Vote for the Best of STL!

WashU retires the late Super Bowl champion Shelby Jordan’s jersey

| Managing Sports Editors

Shelby Jordan was selected 157th overall by the Houston Oilers in the 1973 NFL Draft. (Photo Courtesy of St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

Washington University athletics has only retired a former player’s jersey number once. That was when the university retired the number “42” worn by former football quarterback Wilson Rutherford “Bud” Schwenk Jr. Shelby Jordan will be the second person in Bears history to be given this honor. When you are the only WashU football player to ever win a Super Bowl, it’s only right.

 “The day he got drafted was one of the happiest days of his life, I can tell you that,” said Tim Bennett, WashU Class ‘75. Bennett was one of Shelby Jordan’s teammates. “He knew that he wanted to be a professional football player. Later on, once he did make pro, he told me he had two goals. He said, ‘I want to win a Super Bowl and I want to be All-Pro.’”

On Saturday, Oct. 14, Washington University retired Shelby Jordan’s jersey number at a halftime ceremony during the Bears’ third home football game. Jordan — who passed away last year on Sept. 9 — played 11 seasons in the National Football League (NFL). He wore the number 78.

“This is about the totality of his career. It’s not just him as an athlete but the positive impact he had on people,” Director of Athletics Anthony Azama wrote in a statement to Student Life regarding this decision. “He left an impact not only where he grew up, but also in St. Louis and beyond. He was one of those rare, exceptional people.”

Jordan, a St. Louis native, graduated from East St. Louis High School in 1969. That fall, he began his football career at WashU, where he played from 1969 to 1972. He was drafted in 1973 by the Houston Texans, before ending up playing offensive tackle with the New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders before settling in Southern California.

“He was 6-foot-7 at the time and he played as a middle linebacker,” Bennett said. “I just always teased him like, ‘Hey, man, all you got to do is fall left to right side. You’re gonna tackle somebody, you know?”

After retiring from the NFL, Jordan started a nonprofit economic development corporation in Los Angeles that aimed to provide affordable urban housing for families and seniors in the area.

According to Bennett, the plan to retire Jordan’s jersey has been in the works since last year. “For a whole year, we’ve tried to do this up until August 20th, a few weeks ago,” he said. “I met with the athletic department at least two or three times. We weren’t successful until the executive vice chancellor went to an alumni event and met one of my colleagues, Joe Madison. The executive vice chancellor made this happen for us.”

Bennett and his colleagues wanted to involve Jordan’s family throughout the process. His wife and sons Dan Zillas and Shelby Jr., worked in tandem with his teammates to plan the event. As one of Jordan’s teammates, Bennett was especially impacted by the jersey retirement since knew Jordan experienced many racial microaggressions while playing college football in the 1970s, yet still found success.

“Race was a factor [in how we experienced WashU football],” he said. “It wasn’t always overtly put in your face. There was the presumption of equality. Maybe the real equality wasn’t there, but people were polite. You might even hear a teammate say some off-color stuff to another teammate who didn’t know you were standing there. So it was something to be conscious of, something that was an impediment. But it is something you just had to step over and not let it bother you.”

At the height of the early-1970s Civil Rights Movement, Bennett and many other African-American students found community in forming the Association of Black Students. At the time, WashU was one of few schools actively trying to diversify its student body.

“The camaraderie relationship among all African-Americans on campus, Black-Americans, was strong,” he said. “We had a Black Student Union that met in the dormitories every Sunday. But back then WashU was making an effort to diversify…because back then there was no diversity. The Washington University was at the forefront of trying to have a diverse campus, to bring together all kinds of students from different countries, different places, and different races.”

Bennett hopes that Jordan’s jersey retirement inspires future generations of WashU athletes and students of color to chase their dreams.

“Being an African-American, Shelby Jordan…[came]…from humble beginnings from the East side of the river in East St. Louis,” he said. “It’s a real big deal to have reached your goals and take yourself to where you want to be or where you dream to be. I would like to say that…I hope his story…inspires younger African American and any student of color to go after [their dreams] just like Shelby.”

Jordan’s jersey retirement wasn’t the only ceremonial action Bennett and his teammates pursued. They also had conversations with the university about naming the recently opened state-of-the-art WashU sports performance center in Jordan’s name. However, according to Bennett, the university asked for between $750,000 and $1,000,000 in naming rights.

“One of the reasons for thinking of naming the sports facility was that it would be an attraction,” Bennett said. “It would be a way to maybe recruit more people of color to say, ‘Hey, look at what this man done in this small school.’ I think it is more benefit for the university to do something like that on its own. In its diversity issue, in its diversity efforts.”

“When we consider the naming of a space at WashU, there are a number of factors taken into consideration,” Azama wrote to Student Life, explaining how the university reached the $750,000-1,000,000 range. “Including the prominence of the space, the foot traffic it receives, and the naming cost for spaces with comparable square footage and usage around campus. The same considerations are taken for any space or building on any part of the campus, including athletics facilities.”

Regardless of the outcome of the push to rename the sports performance center, friends and family still came together to honor a man who was bigger than the game of football to WashU and St. Louis.

“I thought it was appropriate to retire Jordan’s jersey,” Bennett said. “Washington University was founded in 1853 and has [only retired a player jersey once]. And then that player happens to be a Black player. I thought that was significant. I wanted everyone in the city to know that. I wanted everyone in this area to know that. Shelby was a giant of a man, not just in terms of his physique and stature, but he was humble. He was there when you needed him as a friend.”

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening at Washington University and beyond.

Subscribe