NORMAN, Okla. -- When Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables looked at the middle linebacker spot during the Sooners' 47-14 win Saturday night over Tulsa at Owen Field, he saw a familiar No. 12 lining up in the position.
Yet it was the wrong person wearing it.
Linebacker Tom Wort wore the No. 12 against Tulsa to honor Austin Box, the Sooners' middle linebacker who passed away in May.
"It was [weird]," Venables said. "I'd be lying if I said it wasn't."
A different Sooner will wear the number each week this season to honor their fallen teammate. Senior linebacker Travis Lewis and senior quarterback Landry Jones headline the group who will decide which players will wear the jersey.
Emotions ran high as the Sooners took the field for the first time since Box's death. Wort led OU onto the field before the game, rushing out of the tunnel several yards ahead of his teammates before stopping at the OU logo at midfield and spurring on the crowd, raising his arms.
"I've been thinking about it, leading the team out in Austin's jersey," Wort said of his emotions at that moment. "Putting it on was OK. Then I went to his locker and said a few words to him, then we went out and the crowd erupted. I had to hold back a tear."
Using the emotion from playing without Box, Wort helped OU's defense force four punts, an interception and a fumble in Tulsa's first six possessions. The Golden Hurricane gained 37 yards and had one first down in the first quarter as the Sooners' defense dominated early.
"When you're playing for someone other than yourself it puts more emphasis on coming out strong," Wort said. "The things he did here and the things he stood for echo through this locker room every day."
One of Box's closest friends on the team, Wort wore the number well in the win, earning a game ball in the Sooners' locker room during postgame.
"I talked to his dad and to his sister before the game," Wort said. "And I said I was going to play like he would want me to play."
Being the first player to wear the No. 12 in Box's honor, without a name on the back of the jersey, was an opportunity that Wort cherished.
"It was a special moment, being the first one to wear my friend's jersey," he said.
Wort was the perfect choice to wear the jersey for the first time. The two spent hours together off of the field, playing video games and just hanging out. Wort called Box his older brother, describing the impact losing Box had on his own life.
"It was really special to see Tom [in the jersey]," Venables said. "Knowing he had the relationship with Austin, he's looked forward to the opportunity to honor Austin in the right way. And he played really well, with great energy and emotion. I was happy for him. I bet Craig and Gail [Box's parents] were proud of him, too."
Wort's play on the field honored Box as much as the jersey, as he called the defensive signals throughout the night and recorded five tackles along with two quarterback hurries.
"It's always special to play well at this level," Wort said. "But when you're wearing your friend's jersey, it's a special moment, a night I'll never forget."
Brandon Chatmon covers University of Oklahoma sports and recruiting for SoonerNation.
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