Blowback Against Rocket Sanders Transfer Obscures Important Point about Honoring No. 5

Rakeem Boyd, Rocket Sanders, Darren McFadden, Arkansas football
photo credit: Nick Wenger / Nick Wenger / Arkansas Athletics

Former All-SEC running Rocket Sanders entered the transfer portal late Tuesday night and Arkansas football fans had a lot to say about the move. Some expressed shock and sadness that a player of his caliber was moving on.

After all, losing a running back who is just one year removed from being the SEC’s second-leading rusher shouldn’t be easily dismissed. But as the initial surprise wore off, a few fans turned critical as they brought up what’s become by this point a regularly recurring question: Should Arkansas football finally retire the No. 5?

Defining the Number for Arkansas Football

In sports, there’s a certain reverence for players who are able to transcend their team or school and are easily recognized by nothing more than their jersey number. 

When one thinks of the No. 5 and Arkansas football, there is only one name that comes to mind.

Darren McFadden.

From 2005-07, what McFadden was able to do is difficult to put into words. He gave Arkansas fans a level of anticipation, excitement, hope and pride that has never really been matched. 

McFadden was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy in both 2006 and 2007, becoming the only Razorback player to ever have that honor. Of course, he finished runner-up both years, which is still very controversial years later, but it cemented his place among other legends in Arkansas history.

“I feel like I made a name for the No. 5,” McFadden said in an interview following his runner-up finish in the 2006 Heisman voting. Many fans agree with McFadden’s words and believe Sanders’ announcement further reinforces the notion that no Razorback should wear the number again.

The transfer announcement from Rocket Sanders, who donned the iconic No. 5 jersey for the past three seasons, clearly rubbed a few folks wrong. They see it as the latest evidence that the legacy of that number deserves more respect. 

Is Rocket Sanders Transferring Disrespectful to the Legacy of No. 5?

It’s been almost 16 years since McFadden ran roughshod on the SEC and a lot has changed. The college landscape is nearly unrecognizable from what it was back in the late 2000s.

Most recently, the additions of the transfer portal and name, image and likeness (NIL) have presented the two biggest shake-ups to college football. Arkansas fans know firsthand how disruptive both have been. 

With Sanders jumping ship, that makes it three-straight offseasons where the Razorbacks have lost at least one former team captain to the transfer portal — safety Joe Foucha in 2021, defensive backs Jalen Catalon and Simeon Blair in 2022 and, now, running back Rocket Sanders. 

This issue isn’t specific to just Arkansas, though. It’s happening everywhere across college football. At the FBS level of college football, 532 scholarship players entered the transfer portal on Monday. That’s a 16% increase from last year’s Day 1 total (456) 

Today’s version of college football, portal and all, isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon, and it’s inevitable that a player of Sanders’ caliber will leave Arkansas in a similar fashion down the road. Heck, by this point, most expect KJ Jefferson to join him.

However, it doesn’t mean that fans should sit back and accept that the legacy of the No. 5 jersey will be diminished in the process. 

Since McFadden, there have been a handful of Razorbacks that have worn the No. 5 besides Sanders, but the most notable was another team captain tailback, Rakeem Boyd (2018-20). 

Various defensive players have also worn the number over the years, including Cameron Ball on the 2023 roster, but there’s something different about a running back wearing No. 5 at Arkansas.

Boyd did the No. 5 proud for two seasons before ultimately quitting the team in 2020 with two games left. Sanders did the No. 5 proud for two years and notched the fourth-best rushing season in Arkansas history, but after an injury-riddled 2023 campaign, is moving on. 

Both Boyd and Sanders, from all accounts, have no bad blood with the way things have ended. They both even mentioned on multiple occasions how much wearing the No. 5 meant to them. Each of them knew the pressures that came with wearing the number and did their best to live up it. What they accomplished, Sanders especially, should be met with praise.

But, what they were able to accomplish pales in comparison and falls extremely short of McFadden. Some of that is due to the fact that McFadden was a homegrown talent, born and raised in Little Rock, while Boyd and Sanders were from out-of-state. 

The main reason they fall short, though, is because McFadden was a generational player. With each passing season of watching guys try to live up to the mark set by him, it’s becoming more and more clear that McFadden is a once-in-a-lifetime talent.

That kind of legacy, especially at Arkansas, deserves much better. 

Honoring McFadden’s Legacy Correctly

I’ll stop short of joining the Arkansas football fans who opine that Rakeem Boyd and Rocket Sanders have disrespected the No. 5, but it isn’t wrong to assume that the meaning of that number has been diminished.

Arkansas football has formally retired two numbers in its history – Clyde Scott’s No. 12 and Brandon Burlsworth’s No. 77. Both players are worthy of the honor, given their contributions to the program.

It’s past time that Arkansas added a third to that list with Darren McFadden’s No. 5. The reasoning goes beyond the fact he’s the only player in program history to be named a Heisman finalist. Just as important, it’s a way to acknowledge how important honoring the legacy of the program is for the majority of fans who support such a move. Plus, McFadden himself has mentioned he would be for it

Like Nolan Richardson getting his name rightfully added to the court in Bud Walton Arena, it’s the right thing to do no matter how much time has passed. 

In the rapidly changing landscape of college football, it’s important to remember and honor those legends who paved the way. No other Arkansas football player has a resume or history that is more deserving than McFadden.

It’s time for Arkansas football to do the right thing and retire the No. 5.


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