Cowboys’ legendary No. 88: From Pearson to Irvin to Dez to CeeDee

Football

FRISCO, Texas — They share one of the most famous numbers in Dallas Cowboys history, but until a couple of months ago, they had never been in the same room together.

They were at a house in Dallas, filming a Chipotle commercial, featuring “The 88 Club” — Drew Pearson, Michael Irvin, Dez Bryant and CeeDee Lamb — and it was like they were brothers from the beginning, swapping stories for a few hours.

“No one was keeping track of time because we were having a good time hanging out and talking,” Pearson said.

Said Irvin, “Because we swim in the same waters. We know the expectations that come with 88. What was so great, we were all sitting there and looking at CeeDee:

“‘You do understand what’s coming? You do understand this responsibility?’ It’s pressure for others. It’s absolute promise for us. … You’re in the middle of it all. It all comes through as pressure for a lot of people. It just so happens to be home for 88s.”

No. 88 has become a symbol of greatness for the Cowboys, mostly passed down from one great wide receiver to the next.

“The Cowboys don’t rate any other number like this,” said Pearson, who calls himself The Original 88. “Two guys in the Hall of Fame. Holding it back for the next guy to wear is special. It’s not just the Cowboys. Think about the 31 other teams. No other teams treat a number that way.

“The depth of it is amazing. No other team does it that way.”

Pearson went from an undrafted free agent former college quarterback at Tulsa to a Hall of Fame career as a wide receiver from 1973 to 1983.

Irvin became “The Playmaker” from 1988 to 1999, winning three Super Bowls and earning his way into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In 2010, the Cowboys traded up in the first round to select Bryant, and from 2012 to 2014, he was one of the most dynamic receivers in the NFL.

In 2020, the Cowboys never thought Lamb would be available at No. 17 in the first round; he was the sixth-rated player on their draft board. Since Dallas selected him, Lamb has produced the most receptions (153) and the second-most yards (2,037) of any receiver in his first two seasons in team history.

“It’s literally become a part of me”

Cowboys WR CeeDee Lamb on legacy of wearing No. 88

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THE COWBOYS DO NOT retire numbers — officially.

Nobody has worn No. 12 since quarterback Roger Staubach’s career ended in 1979. Nobody has worn No. 8 since quarterback Troy Aikman played or No. 22 since running back Emmitt Smith. Defensive tackle Bob “Mr. Cowboy” Lilly’s No. 74 has been worn in preseason games several times over the years, but never in a regular-season game.

Twelve different players have worn No. 88 in Cowboys’ history, including a linebacker and a punter/kicker, but the receivers have made it theirs.

There have been exceptions. Tight end Jackie Harris wore it from 2000 to 2001. Antonio Bryant wore it after being selected in the second round in 2002. Then there was tight end Brett Pierce.

These days, Pierce is the president and chief executive officer of Elite Dental Alliance and the managing partner of 7 Pillars in Plano, Texas.

In 2005, he wore No. 88.

“One of these things is not like the other, I guess, huh?” he joked.

In 2004, Pierce wore No. 49. A year later, he simply asked to switch to No. 88 when it became available because it was the jersey he wore at Stanford.

“I was probably not as aware of it when I asked for the number as I am now,” said Pierce, who had two catches for 15 yards in 18 games. “I’m not sure I would ask now. It’s a very special number. There’s a lot of 88 jerseys around Dallas. None of them say ‘Pierce’ on them. Some say ‘Bryant,’ which is close enough to Brett, so I can take some credit.”

Jerry Jones was not yet the owner and general manager of the Cowboys when he became aware of No. 88’s significance. He was sitting in a suite with Staubach at Texas Stadium watching Tom Landry’s Cowboys play against Bill Parcells’ New York Giants before he purchased the team.

“Roger was talking about 88 there,” Jones said. “I only think of that with the Cowboys.”

PEARSON WORE NO. 3 at Tulsa. In high school in South River, New Jersey, he wore No. 15 in away games and No. 73 for home games.

Why?

“The uniform company messed up the numbers,” Pearson said.

When he joined the Cowboys in 1973, he was initially given No. 13. He remembered a conversation with defensive end Harvey Martin, who would go on to share a Super Bowl MVP award (with defensive tackle Randy White).

“I said, ‘Harvey, they got me. They’re going to cut me. They gave me No. 13,'” Pearson said. “My first opportunity in a preseason game at the Los Angeles Coliseum was on a punt return in the third quarter and I fumbled it. That was my start in the NFL.”

But the Cowboys didn’t cut Pearson. When he made the roster, he could finally choose a number in the 80s. He could have chosen 85 or 87.

“85 didn’t sound right. 87? Of course not,” Pearson said. “But 88 had a ring to it.”

In 11 seasons, he caught 489 passes for 7,822 yards and 67 touchdowns. He was a three-time Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection. He won a Super Bowl and was named to the NFL 1970s All-Decade Team. And he was on the receiving end of one of the NFL’s most iconic plays: the Hail Mary, from Roger Staubach in the divisional round of the 1975 playoffs against the Minnesota Vikings.

“He was a monster,” Bryant said.

FROM 1984 TO 1987, no one wore No. 88. Then Irvin arrived in … ’88. Pearson was working for a television station in Dallas when the Cowboys selected Irvin with the 11th pick in the first round.

“I had the first interview with him after the draft, caught him off the airplane,” Pearson said. “After he hugged me and kissed me and everything, he said, ‘Drew, man, they want me to wear 88. Is it OK?’ I said, ‘Michael, first of all, it’s not mine. But if you do wear it, do more than I did wearing it.’ And now we’ve got something going.”

Wearing Pearson’s number was personal for Irvin, who wore No. 47 at the University of Miami. His father, Walter, was a Cowboys fan and loved Pearson. Walter died in Michael’s senior year in high school and never got to see his son play in college or professionally.

“When I got 88, I called my sister, Janet, and she said, ‘I can’t believe this. As much as dad loved Drew, as much as he loved the Dallas Cowboys, and now this,'” Irvin said. “Every memory I’d make, I’d attach it to watching games with my dad. He called him, ‘Clutch,’ like, ‘Clutch always comes through. You got to be Clutch. Don’t worry, Clutch will get a play for us.’

“To me, somehow that was God reconnecting me with my dad every time I’d make a play. I could see the reaction he had with Drew and bring it to my catch. Those were the moments I had with him.”

As Irvin would walk down the tunnel at Texas Stadium, he would take a deep breath and have a quick message.

“Get this, dude, because I would look up at all the guys in the [Dallas Cowboys] Ring of Honor, ‘I will not embarrass you today. I will honor the legacy you started,'” Irvin said. “Then I’d look down at my 88 and say to Drew, ‘I will not embarrass you today.'”

Irvin caught 750 passes for 11,904 yards and 65 touchdowns in his 12 seasons. He was a five-time Pro Bowl pick and a 2007 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee. He had five straight 1,000-yard seasons. At the time of his retirement, he held or shared 20 Cowboys’ receiving records.

“‘Playmaker.’ It’s in his nickname, you know?” Lamb said. “His ability to come up big for the team, make big plays, his playoff runs, it’s phenomenal.”

ANTONIO BRYANT “HAD THE FIGHT” Irvin likes to see in receivers, but not the staying power, despite some electrifying moments while wearing No. 88. Bryant is remembered more for throwing a sweaty practice jersey in the face of then-coach Bill Parcells during the 2004 offseason. He was traded to the Cleveland Browns a few months later.

“I didn’t have any question that he wouldn’t be the next guy,” Pearson said of Antonio Bryant. “That guy? Didn’t see it.”

On the other hand, Pearson was sure Dez Bryant, drafted No. 24 overall in 2010, would be worthy. So did Irvin. But Bryant didn’t want No. 88 at first. He wanted to wear No. 10.

“If there was any way I could try to get that number, I was going to want to try to get that number,” Bryant said. “But I remember Jerry sitting down with me and explaining what 88 means. And I was like, ‘Hell yeah.'”

Jones’ pitch was of the history of the number, started by Pearson and carried on by Irvin.

“I didn’t feel pressure. No pressure at all,” Bryant said. “And I think that’s why 88, that belongs on somebody like me, because I thrive through the most difficult things. And that’s when you are going to see the best out of me. So I think it was a perfect fit.”

In eight seasons, Bryant caught 531 passes for 7,459 yards and a franchise-record 73 touchdown catches. He was a three-time Pro Bowler and an All-Pro selection once. From 2012 to 2014, he averaged 91 receptions for 1,312 yards and 14 touchdowns.

“Dez’s style is all about physical,” Pearson said. “He was more physical than Michael and that says a lot. Certainly more physical than me. You try to dog him at the line of scrimmage, you didn’t have much success. Going up and getting a ball, Dez did that better than all of us.”

LIKE DEZ BRYANT, Lamb didn’t want the number initially either. He wore No. 2 at Oklahoma, but like Bryant before him, he wanted to wear No. 10 — although he said he had no good reason why. Then he spoke with Jones.

“He offered the number, and I was like, ‘Nah.’ I didn’t really want to, not really, not ruin that legacy, but I didn’t know if it was OK with them first and foremost,” Lamb said. “Second of all, I didn’t want it to seem like it was a competition. Once I got the nod that all three were like, ‘Hell, yeah, he can wear it,’ I was all for it.”

Now he can’t imagine wearing a different number.

“It’s literally become a part of me,” Lamb said.

He believes he is carrying a legacy.

“That’s my job,” he said.

When Dez Bryant wore a No. 88 with Lamb’s name on the back last season, “I was smiling from ear to ear.”

But it was in Puerto Rico this offseason where the reach of No. 88 hit Lamb.

“It was nuts,” Lamb said. “Just relaxing for a few days. I saw a family from a distance, and I saw a navy blue jersey and said, ‘I wonder what jersey this is?’ And then I saw 88. The person I was with was like, “I think it’s your jersey.'”

Lamb casually walked up behind the family.

“I was like, ‘Who’s jersey is that?'” Lamb said. “They turned around and went, ‘Oh, wow! It’s yours.'”

No. 88 is not just CeeDee Lamb’s, though.

It’s Drew Pearson’s. It’s Michael Irvin’s. And it’s Dez Bryant’s too.

“Me and Bishop [T.D.] Jakes have talked about this,” Irvin said. “He said, ‘Michael, every good man should always want their son or the one who comes after him to stand on their ceiling and make it their floor.

“Think about that: Stand on their ceiling and make it your floor, and then take it higher. That’s what you’re trying to pass on.”

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