Who is this impostor, this Bizzaro Phil Simms?

Thursday, April 14, 2011 |

In an increasingly crazy, unpredictable world in which there are few, if any, absolutes, it's reassuring as a sports fan to know that there are certain things that never change. Players, coaches—hell, even franchises will come and go, but numbers endure. You can rely on numbers, lean on them like pillars on your porch. They represent sturdy, fixed points in what can otherwise be a bewildering, disorienting navigation of the known universe. 

I like to use uniform numbers as mnemonic devices. Someone tells me to meet them at 4153 Main Street, I process that as Tom Seaver, Harry Carson Main Street. Someone tells me their phone number is 647-2731? To me, that's Jim Burt, Jose Reyes, Rodney Hampton, Mike Piazza. It's just how my mind works.

For thirty-three years, Phil Simms has been #11 in the hearts and minds of New York Giants fans like myself. It's the number he was wearing when Topps came to take his photograph for his first football card in 1979. It's the number he wore in the early 1980s, when I dressed in his three-quarter-sleeve blue jersey for five consecutive Halloweens. It's the number he wore when he set the record for completion percentage in Super Bowl XXI, and it's the number he wore when the Giants retired his jersey back in 1995. Now it's the number the Old Man wears every game day in tribute.

My buddy Schwartz used to joke that Phil was so good he got to be #1 twice. I never had the heart to tell Schwartz that his logic would've made Phil #2, which is what Bill Parcells made Simms in 1983 when he benched him in favor of Scott Brunner, and what some shortsighted Giants fans in those days thought Phil smelled like.

But I digress. Today, friends, I became the custodian of a disc containing 130 amazing photos of various new York Giants throughout the franchise's eighty-five year history. The disc includes rare shots of Steve Owen, Mel Hein, Charley Conerly, Frank Gifford, Emlen Tunnell, and tons more. For a Giants dork like me, it's a treasure chest. A find beyond compare. And if you're lucky (and ask nicely), I'll share some of the images here on this blog and over at Bluenatic Fringe in the coming weeks and months, especially if the lockout drags on into the summer. 

When, sandwiched between shots of Earnest Gray and George Young, I saw the two shots posted above, I did a double take. Though the photos are of unknown provenance, there is little doubt that they were taken shortly after the Giants selected Phil Simms with the 7th overall pick of the 1979 NFL Draft. They capture a baby-faced Simms posing in front of a backdrop of then-four-year-old Giants Stadium with a football and Ray Perkins, who looks more like a high school math teacher than the newly hired head coach of an NFL team.

The double take, of course, was due to the jersey Simms is wearing in the photos, and the number that adorns it. #19? Who the eff is #19? Who is this impostor, this Bizarro Simms? Phil Simms is, was, and always will be #11. ELEVEN. This is porch pillar stuff. Fixed. Bob Sheppard certainly never announced Phil's name with any other number. Why would he? 

If Phil Simms isn't #11, as I was sure he was and is, then how can I be sure of anything else in my life? 

Chosen with the 7th overall pick, #19 does not represent Simms's draft position. He wore #12 in college at Morehead State. As far as I know, he didn't grow up idolizing John Unitas, as I don't recall Simms ever mentioning Johnny U in any of the three books he's "authored", including the one titled Phil Simms on Passing. So what gives? Perkins and GM George Young both spent time with Unitas in Baltimore, but it's a stretch to think they'd put that kind of pressure on a rookie quarterback from a small college playing under the microscope of the New York media.

Going back to the 1960s, the only Giants players I can think of who ever wore #19 are QB Gary Wood, WR Anthony Mix and PK Cary Blanchard, none of whom particularly distinguished themselves while wearing a Giants uniform. No Giant has worn the number in a regular season game since.

In 2011, the number 19 is a significant one for Simms and the Giants. Call it a coincidence if you want, but the Giants hold the 19th pick in this year's draft. Simms, who retired with 19 franchise records, presently ranks 19th all-time among NFL quarterbacks in passing yards. But none of those things explain why he's wearing #19 in those photos.

Something tells me this is a job for Paul Lukas. He's the only man I know who can make sense of this madness.

UPDATE 6/15/11: I had a chance to speak briefly with Simms at the 86 Giants reunion last weekend and asked him about the photo. He said that #19 was the number the Giants issued him at first. Then, when the Giants cut the guy who was wearing #11 (Simms said it was QB Jerry Golsteyn) he assumed the number. The problem Simms' story is that neither Golsteyn nor any other Giants player wore #11 in 1978. Golsteyn wore #12, which was the number Simms wore in college. So perhaps that's what Simms was referring to. But it doesn't explain how he ended up wearing #11.