case is Les Pearsey, a three-sport standout at Brethren Christian from 1971 to 1974. Pearsey's No. 17 rates an asterisk in the county records because Brethren Christian, currently in Cypress, was located in Paramount at the time of Pearsey's heroics.

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