Steelers Fan Friday: Why all the hoopla over player jersey numbers? | Steel City Underground

Steel City Underground

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?

Embed from Getty Images

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:

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?

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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).

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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".

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Sound Off! Let's hear what you have to say in our comments section

We require all users to register on our website in order to maintain a friendly community. If you wish to continue, you may sign up for a free SCU Black membership or you may enjoy ad-free browsing of our site and other special features by upgrading to an SCU Gold membership.

  1. Joe Kuzma says:

    Would be really difficult for me to see anyone else wearing 7, 36, or 43 in my era of watching anyway (born in ’81).

    Really hard to protect some digits. 92 I thought might get semi-retired, but anything in the 80’s is difficult due to WRs and TEs both wearing them, with WRs also sharing some of the lower digits that other positions (QBs for example) share.

  2. Joe, I figured you’d bring up Landry Jones’ jersey number. Lol

    My favorite number is “8”. Unfortunately, not many popular Steelers players have work it. I didn’t mind Tommy Maddox, but some fans hated him.

    As for numbers I have a hard time NOT associating with a particular player, I’d have to agree with “7” for Roethlisberger, “32” for Franco, and “12” for “Bradshaw”.

    I don’t get hung up on the numbers, but I can honestly see how some just stick with fans.

  3. Great article Tina. At the end of the day I don’t think the Steelers FO cares one bit about what any of us think. Haha.

    As to the Roethlisberger question to Gentry, Zach was VERY clear that Ben asked him in a most professional and non-confrontational manner. The fans that are pissed even by the fact he would ask are the same people that wish Ben weren’t our QB. It was such a silly tiff. Let it go fans. These players (rightfully & thankfully) don’t pay a single lick of attention to us and what we think.

  4. Dave,
    Sorry, it took me so long to respond. I think you’re probably correct – that at the end of the day, the front office doesn’t care if fans want a certain player to wear a certain number. I believe the front office cares very much about their fans, but that area isn’t one they probably lose a lot of sleep over.

    As for Roethlisberger wanting to give a “shout-out” to Miller by asking Gentry to wear a different number: it’s clear that Gentry did not mind and has respect for Miller (from the time that he spent with Gentry getting ready for the Combine). It’s not the first time Roethlisberger has chosen a jersey number to honor, and it likely won’t be the last. In a way, that actually speaks volumes about how much he respects some of the teammates he’s petitioned for by wearing their jersey at camp, for example.

  5. “I believe the front office cares very much about their fans, but that area isn’t one they probably lose a lot of sleep over.”

    THIS is exactly correct. I feel certain of it. What I meant to say (I believe you understood, so I guess this is for anyone else reading that misunderstood) is that while I fully believe the FO DOES care about it’s fans, I don’t think they read this (or any other) site, scoouring it, looking for tips and clues about who to draft, who to play, when to play them and when to release them. Haha

    And, I personally believe Tina, that your final paragraph in your response is so spot on, that it’s not possible it could be any more true than you stated. 100%

Leave a Reply