ATLANTA — When Los Angeles Rams safety John Johnson III was a kid, his father — the man he looked up to — told him something he never forgot.
“When you make it,” his namesake said, “you better make sure you put the third on the back of your jersey. Otherwise I’m taking all your stuff.”
And Johnson, a blossoming football player in middle school at the time, eventually came to realize something.
“He was joking,” Johnson told Yahoo Sports with a laugh. “But he kind of wasn’t.”
To Johnson’s father, the opportunity to one day see his son rock a nameplate that read “JOHNSON III” above an NFL jersey number was about more than a shoutout. It was a reminder that his son isn’t forgetting where he came from, or the family he represents.
So after playing college ball at Boston College — where they don’t include names on the back of their jerseys — the son could hardly wait to heed his dad’s words. As soon as he joined the Rams as a third-round draft pick in 2017, he donned a nameplate that read “JOHNSON III,” much to his father’s delight.
And Johnson won’t be the only player wearing a nameplate that includes a generational suffix on Super Bowl Sunday, either. Six players on the Rams and New England Patriots will do so, all of whom are part of a league-wide trend that has grown as several African-American players have requested that “Sr.,” “Jr.,” “II” or the “III” be listed after their surnames on their jerseys.
And when asked by Yahoo Sports this week, all six of the players who will wear generational nameplates on Sunday — Johnson III, Dante Fowler Jr., Todd Gurley II, Rodger Safford III, Deatrich Wise Jr. and Reginald “Duke” Dawson Jr. — made it clear that their reasons for doing so go beyond vanity, or a desire to follow the trend.
“It’s way deeper than that,” Johnson said. “Your family brought you up, and it takes a village [to raise a child]. There’s a bunch of factors that go into the man that you become.”
And one of them, clearly, is a father’s presence. Here are the stories of the other five players, and why they choose to honor their dads in the same way:
Rams DE Dante Fowler Jr.
The fourth-year veteran doesn’t know anyone else who loves football more than his father, so wearing the name his dad passed down every Sunday is a responsibility he doesn’t take lightly.
“I’m in my situation because I’m living my dad’s dream out,” Fowler said. “So all the hard work we’ve put in since I was 4 or 5 years old.”
Fowler’s dad pushed the sport on his son, and spoke his career into existence. All of it — from Dante Jr. growing to be 6-foot-3 and 255 pounds, to him earning a football scholarship to Florida, to him becoming the third overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft, even to him playing in the Super Bowl one day.
That belief is why, even six years ago, Fowler was so happy to add “Jr.” to the back of his nameplate in a game against LSU his sophomore year at Florida. The moment he saw it, Fowler snapped a picture and sent it to his dad.
“He was like, ‘I’m proud of you — that’s crazy, you’ve came a long way,’ ” Fowler recalled. “That meant the world to me.”
That’s why Fowler will revel in wearing a blue Rams jersey on Sunday, emblazoned with a Super Bowl patch and the “FOWLER JR.” nameplate.
“Just being able to have that last name playing in this Super Bowl, I know he’s definitely gonna feel like he’s a part of this,” Fowler said.
Patriots DE Deatrich Wise Jr.
Like Fowler, Wise first added the “Jr.” suffix to his college jersey, back when he was a star defensive end at Arkansas.
There was just one problem: the equipment managers kept forgetting to change the nameplate.
“They’d be like. ‘Yeah, we’ll give it to you,’ and they’ll always forget,” Wise said with a laugh.
Eventually, he got it on there — much to the delight of his dad.
“It was awesome,” Wise said. “He was happy.”
To Wise, the way his dad reacted to the new nameplate explains why players are doing it more.
“I think the reason why it’s growing so much is because people are now putting recognition on their whole names,” Wise said. “They want to emphasize they have a father who has the same name as them, which emphasizes family and unity.”
Patriots CB Roderick “Duke” Dawson Jr.
The father of this rookie second-rounder has always been big on teaching his son the importance of mental toughness, a lesson Dawson Jr. credits with helping him reach the NFL.
“There’s a lot of things in life that aren’t gonna go your way, but you just have to settle down and be yourself and push through it,” Dawson Jr. said.
That’s why the son takes the duty of wearing his father’s name so seriously after he asked the University of Florida to add “Jr.” to his jersey as a sophomore in 2015.
“I feel like it’s a lot of responsibility,” Dawson said. “Just being able to follow a guy like him and follow in his footsteps and make it to the big stage where I’m at now, it’s a wonderful feeling.”
Even if Dawson’s father hasn’t explicitly expressed his happiness at the change.
“My dad, he’s not really a guy who’s gonna give you a lot of words when it comes to [that type of stuff],” Dawson said. “But I know he was happy with it.”
Rams RB Todd Gurley II
The moment Gurley arrived at the University of Georgia, he knew he wanted to honor his dad by adding “II” to his surname.
There was just one problem — the equipment manager, John Meshad.
“He told me I had to earn it,” Gurley said with a laugh.
So after a 1,385-yard freshman season, he did. And while he did so to honor his dad, he was also intent on starting his own legacy.
“I wanted to be my own man,” Gurley said, whose nameplate has read “GURLEY II” ever since.
Rams OG Rodger Saffold III
When Saffold’s grandfather, the original Rodger Saffold, died last year, the grandson was grateful for his decision to add “III” to his nameplate years ago because, in a way, he was already paying respect to the man.
“It’s extremely important to me because I definitely want to represent my family,” Saffold explained. “I had a lot of respect for my grandfather, for my dad, and I want my son to be able to look up to me and see that, too.”
In fact, Saffold’s name means so much to him that he’s not only named his son Rodger Saffold IV, he’s also placed the same expectations on him that John Johnson III’s father did his son all those years ago.
“When he’s playing football … I expect to see that IV on the back of his jersey, too,” Saffold said with a laugh.
The start of something bigger?
While Saffold has already charged his son with carrying on the tradition, both Wise and Dawson would be worried about naming their sons something else. In Dawson’s case, he feels there’s already too many Rodericks in his family. Wise admits he’s concerned about heaping unneeded pressure on him.
“Like, [being named] LeBron James Jr. [is tough],” Wise said with a laugh.
Yet to a man, all six players believed this trend of adding generational suffixes to their nameplates is one that should continue to blossom.
After all, an entire generation of kids have now grown up watching their favorite players rock the suffix, whether they’re doing so to honor their fathers (like New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr.) or even their sons (like future Hall of Famer Steve Smith Sr.).
“There’s no ceiling [for this],” Saffold said, “and that’s what is great about this sport and the generation of people we have now.”
And if you don’t believe that, all you had to do was ask Fowler how he felt about his decision to add “Jr.” to his nameplate.
That’s when, in the midst of a loud and lively Super Bowl opening night, Fowler came to the realization that, in just a few days, he’ll be wearing a jersey stamped with “FOWLER JR.” in front of an even rowdier environment, thus allowing his father — who always believed this day would come — to share in the moment.
“It’s the best decision I ever made,” Fowler said.
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