ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Sixteen years before the Denver Broncos turned in the card and drafted LSU center Lloyd Cushenberry III, they selected a different member of the LSU program.
Seven players from LSU's 2003 team were drafted that year on the heels of a national championship of their own — and in the seventh round, Denver selected the Tigers' quarterback.
Matt Mauck, who was drafted by the Cubs in 1997 and played minor league baseball before heading to LSU to play quarterback, earned second-team All-SEC honors in 2003 before Denver chose him with a seventh-round pick.
Before he headed to Denver — where he spent just one season with the Broncos and did not appear in a game — Mauck laid the foundation for a lasting tradition in Baton Rouge.
"When I got to LSU, I was a little older," Mauck told DenverBroncos.com on Monday. "Some of my closest relationships and some of my dearest friends were members of the auxiliary staff: Jack Marucci, the head trainer; Greg Stringfellow, the equipment manager; Michael Bonnette, the SID. When I got done, we had a lot of success and we won the national championship for the first time since 1958. So we were actually just sitting in Greg Stringfellow's office and some of the freshman were coming in, and just jokingly, I said something like, 'We can't just have anybody wearing 18. Come on, we've got to figure this out.'"
Mauck said nothing much came from the off-hand conversation — except the player who unintentionally wound up with No. 18 excelled both on the field and in the locker room.
Jacob Hester began his career at LSU as a special teams player and part-time running back. By the time he was a senior, though, he was named a team captain and was the team's starting running back. He also ended his career as a second-team All-SEC player and a BCS national champion. And he did it wearing No. 18.
"We just got lucky that Jacob was the guy that wore it," Mauck said. "He had it for four years, and he was the same type of guy — a little bit of an overachiever. … And then after Jacob, we were kind of like, 'Hey, this actually worked out pretty well. This might be a cool tradition to pass it along to somebody who has overcome adversity, maybe had an injury or was just a great student, locker-room guy.'"
Hester, who also played briefly for the Broncos, was just the beginning. Fourteen players have donned the No. 18 jersey since Mauck left LSU, including another former Bronco, Lamin Barrow. Last year, two players were awarded the honor, which Mauck said has become synonymous with LSU football.
"Every single person that's worn it has been a high-character guy, productive on the field, never an issue and a leader on the team," Mauck said. "It's just been this cool tradition. And then why a guy gets it, when you get it, you feel like, 'Oh, man. All right, I've got to live up to this thing.' It's got nothing to do with me, just the guys who have worn it who have come through there. And the fan base at LSU has really kind of adopted it. You'll see more 18 jerseys in the stands than anything else. Very similar to [Texas] A&M's 12th man, the way they've really bought into that. The 18 at LSU has become probably the most recognizable tradition down there."
Cushenberry, the 83rd-overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, was one of the two players to earn the honor in 2019. Last season marked the second time that more than one player has been awarded the jersey. K'Lavon Chaisson, the other player to earn the 18 jersey, was selected in the first round of the 2019 draft.
Though NCAA rules prevented Cushenberry from wearing the number on the field as he anchored the nation's best offensive line last season, he wore a patch to signify the honor.
Cushenberry is the first offensive lineman to join the 18 club.
And while Mauck has only briefly met Cushenberry, the two are connected for a couple of reasons.
All of the former "18s," as they're known around Baton Rouge, are in a text thread together. When big moments happen, the group explodes in a series of congratulatory messages. Mauck also reached out to Cushenberry when he first learned of the honor in August.
"I send a text to the guy every year," Mauck said. "As soon as they get it, one of the guys gives me their number and I send them a text, 'Welcome to the club. Couldn't be prouder [of] you. You're representing all of us now.'"
Mauck and Cushenberry, though, may see more of each other now. Mauck, as Cushenberry mentioned during his introductory press conference, is now a practicing dentist in Aurora and serves as the Broncos' team dentist.
"Just getting the number 18 at LSU, it's a huge deal, especially this year, me being the first offensive lineman to be awarded the number," Cushenberry said Friday. "It was definitely huge to me, knowing all the guys that came before me. It actually started with Mr. Matt Mauck, who you guys probably know in Denver. He's the team dentist. He started it all and it's carried on to a lot of great guys. This year, I was awarded the number and it was definitely an honor."
Mauck watched the first and second rounds of last week's draft, but he was away from his TV when Cushenberry went in the third round. His phone instantly started buzzing. It wasn't until later, though, that Mauck realized who drafted him.
"All of a sudden my phone blows up 'Congrats, Cush' and all this stuff," Mauck said. "And then I went on and I was like, 'Oh my God, Denver.' So it was pretty cool."
And from the time he's spent around Cushenberry — Mauck served as an honorary captain for last year's game vs. Florida and also attended LSU's win over Texas A&M and their SEC Championship victory — he knows the Broncos are getting quite the player.
"Unbelievable," said Mauck of the pick. "Honestly, I don't think in the third round they could've gotten a guy that's as good of a player as he is — but [he's] an even better person. I think it's a home run."
Mauck believes Cushenberry will have instant credibility in the locker room because of LSU's national championship win, and he expects the rookie will be "an instant leader."
Cushenberry, Head Coach Vic Fangio said, will compete for the starting center job. His experience against SEC-caliber talent should leave him well prepared to succeed early in his career, Mauck said.
"I know I'm a little biased because I played there, but in my opinion, the speed — not necessarily at wide receiver and DB, that's fast anywhere — but the speed on the offensive and defensive line is as close to the NFL as you can get," Mauck said. "I think for Lloyd, he'll have gone against however many first or second rounders throughout the year. I think the SEC players just adapt to the NFL level a little bit better, just because it's not all that much different than the SEC.
"You get some smaller school guys, and I'm not ripping on the Pac-12, but it's just a different style of football. Personally, if I was a GM and somebody asked me, 'If you have a choice between an SEC guy and somebody else that you graded out the same, [who would you pick?]' I would always choose the SEC guy, because I think they'll be more Day 1 ready."
If he does jog out for the first snap of the season as the starting center, he'll do so in a jersey that is somewhere between No. 50 and No. 79. As in college football, the NFL prohibits linemen from wearing No. 18.
In Denver, there are other preclusions. No. 18 is one of three jerseys the Broncos have retired, and Frank Tripucka and Peyton Manning are both honored on signage featuring the number at Empower Field at Mile High.
The jersey number Cushenberry wears, though, isn't all that important. As Mauck learned first and Cushenberry learned more than a decade later, the brotherhood persists.
Once an 18, always an 18.