Georgia Tech safety Tariq Carpenter on the day that he was awarded the No. 2 jersey, August 15, 2019. His fellow safety and best friend Juanyeh Thomas is coming off the field behind him. (AJC photo by Ken Sugiura)

The reasons for Tariq Carpenter’s single-digit jersey go deep

Tariq Carpenter’s desire to wear a single-digit number was hardly a vanity play, and the catch in Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins’ voice explained as much.

Last Thursday in the team meeting room, Collins read a letter written by Carpenter in March about why he wanted to wear No. 2. It is a prerequisite for any player who wants to wear a single-digit number for the Jackets, and players have to earn the privilege.

“I understand that (having a single-digit jersey) means something,” said Collins, who wore single digits at Rockdale County High and then Western Carolina. “But we don’t just give them to (team members).”

On Thursday, Carpenter said that Collins showed a slide of Carpenter in his No. 29 jersey, which he had worn since his freshman season in 2017.

“And then he hit the next slide, and it just had a ‘2’ on there, so everybody was loud,” Carpenter said Thursday following practice.

Collins takes seriously his role as custodian of the single-digit jerseys. Quarterback James Graham had worn No. 4 as a freshman last season, before Collins’ hire. Collins took it away for spring practice because of his academic issues, giving him No. 14, and then gave it back to him in preseason practice once he regained his eligibility.

Collins waited with Carpenter. He wasn’t sure that he deserved it going into the summer, even as he honored wide receiver Jalen Camp’s request to switch to No. 1. But Carpenter earned a 3.0 GPA in summer classes and was “one of the hardest workers, most unselfish humans in our program,” Collins said. He has been a playmaker in the preseason.

He has embodied the hallmarks of the program, Collins said, such as toughness, relentlessness and competitiveness, “and been a great teammate and been a great leader. So anytime we can reward young men in our program with something that matters to them, it’s important for us to do that.”

On Thursday, before the day’s practice, Collins read in front of the whole team the letter that Carpenter wrote in March. Carpenter said that it caused his coach to choke up as he read it. Two of the reasons pertained to his mother, Demetria Fiffie. She had worn it as a basketball player at Central Methodist University in Fayette, Mo. Fiffie also had two children, Carpenter and his older sister Alexis Chatmon. Carpenter also had worn the number on teams growing up. It’s enough of his identity that it’s in his Twitter handle – @riq02. 

In the letter, Carpenter said that “I kind of talked about the things that my mom had sacrificed for me to be in a good house, a good home, some clothes on my back.” Fiffie served in the Army, leaving Carpenter in the care of his grandmother when she was deployed overseas.

As Collins read, “it was, like, real quiet in there, it was real emotional,” Carpenter said. “When I had written it, I didn’t know it was going to be that deep, but I was going from the heart, so I guess everybody felt it.”

It speaks to the strength of Tech’s secondary that there are three single-digit players who are defensive backs. Safety Juanyeh Thomas is No. 1, Carpenter is No. 2 and cornerback Tre Swilling is No. 3. Having the two safeties – Carpenter and Thomas are best friends – in Nos. 1 and 2 was also part of the plan. (When players wore costumes for their final conditioning workout of the summer, Thomas and Carpenter came dressed as Thing 1 and Thing 2 from “The Cat in the Hat.”

“So I guess it all just came into place,” Carpenter said.

A funny thing about Collins’ reveal of the jersey-number change. Carpenter said he was surprised because he had forgotten that he had written the letter.

“But I guess that’s just a prime example of just putting your head down and working,” Carpenter said. “I guess all the work just paid off.”

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