Rookie TE asked to switch number out of deference to Heath Miller
Zach Gentry still might hear fans chant a certain retired tight end’s first name when he catches passes at Heinz Field this season.
It won’t be because he wears the same number as Heath Miller.
Gentry wore No. 83 in college at Michigan and again at the Pittsburgh Steelers’ rookie minicamp. But when organized team activities started last week, Gentry switched to No. 81.
Gentry said he was encouraged, apparently at quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s behest, not to keep the digits most associated with Miller, who owns almost every franchise receiving record for tight ends.
No tight end has worn No. 83 since Miller retired after the 2015 season. Wide receiver Cobi Hamilton wore the number in 2016.
Gentry said “they asked me to switch” and termed it a “little shoutout” from Roethlisberger to Miller, one of the quarterback’s closest friends when they were teammates.
“Everybody was telling me about when tight ends make catches now, the crowd yells Heeeath,” Gentry said. “It was no big deal for me at all. I wore 83 in college, I didn’t ask for 83 (here).”
Gentry, ironically, spent his time at the NFL Combine being mentored by Miller. The league brings in former players to counsel players at the positions they once played.
“He’s the nicest guy I ever met,” Gentry said. “He helped me a lot.”
The two players had much in common aside from wearing No. 83. Gentry began his college career as a quarterback, just like Miller did when he enrolled at Virginia.
Talk naturally turned to Miller’s career with the Steelers. Little did Gentry know that they would select him in the fifth round a few months later.
“I was thinking about that when I first got drafted,” Gentry said. “It’s pretty incredible. I was asking him about his experiences here and what it felt like to do the things he was able to do. When I was drafted, it was kind of surreal, one of things where you laugh at the coincidence.”
By switching to No. 81, Gentry instead will draw inevitable comparisons to Jesse James, the backup tight end who left the Steelers for the Detroit Lions in free agency. At 6-foot-8, Gentry is an inch taller than James.
“We were laughing about that when he put it on for the first time,” tight end Xavier Grimble said. “At times, he does look like Jesse because he’s so tall and has that big frame.”
No matter the number, expect the young tight end to hear that “Heeeath” chant when he hauls in his first pass at a home game this season.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .