By Rob Ficiur
On March 21, Canadian Football Hall of Fame Player, Larry Highbaugh passed away at age 67. When I first started watching the CFL, Highbaugh was one of the stars of the Edmonton Eskimos. There are few players like Larry Highbaugh in the league today. At five-foot-nine, he is (and probably was then) small to be playing professional football. His size did not stop #13 from being an athlete. Many reports talk about how Larry would go to schools and win basketball tournaments by himself. Not very many five foot nine human beings can slamp dunk a basketball, but Highbaugh could.
After spending two years with the BC Lions, Highbaugh played for the Eskimos from 1972-1983. As a defensive back the team relied on his speed to stop the other team’s top receivers. When there was a kick off return, #13 was there hoping to use his elite speed to break a play. Back in these old days there were not kick return specialists – Highbaugh had did double duty on defense and special teams. When the Eskimos needed a big offensive play in the final minutes of a game, Larry did triple duty – they put him out as a pass receiver. I can’t remember a defensive back being brought in a pass receiver in critical plays like the Esks used Larry. This was a different era of football. A generation before Larry Highbaugh, it was common for players to have an offensive and defensive role for the team. Garney Henly, who retired in 1975, was the last player to regularly do both tasks.
Number 13 was also unique to Larry Highbaugh. At that time it was rare to find anyone in pro sports that wore the unlucky number 13. The number between 12 and 14 was considered so unlucky it was avoided except by the brave or those who wanted to stand out.
There have been elite athletes who wore number thirteen; Alex Rodriquez chose that number when he moved to the New York Yankees; Curt Walker the superstar quarterback of the St. Louis Rams wore 13; Dan Marino won Super Bowls for the Miami Dolphins as #13. Two time NBA most valuable Player Rick Nash showed that Canadians were not afraid to put on the supposedly unlucky number.
Not all Major Leaguers avoid No. 13. Some wear it because they like the challenge, the attention and the curiosity. In the 1951 baseball season a very famous #13 player made a bad play that no one forgot. The Brooklyn Dodgers righty Ralph Blanca was wearing #13 when he surrendered the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” to Bobby Thomson, giving the Giants the 1951 National League pennant. In the baseball Hall of fame, only one player has been inducted wearing the number 13.
The NHL’s use of the #13 shows how it has gone from taboo, to avoidance to being a regular number. Hockey-reference website had a list of which players wore which numbers from 1950 to the present day. The website shows an interesting pattern of avoiding to embracing the use of unlucky (now lucky?) thirteen.
From 1950 to 1967 there was only one player who wore #13. New York Rangers Jack Stoddard wore it for 80 games in a two year period of time from 1951-1953. During those same two years sixteen players wore #12 and twenty wore #14. The numbers around unlucky thirteen were in frequent use.
Once the NHL expanded from six team to twelve and eventually to eighteen did the use of #13 increase. From the original expansion in 1967-68 to 1973-74 no NHL players used #13. From 1974 to 1981 the league moved from eighteen teams to 21 and the number of #13’s rose dramatically. During this time period the league averaged two players per year wearing the forbidden number.
AS more Europeans came to the NHL in the 1990’s numbers began to change. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, it was rare that Soviet players got permission to go to the NHL. That year (1989-90) there were two #13’s. From 1991-2000 the NHL average 9 players per year wearing #13.
The last ten years seeing number thirteen raises no eyebrows. From 2006-2017 there have been an average of 16.7 players per year wearing #13. This past season there number thirteen is as common as its neighbors, #12 and #14. In the NHL sixteen players wore #12, seventeen wore #13 and seventeen wore #13.
When Larry Highbaugh wore #13 he stood out as the only one doing it at the time. No matter how many use it now, to Edmonton Eskimo fans of that era, #13 will forever be the first athlete we saw wear that number – Larry Highbaugh.