Banner relishing role as fan favorite


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Steelers offensive lineman Zach Banner (72) takes in the crowd cheering for him late in Monday night's win over the Dolphins -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

It started early in Monday night's 27-14 victory by the Steelers over the Dolphins.

Every time referee Ron Torbert would announce, "Number 72 has reported as an eligible receiver," the crowd at Heinz Field would cheer.

No. 72 in this case is backup offensive tackle Zach Banner. Like many Steelers offensive linemen before him -- B.J. Finney, Jerald Hawkins, Chuks Okorafor and Chris Hubbard among them -- he has been used as an extra blocker, meaning he has to report as an eligible receiver.

And he reported as eligible a lot in the win over the Dolphins, as the Steelers ran the ball 29 times for 158 yards, with James Conner gaining 145 of that on 23 carries before leaving late in the fourth quarter with an AC joint injury in his shoulder.

Banner, who was signed by the Steelers following his release by the Panthers last season, hasn't talked to the media much -- if at all -- this season. He didn't want to jinx what he had going on in Pittsburgh.

The former fourth-round draft pick of the Colts in 2017 has bounced around the league since then, spending time with the Browns and Panthers. But he's found a home with the Steelers.

And even become a reluctant fan favorite.

"I love playing football now, like I did the rest of my life until that first year and a half in the NFL," Banner told me. "I love it here. I really do. To have the relationship with the GM, the owner of the team, the head coach. They’re backing me up. Smacking me on the (butt) after I pancake somebody. And these guys (pointing to the other offensive linemen), Matt (Feiler) is the one who told me to do the interviews. He was like, ‘C’mon brother, you got like 40 snaps today.’"

It wasn't always so easy for Banner, a five-star recruit at USC. He was a very good player for the Trojans, but he allowed his weight to balloon in his rookie NFL season, costing him jobs.

When the Steelers signed him last season after he was released at the end of the preseason by the Colts, he spent the entire season on the active roster, but failed to appear in a single game.

What he found, however, was a family atmosphere in which he could thrive. So he re-dedicated himself to the game. He dropped 40 pounds. And he earned the trust of the coaching staff and his teammates.

A quick-witted guy in the locker room, Banner, the son of former NFL star Lincoln Kennedy, who was raised by Ron and Vanessa Banner, was a fun guy to be around off the field. But he was starting to have fun on it again.

That's evident in his play, which has endeared itself to Steelers fans.

"I think at one point, one of those last drives, they said, '72 has entered the game, he's eligible,'" said quarterback Mason Rudolph, whose locker at the Rooney Sports Complex is next to Banner's.

"I said, 'Are they cheering for you?' And he was like, 'Yeah, they are.'"

Rudolph made an expression when he said that, putting a very Banner-like expression on his face:

"He's really happy about that. We definitely have to dial up a shot to him downfield or somewhere. I don't know how far he can get downfield, but we'll get him the ball at some point."

A star basketball player in high school, Banner told me in the preseason when he started working in the tight-end role that he had caught some passes in high school, as well.

But his goal remains eventually finding a starting role in the NFL.

"I really want to be a starter in this league," he told me. "Until then, I know my role. I love that role. When I’m not in, I’m signaling to the guys what front they’re in, like if they’re in nickel or base. That way we get better offensive-line play. I just like being part of the team."

And he likes the love from the fans, too.

"Fans are going to find their thing," he said. "I’m super grateful. It’s awesome. As a professional, you’ve got to be able to focus. I didn’t start cheesing until late."

But he will "cheese," as he put it -- mug for the cameras. It's all in fun as part of the effort he's putting forth.

"It’s effort. And if they acknowledge the effort, I’m going to keep giving it to them," Banner told me. "I’m going to keep going. I’m not going to stop until my legs come off."


[caption id="attachment_908396" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Steelers vs. Dolphins, Heinz Field, Oct. 28, 2019 -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

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