TORONTO — Throughout his football career Swayze Waters never thought much about the significance of a jersey number.
He was issued No. 94 as a freshman at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, then various other numbers by the five pro teams he auditioned for, including the No. 30 he has worn since 2012 as a punter/kicker with the Toronto Argonauts.
His latest number will mean much more. Waters will don No. 34 this season in honour of his best friend, Tait Hendrix.
Hendrix, 27, died recently in a motorcycle accident. Waters, also 27, took three days away from Toronto’s training camp to be family and friends as they paid their final respects to Hendrix. Upon returning to the Argos, Waters decided to wear Hendrix’s No. 34 and dedicate the season to his memory.
“For me, I’ve never had a reason to put significance in a number until now,” Waters said following Monday’s practice. “That was Tait’s number . . . he’s the guy I grew up playing any kind of sport you could think of with.”
“It’s just my way of honouring him, the life he lived, all the things he taught me and the times we had.”
At the request of the Hendrix family, Waters spoke at the funeral. Waters also wrote about Hendrix on his website (www.swayzewaters.com).
“First off, I just communicated to everyone there I was suffering with them,” Waters said. “Then I talked about some of the good memories I had, not specifically stories of me and Tait personally but just the kind of guy he was, his smile, his laugh, his character.”
“He was just one of those guys you couldn’t be around and not have a good time and not smile. He had this work ethic and mindset to get better every day . . . so I left everyone with that challenge: No matter what you do, get better at everything you do every day, keep alive that little piece of Tait that’s in all of us. That’s how we can honour him as we go forward without him. It will never be the same, it’s going to be way different but as we move forward be the best we can every day.”
Trouble was, No. 34 in Toronto belonged to rookie defensive back Eric Black. However, it’s the number the Argos issued Black and it held no significance to him so when approached by Waters, Black willingly gave it up.
Waters said he’ll forever be indebted to the Argos and his teammates for their support.
“It was anything but a vacation,” Waters said. “But I’m very thankful to the Argonauts for allowing me that opportunity to go home and be a part of that and just be with the family.”
“I know in this business not a lot of teams would’ve done that but it’s family around here and I really appreciate what everyone did for me.”
Waters said the three days he spent at home were invaluable to him.
“It was huge,” he said. “I think that was the biggest thing I could do, just be there.”
“There was a lot of laughing and a lot of crying. I got home and hugged my wife. We cried it out then went over to his house. Not a lot of words needed to be said. For me, that was a big part of it. We’ve got to go on and things are going to be different but this is just one thing I wanted to do to honour my best friend.”
Waters said Hendrix’s death is a sobering reminder of just how precious life is.
“When you go through something like this it just puts everything in perspective,” he said. “You’re reminded how short life is and that football is just a game.”
It’s a perspective the Argos third-year kicker plans to lean on heavily this season.
“Don’t get me wrong I love football, it’s my job and I’m always going to work as hard as I can to be the best I can to help my team,” Waters said. “But football is not life.”
“There’s already enough pressure in professional sports. You’re playing in front of one million people on TV and 30,000 to 40,000 people in the stands. You’ve got your job, your house payments, all that kind of stuff on the line. There’s no need to add any more pressure and this is one of those things that reminds me this is just a game.”
“I’m going to go out there and do the best I can and the rest will take care of itself. I’m just going to mainly take the kind of guy Tait was, work hard and get better at everything every day, into the season. Every day I put No. 34 on will remind me of that.”