It's Friday, and it seemed appropriate to talk about some of the trending Pittsburgh Steelers fan questions and discussions. One of the hottest topics discussed during the Steelers' OTAs has been the assignment of jersey numbers to players - both new and those who've been with the team for a while. Every year, around this time, there are fans that experience anxiety over the passing out of jerseys. So, are numbers important or is this just a situation that causes an unnecessary fuss?
The most recent number debate
2019 NFL Draft selection and former Michigan Wolverine tight end Zach Gentry became the object of fan discussion across social media platforms recently. Gentry wore No. 83 in college and at Pittsburgh's rookie minicamp. According to Joe Rutter of Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Gentry was approached by Ben Roethlisberger and asked - out of deference to former tight end receiving record holder Heath Miller, a teammate that Roethlisberger had a very close relationship to - to not wear No. 83. Gentry chose to switch to No. 81, which drew further discussion as that number was what Jesse James, who moved to the Detroit Lions during free agency, wore as early as last season.
Although Rutter explained that no tight end has worn "83" since Miller retired following the 2015 NFL season, wide receiver Cobi Hamilton wore it in 2016.
Some fans asked for proof from Rutter about his report. He presented the following:
I’ve had a few people ask about the context of Zach Gentry interview in regards to his uniform change from 83 to 81. Here are his full answers from the two questions I asked. pic.twitter.com/7LcWfbneOM
— Joe Rutter (@tribjoerutter) May 31, 2019
Some fans said it was fodder for the national media to blow it out of proportion, others that it just fit the narrative that Roethlisberger is a terrible teammate. One of the best comments I read said, "Pretty soon the Steelers will need to go to letters since the unofficial retired number list keeps getting longer," from @kng16066 on Twitter.
In other words, how long is the numbers debate going to continue because this isn't the first time it has become an irritant for some fans?
The Harrison debate
James Harrison, the former undrafted linebacker out of Kent State, had three stints with the Steelers, including one after he'd officially retired (2002, 2004-12, 2014-17). The two-time Super Bowl Champion (XL, XLIII), five-time Pro Bowler (2007-11), two-time first-team All-Pro (2008, 2010), two-time second-team All-Pro (2007, 2009), and NFL Defensive Player of the Year (2008) instantly comes to the mind of most Steelers fans when the number "92" is mentioned. What's interesting is that Harrison was assigned No. 93 in 2002 because fellow linebacker and Pro Bowler Jason Gildon was sporting No. 92.
When Olasunkanmi Adeniyi was handed the No. 92 last season, there were a lot of fans that spent (mostly wasted) time discussing how the rookie couldn't live up to wearing "Harrison's number," and expressed disappointment while others were still just upset that Harrison left the Steelers for the Patriots before calling it quits. Thankfully, Ola hasn't allowed the nonsense to interfere with his preparation for the 2019 season; he's ready to come back from time spent on injured/reserved and be as competitive as he can be.
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) May 31, 2019
What makes these debates about jersey numbers hilarious to me, personally, is that Harrison and Adeniyi aren't the only guys to have worn "92". In fact, Jerry Olsavsky (1989) and Keith Gary (1983-88) were the first guys to come to my mind. Other players who've worn the number include Gildon (1994-03), Elnardo Webster (1992), Michael Minter (1987), Larry Aldrich (1958), and Dom Penza (1956).
Putting the numbers debate to bed
With only two jersey numbers officially retired by the Steelers (No. 70 for Hall of Fame defensive lineman Ernie Stautner and No. 75 for Hall of Fame defensive tackle "Mean" Joe Greene, it's pretty difficult for Pittsburgh to not offer numbers to players who join their team after others have left, even if those who departed are fan favorites.
The Steelers have pulled some numbers from frequent rotation. No. 12 (Terry Bradshaw), No. 32 (Franco Harris), No. 36 (Jerome Bettis), No. 47 (Mel Blount), No. 52 (Mike Webster), No. 58 (Jack Lambert), No. 59 (Jack Ham), No. 63 (Ernie Holmes), No. 43 (Troy Polamalu), No. 86 (Hines Ward), No. 1 (Gary Anderson), are numbers that have been less commonly worn by a player since the player named above wore them. If you look at many of those numbers, they were worn by players who were enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But, there is no hard rule in how the Steelers assign any number beyond those they officially retired.
As an example, let's look at No. 68. Since L.C. Greenwood sported that number on his jersey, so have Jeff Lucas (1987), Lorenzo Freeman (1987-90), Mike Withycombe (1991), Lonnie Palelei (1993), Brenden Stai (1995-99), Shar Pourdanesh (2000), Kendrick Vincent (2001-04), Chris Kemoeatu (2005-11), and Kelvin Beachum (2012-15); Garrett Brumfield (rookie) is currently assigned the number.
I'm sure there are similar lists for the other jersey numbers I mentioned above as well. Just because I can't remember them all shouldn't take away from my point; debating who should be identified with a number on a Steelers jersey is a tad silly.
As a fellow fan, I understand that purchasing a jersey and having the player's name on the back nameplate and the number in certain locations can get expensive when players switch numbers or the team decides to assign one to a different player. Every fan who has ever purchased at least one official jersey and had it "retired" into their own closet because it has the wrong nameplate on it for the new season understands the frustration of possibly not getting to wear that jersey until it looks like it's been as overused as the turf that the Oakland Raiders have played on.
Likewise, every fan has a player they will always associate with a number. That's okay. The number helps us identify that person and often brings back cherished memories. Some numbers invoke bad memories (Limas Sweed, Neil O'Donnell).
While we look forward to training camp and the upcoming 2019 regular season, maybe it would be better to focus on the efforts the men beneath those jerseys are putting forth to be a more unified and competitive team. It doesn't go over well when complaints are unleashed on social media about the team being overdramatic when many fans are overdramatizing the assignment of a number.
They're numbers. They don't define the type of person or player an individual is on or off the field as a member of the Steelers organization. I fully believe that Harris would have made the Immaculate Reception even if he was wearing "26" as much as I believe that the Steel Curtain would have dominated the NFL of their era if they were wearing "99", "90", "55", or "69".
Note: As a Steelers fan, is there a certain number that you will only associate with a certain player? Leave us a comment and tell us who and why. We assure you a judgment-free discussion as long as you don't go on a rant about how horrible it is that a certain player is wearing a certain number because... well, because.