Pittsburgh Steelers rookie tight end Darnell Washington didn’t make much of a secret about his desire to wear the number zero in the professional ranks as he did in college.
But he’s quickly finding out that the Steelers have a bit of a different way of doing things.
In an appearance on the All Things Covered Podcast with current Steelres cornerback Patrick Peterson and former Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden, Washington said that when he asked to wear the digit, he was told that’s not how things work in Pittsburgh.
“It’s just how the Steelers run things,” Washington said. “That’s just their tradition.”
The Steelers actually do have a tradition with the number zero. Johnny Clement wore the number from 1946-48, before the era of uniform number standardization. He was nicknamed Mr. Zero and played in 25 games and threw 228 times, completing 86 for 1,630 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also ran 239 times for 991 yards and seven scores and also served as a kick and punt returner.
The NFL recently changed its rules to once again allow the number to go into circulation league-wide, but it doesn’t seem like the Steelers will be participating in that new trend.
“I figured that,” McFadden said. “They’re not going to have anybody with zero on. Not in the first year. That ain’t happening.”
They also have not been adopters of the league’s previous change, which permitted many more positions to wear uniform numbers in the single digits, teens and 20s. The Steelers have allowed just two players to take advantage of those rules, with outside linebacker Melvin Ingram III wearing No. 8 in 2021 and cornerback Josh Jackson wearing No. 16 in 2022.
That’s something Peterson learned in coming to Pittsburgh this season from the Minnesota Vikings. He wore No. 7 with the Vikings, which has been taken out of circulation in Pittsburgh since the retirement of Ben Roethlisberger. But instead of getting a different single-digit uniform, Peterson ended up with the same No. 20 that had been worn by McFadden earlier.
“Coach Tomlin said, ‘We don’t hand out single digits to skill position. We don’t go by that rule. We’re traditional,’” Peterson said.
“I kinda assumed that but I just had to ask Darnell,” McFadden said. “Because I felt like Darnell probably wanted that zero. Is that true?” “Yeah, 100%,” Washington replied.
Instead, the young tight end picked No. 80, the closest thing to his zero within the traditional range of numbers for tight ends. McFadden said that pick reminds him of one of his former teammates.
“Now he out there looking like an oversized Plaxico Burress,” McFadden said.
If Washington can replicate the over 4,000 yards and 23 touchdowns Burress had in his first five seasons in Pittsburgh, the Steelers might relent on his uniform number choice.