IT TAKES A SPECIAL USC LINEBACKER TO BE A MEMBER OF ... CLUB 55.
It's USC's smallest and most exclusive fraternity. Membership is so coveted, no one has been invited to join in nearly two years.
And there are no imminent prospects of adding a new member soon, which is just fine with those already in the club.
``No one deserves it right now,'' former USC and current Detroit Lions linebacker Chris Claiborne said.
Claiborne is talking about wearing No. 55, the most prestigious jersey at USC, given to the linebacker deemed special enough to uphold recent tradition. Among the members of Club 55 are Junior Seau (San Diego Chargers), Willie McGinest (New England Patriots), Claiborne and Markus Steele (Dallas Cowboys).
``They can't give it to just anyone that would make you want to call and have them take it away,'' Claiborne said. ``There's a mystique.''
It's such a serious matter USC coach Pete Carroll has yet to officially award the number. Carroll said he talks to the former standard-bearers about possible candidates and would get their approval before awarding it again.
``I don't know what to do with it,'' Carroll said. ``I don't know who I'll stick it with. I'll probably make it a bigger deal than it is.''
The last player to wear No. 55 was Steele two years ago. Former Long Beach Poly High linebacker Marvin Simmons was supposed to receive it last year but did not meet admission requirements.
Claiborne, who monitors the situation from Detroit, is in no hurry to see another player don his number.
``We've got a great defense this year, but it's not dominated by the linebackers,'' Claiborne said about the Trojans. ``They haven't had a big-time linebacker since Markus Steele.''
As might be expected, several current Trojans asked Carroll for the number, only to be denied.
``I've been asked a couple times,'' Carroll said. ``It's pretty serious, though.''
Current middle linebacker Mike Pollard wears No. 45, which is the next-best substitute.
``I don't even want to talk about it. It's a sacred number,'' Pollard said. ``I wish I was fortunate enough to wear it, but maybe one of the young guys will. I don't think it should be issued to any Tom, Dick or Harry.''
Freshman linebacker Oscar Lua heard about the importance associated with No. 55 when he was recruited and has a personal goal of winning the jersey in the next two seasons.
``Would I like to wear it? Of course,'' Lua said. ``They didn't offer it to me. They told me I could earn it.''
Lua, who backs up Pollard at middle linebacker, hopes he can start next season and impress coaches enough to end USC's drought with the sacred number.
``I am coming in next year as a starter,'' Lua said. ``Give me a year, and I can earn the number. You want to uphold the legacy. You can't be a mediocre linebacker and wear it.''
Another candidate on the current team is Frostee Rucker, who transferred from Colorado State and is redshirting. He was impressive in a scout-team scrimmage last week and was expected to start for the Rams before coming to USC in August.
``That's a dream,'' Rucker said. ``Maybe I can wear it.''
When Claiborne arrived at USC, he wanted No. 3, but then-coach John Robinson quickly set him straight on what number the blue-chip linebacker would wear.
``When Coach Robinson said do it, you do it,'' Claiborne said. ``It was the best thing that ever happened.''
Another reason No. 55 has grown in importance could be because a couple of other traditional numbers have not kept their legacy.
No. 35 had been a special number when worn by former linebackers Riki Gray and Scott Ross. Ronnie Lott's No. 42 sometimes has been awarded to top cornerbacks, like Brian Kelly, who plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Last year, it was worn by Kris Richard, who plays for the Seattle Seahawks.
But No. 42 currently is worn by freshman linebacker Dallas Sartz. Why? Because Sartz wanted No. 6, which was given to sophomore linebacker Matt Grootegoed. Since four plus two equals six, Sartz took 42. Formerly worn by stars, No. 42 is now worn by Sartz.
The stakes also were raised for No. 55 when Claiborne won the Butkus Award in 1998, annually given to the nation's best linebacker.
``Just imagine a guy coming in and being a bust. We'd be calling (USC),'' Claiborne said. ``They've had guys who supposedly have been All-Americans, but the coach has to feel good about them.''
Although Steele followed the highly decorated Claiborne, he made an impression with his teammates in just two years on the team and was deemed worthy.
``They've all been leaders,'' Pollard said. ``Markus Steele was a leader with his work ethic.''
About the only certainty regarding the number's future is that Claiborne, who wears No. 50 with the Lions, will switch to No. 55.
``I'm getting it back next year,'' Claiborne said.
A select few linebackers have worn No. 55 at USC in the past 15 years, traditionally given to the top player at the spot:
Player - Years
Junior Seau - 1988-89
Willie McGinest - 1990-93
Israel Ifeanyi - 1994-95
Chris Claiborne - 1996-98
Markus Steele - 1999-2000
6 photos, box
(1) Junior Seau
(2) Willie McGinest
(3) Israel Ifeanyi
(4) Chris Claiborne
(5) Markus Steele
(6 -- color) CLUB 55
Photo Illustration by Shane Michael Kidder
WEARING 55 (see text)