Cult hero: How Zach Banner became the Steelers' most eligible receiver

The 6-foot-8, 360-pound offensive tackle Zach Banner is a fan favorite when he checks in as an eligible receiver for the Steelers. Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire

PITTSBURGH -- For a brief moment Sunday, Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle and often-eligible receiver Zach Banner was wide open.

Midway through the first quarter, the tackle checked into the game and No. 72 was announced as an eligible receiver over the in-stadium public address. With Arizona’s State Farm Stadium filled with well-traveled Steelers fans, the proclamation was met with the same customary cheers that have followed Banner since the Week 8 Monday Night Football game against the Miami Dolphins.

He lined up on the left side, and when the Cardinals didn’t put anyone across from him, Banner released from his position, turning for the ball as he moved.

Quarterback Devlin Hodges dropped back, looked in Banner’s direction and began his throwing motion toward the 6-foot-8, 360-pound tackle. Or so it seemed.

Instead, Hodges pump-faked and reversed course, opting to keep the ball and scramble for 6 yards.

A pass from an undrafted rookie quarterback nicknamed Duck to an offensive lineman would’ve broken the internet. Instead, the big man stood there, wide open and empty-handed.

Wednesday afternoon, Banner interrupted the quarterback’s weekly media scrum with a question of his own.

“So how open does someone have to be to get the ball?” Banner asked.

“They, uh, got to be pretty open,” Hodges said. “Not saying that No. 72 Zach Banner wasn’t open. I will say that I didn’t want my completion percentage to go down. This is my interview, so next question.”

Hodges laughed as he finished his answer and Banner walked away, shaking his head.

A fourth-round draft pick waived by the Indianapolis Colts five months after they selected him, Banner has settled into his role with the Steelers. He’s not catching passes, but he is the sixth man on the offensive line. He’s also the team’s comic relief, and, much to coach Mike Tomlin’s chagrin, something of a fan favorite.

“I hope he doesn’t become a cult hero,” Tomlin said after the Monday night win over the Dolphins. “He and we don’t need that in our lives. He has too much work ahead of him. He is not [Beach] Kelvin Beachum or Mother [Chris] Hubbard yet.”

But as the Steelers prepare to host the Buffalo Bills in the final home game of the season Sunday (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC), Banner has cemented his status as a cult hero on an offense made up of Paul Bunyan-like folk legends with the likes of third-stringer Duck Hodges and Browns-slayer Maurkice Pouncey.

Since announced as an eligible receiver 16 times against the Dolphins, Banner has been the most individually recognized member of the offensive line -- outside of, perhaps, Pouncey. Used in the jumbo package, he has had a role in helping the run game churn along even without running back James Conner. Fans have brought signs to Heinz Field with Banner’s name and a company made shirts celebrating his status as an eligible receiver.

But as much as Banner’s big personality flourishes in the extra attention from fans, he’s serious about his craft. And if he has fun, too? Even better.

“I feel like I have a really good balance right now,” he said. “I really don’t want people thinking I’m a dips - - -. I really don’t want people thinking like, ‘Oh, he’s just here for the followers. Because I’m not. I’m really here to be starting tackle in this National Football League. The sixth man and the big tight end is great, and the eligible tight end, that’s Pittsburgh. That’s the fans. I just let them do it. ... They started that. Which, I hope it’s a testament to what I’ve been doing.”

Banner admits it took him a little time to find the right balance of football and fun. He was already known in some circles for his sense of humor, but he never found his footing with the team that drafted him.

“I didn’t do that right when I first got to the league,” Banner says of handling his personality and brand. “It was a distraction. People got the wrong feeling. I’m not going to say that people didn’t get the right feeling about me from Indy, but I mean, let’s be real, people in that city still call me a waste of a draft pick. How do you prove people wrong? You shut up and do actions. But do you know how hard it is to hide your personality at the same time?”

He was picked up by the Browns and played in eight games, but was released in the offseason. After a brief spring stint with the Panthers, he signed with the Steelers in August 2018 — but didn’t dress once last season. He was a project player, hulking, yet anonymous. Even as reporters tried to interview him about his journey and about being the biological son of NFL veteran Lincoln Kennedy, he declined interviews and tried to downplay his goofball tendencies. That’s how the veterans wanted it.

“He’s never been in an environment like ours,” left guard Ramon Foster said. “You’ve got to hit him with the, ‘Be quiet.’ Nonstarters don’t make a lot of noise. Relax a little bit. When you get to that point, then you can start telling your jokes and saying whatever the hell else you want to say.

“Until then, gain some respect first. Fly under the radar. That’s how you have to be. Be seen. Don’t say a whole lot.…”

When he arrived back in Pittsburgh for training camp this year, Banner was different.

He slimmed down and was serious. Entering this third year in the league, Banner knew people were doubting him. Banner went to work and his performance in the preseason showed it. And when the team needed a third tackle, the coaches turned to Banner.

Against Arizona last week, he played 25 snaps. Rookie running back Benny Snell Jr. ran the ball in eight of those plays for a total gain of 20 yards, including one 9-yard run. The other time, Jaylen Samuels took a direct snap for a 16-yard gain. The run game totaled 140 yards on 35 carries.

“We all recognized like, OK, [Banner’s] actually working,” Foster said. “He’s doing what he’s supposed to. He played well in the preseason. He leapfrogged a guy on the depth chart. You had to respect his process because he stayed quiet, he stayed focused and he’s producing. I think he’s going to make a big name for himself in this league. Everybody has to pay their dues.”

Just before the 2019 season, Foster came to Banner with an offer.

Foster’s weekly radio show on KDKA-FM was moving to Tuesday nights. Thursday nights were open, and he thought Banner with his big personality would be a good fit.

But there was a caveat.

“You can do all those extras, but remember, football is first,” Foster remembers telling him. “And he’s done that. He’s come to work, he’s done everything necessary he’s supposed to be doing.”

Banner gained more ground as a fan favorite when he performed a solo, choreographed dance to “What A Feeling” on stage at the team’s annual fashion show in early October.

It all came to a head later that month in the Monday night win against the Dolphins. When so much else in that game was going wrong for the Steelers, the fans found their relief in Banner. Their cheers grew louder as he checked in again and again.

“I realized, like, a lot earlier than everybody,” he told reporters after the game, “I didn’t want to be the guy to bring it up.”

The next week, fan Crystal Brickell stood on Heinz Field during warm-ups with a yellow handmade sign: “#72 IS NOW AN ELIGIBLE RECEIVER.”

“I just love him,” she said. “I love his personality. He’s just a big teddy bear. It just seems like a fan’s player.”

That was just the start.

Banner also gained notoriety for holding a blocking stance during the victory formation and nicknaming his blocks "hulk smashes."

Against the Browns two weeks ago, a fan brought a giant poster that draped over the wall in the end zone. It showed the back of Banner’s jersey with ‘Eligible’ written where his last name would normally be. The fan also wore a hoodie with the logo.

Earlier this week, Banner got into a Twitter fight with Hodges over the missed opportunity in the Arizona game. And then he challenged his head coach to a foot race when Tomlin unequivocally said Banner wasn’t athletic enough to be a fullback option in a goal-line package.

Banner admits he leans into the hoopla around his new-found fame. He can have fun with the fans, but his goal is still the same.

“The fans keep it going, and I want to keep the fans happy,” he said. “But it goes in this order: my coaches, my teammates, and then the fans. And my coaches and my teammates want me to be a kickass football player. … As much as I love it, I’m not going to lie, I want to be a starting tackle one day. I’m not going to hide that. I’m going to say it out loud because I think people understand my personality.”