PITTSBURGH — “No. 72 is reporting as eligible. 72, reporting as eligible.”
In the Steelers’ 27-14 win over the Miami Dolphins on Monday night, referee Ronald Torbert said those words about 16 times as backup tackle Zach Banner entered the game as an extra tight end in the Steelers’ jumbo offensive package.
Each time he did, the crowd cheered. As the night went on and the Steelers running game gained traction behind the blocking of Banner, fullback Roosevelt Nix and the Pittsburgh offensive line, the cheers grew louder.
It was hard to not notice them, one of the few early bright starts in what started out as a sloppy game that looked bad for the Steelers as they fell into a 14-point hole against the winless Dolphins.
As the team’s level of play rose, the cheers grew louder. When Banner was flagged for holding in the fourth quarter, Torbert’s announcement of the penalty was greeted with a chorus of boos.
The players caught on.
“I think at one point, one of those last drives, ‘72 has entered the game, he’s eligible,’ I said, ‘Are they cheering for you?’” quarterback Mason Rudolph recalled. “And he’s like, ‘Yeah, they are.’
“He’s really happy about that.”
Banner admitted that he caught on before most.
“I realized like a lot earlier than everyone else,” Banner said. “Like first or second quarter, when it first started happening, because there was nothing else to cheer. We were losing.”
But he wasn’t going to be the first one to bring it up.
“You try not to get cussed out by your five older guys, because you don’t want to cheese,” he said. “You want to keep it serious and professional.”
But the big tackle/tight end certainly appreciated the fans’ approval. Both for him, his quirky position that involves reporting to the official every time he plays as a tight end, and the city’s entire football culture that shows an equal appreciation for the superstars and the working class heroes.
“It feels good, man,” he said. “Ultimately, this place is starting to feel like a home. It feels like home to me, but you’ve got to realize I’ve been on three teams in the matter of my first year. So that being said, you try not to get complacent, but it just feels good. Really good.”
Before arriving in Pittsburgh, Banner’s NFL career didn’t get off to the start he hoped. A fourth-round draft pick out of USC, the Indianapolis Colts cut him after one training camp. He spent his rookie season in Cleveland, but the Browns waived him in March. He was claimed by the Carolina Panthers, but released before training camp.
The Steelers didn’t sign him until Aug. 12 last year, already three weeks into training camp. But He impressed with the size, strength and power of his 6-foot-8 frame but also his willingness to put in the hard work of the daily grind of professional football.
“I wanna be here,” Banner said. “This place is awesome. The environment, the fans — as long as you work your tail off and want to be here and wear the Black and Gold, it’s awesome. … If you want to kick ass and you want to make a name for yourself and you want to be here, the guys on the team and the fans will accept you and the guys will keep you, because that’s hard to find in this league.”
There’s good news for Banner’s new-found fans, as even though almost all of his snaps this season have come as a tight end, Banner has no plans to change to an eligible number that doesn’t require reporting.
He may even put that eligibility to use at some point, but Banner wouldn’t divulge the details on if there’s a play for him in the playbook. But his quarterback said he’ll find a way to make it happen.
“We’ll get him the ball at some point,” Rudolph said with a smile.