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Our jerseys ourselves

NFL game shirts are now a billion-dollar business. And they carry a multitude of meanings for the fans who wear them.

Email|Print| Text size + By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / February 2, 2008

On Super Bowl Sunday, Richard Wood will do what he has done before every New England Patriots game this season: He will put on his Tom Brady jersey and hunker down in front of his TV.

The jersey is not about superstition or team loyalty, though Wood is a diehard Patriots fan. At 49, with a doctorate in chemistry and a job as a research associate at the University of Minnesota, "I'm smart enough to realize it's only a sport," Wood says.

No, the primary reason the Maine native wears a Brady jersey each game day is that the quarterback's character speaks directly to who Wood is, or at least who he would like to be. Like a lot of other fans in an era of relentless sports merchandising, Wood has found a way to wear his aspirations on his sleeve.

"I admire his work ethic," he says of Brady. "He always seems to feel he's never as good as he could be. He's always striving to be better. That's what I try to do. The way I look at my life is, whatever I did today, do it better tomorrow."

If NFL jerseys are flying off store shelves these days - and they are - it may stem from the fact that wearing a particular player's jersey often taps into issues of identity and memory and how we see ourselves. "You are in essence looking at an extension of yourself on the field," says Adam Naylor, a sports psychology coach who directs the Boston University Athletic Enhancement Center. "So you try to find someone you either aspire to be or who you think is like you."

So Patriots fans might wear a Tedy Bruschi jersey because the linebacker battled back from a stroke, and they'd like to think they would be equally fearless in the face of adversity. Fans might don a Wes Welker jersey because the wide receiver is relatively undersized for football, and they see themselves as underdogs in their own lives. A fan might wear a player's jersey out of ethnic solidarity, or out of a sense that the player shares the fan's values. Perhaps the player exemplifies the fan's own spirit of rebellion, or mirrors the fan's own belief in playing by the rules.

For Tom Sgroi, 56, it is stalwart Patriots defensive lineman Richard Seymour with whom he feels the strongest sense of connection, and thus it is a Seymour jersey that he drapes over his own burly frame. "Some people go for who's hot, who's the most popular," Sgroi says. "I like the guy that I relate to."

"He has just a workmanlike approach," Sgroi says of Seymour. "You never hear from him. He isn't always talking to the newspaper. He just goes in and gets the job done." That description echoes Sgroi's own self-image: "I'm definitely low-key; I'm not flash-and-dash. I like to do the job quietly, and hopefully it's appreciated by the people you work with."

What about those countless fans who wear No. 12? "With Brady, it's self-evident," says George Gardner, director of marketing at Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society. "He's the Hollywood hero, the star player, the MVP, and the offensive leader of the team. People want to identify with that. Parents are obviously wanting their kids to be associated with that kind of person."

The proliferation of adults wearing football jerseys in the stands has captured the attention of radio host Don Imus, who had this sardonic question for a guest on his show yesterday: "Do they think they're gonna get put in?" Doubtful, but there's little question that many fans identify in some way with the players whose numbers they wear on their backs. Sometimes, of course, it's simply that fans like a player for his achievements, talent, or style of play.

Whatever the reason, jersey sales have increased 25 percent in the past year and now represent 60 percent of the $3.5 billion annual business in NFL merchandise, said Matt Powell, an analyst at SportsOneSource, a sporting goods research firm. In Greater Boston, surveys of sporting goods stores show that the four best-selling Patriots jerseys are Brady, Bruschi, Welker, and wide receiver Randy Moss, according to Gardner.

As the Patriots have run up an unprecedented 18-0 record on their way to the Super Bowl, fans have worn their jerseys not just at the games or at home but also at parties, on trips to the supermarket, and even in the office. Some fans apparently don't consider buying a hat, a T-shirt, or a giant foam finger as sufficient proof of their allegiance, and are willing to shell out $75 for jerseys.

"It's about team identification and collective identity," says Naylor. "You're trying to be part of something bigger than yourself, part of a dynamic community. When you sit in the stands and you're wearing Tom Brady, and you look next to you and there are other people wearing Tom Brady, you've almost created a team of Tom Bradys in the stands."

For some fans, wearing the jerseys may represent a subconscious journey back to who they used to be. "How many adults who were athletes have held on to the idea of one day making a big comeback?" asks Jim Graves, a sports psychology consultant who works with the UMass-Lowell hockey team. "This allows them to suspend for a bit who they are, where they are, in their life, and revert back a little bit."

With all of that in the mix, things can sometimes get out of hand. Last month, irked that his 7-year-old son refused to wear a Green Bay Packers jersey during a playoff game, a Wisconsin man tied the boy to a chair and taped the jersey on him. (The man was arrested.) In recent years, jerseys have become ubiquitous not just at professional sports events but also at college, high school, and even preteen games.

"I'll tell you how far it's gone," says Daniel Wann, a professor of psychology at Murray State University who studies the behavior of sports fans. "At youth baseball tournaments, all the parents are wearing their child's jerseys. It's a vogue thing to do."

Commercial imperatives cannot be discounted as a factor in jerseymania, especially as professional sports has become, in effect, a lucrative branch of the entertainment industry. NFL teams have succeeded in promoting jerseys as the badge of the true fan. "It is a gigantic industry that pushes its products," points out Graves. "The NFL gets a phenomenal amount of money from this type of merchandise. You see the product lines advertised everywhere. We're just pounded 24-7."

Perhaps that incessant drumbeat has inured fans to stocking up on jerseys that are not especially warm in winter, when, after all, much of football is played. In the bone-chilling temperatures of the Jan. 20 AFC championship game in Foxborough, many a fan's bulky frame was adorned with a jersey bearing the name and number of Seymour, Bruschi, or Brady. The fans were evidently willing to sacrifice comfort for style, and to make a fashion statement that may have spoken volumes about themselves.

Sometimes, of course, the "Our Jerseys, Ourselves" paradigm doesn't fit. Sometimes, the explanation is much simpler.

Sgroi, who grew up in Boston and moved to Virginia in 1999, says his 22-year-old daughter shelled out big bucks for not one but two Brady jerseys, in red and silver. Why?

"She thinks he's a cutie," he says.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

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