Share This Page

Former Steelers lineman Banaszak transitions at RMU football

| Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013, 9:54 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Robert Morris assistant head coach John Banaszak watches practice Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013, at Joe Walton Stadium in Moon.

Besides replacing Joe Walton as football coach at Robert Morris, John Banaszak has something else to do after the season. He will write a letter, in longhand, to former Steelers teammate Joe Greene.

“I'm not going to procrastinate any longer,” Banaszak said. “I want him to understand what he meant to me as a football player, as a father, as a husband, as a teammate. I didn't have that chance with L.C. (Greenwood). I didn't have that chance with Ernie Holmes. I didn't have that chance to talk with Dwight White and let him know what he meant to me.”

Holmes died at 59 in a January 2008 car crash. Six months later, White died from a blood clot following back surgery. He was 58. Greenwood, who lived in Point Breeze, made it to 67. He died in September from kidney failure, also from back surgery complications. He and Banaszak stayed close through the years.

“I'm still having tough times,” Banaszak said a few weeks after it happened.

Tougher still is that three-fourths of the original Steel Curtain, players Banaszak admired, studied, befriended and in one instance replaced, are gone. Only the great Greene remains.

Bansazak's close ties took root after he proved his mettle on a championship Steelers team full of accomplished veterans.

This was no easy task for a 25-year-old undrafted defensive lineman from Eastern Michigan, but the former Marine emerged from training camp in 1976 as one of just three rookies to make the squad. Two years later, he became a full-time starter after Holmes was traded. He earned three Super Bowl rings before his release in 1981.

In Gary Pomerantz's new book, “Their Life's Work: The Brotherhood of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers,” Banaszak provided the epigraph: “What has the game given me? It's given me my teammates. ... You want to talk about what the game has taken away from you? It takes away your teammates.”

A few weeks ago, Banaszak got more bad news. Another friend, a college teammate, taken away.

“I want my (players) to understand what it's like to lose a guy like that,” he said. “And if I can do that, we're gonna to win. We're gonna to win. And that's what this is all about. ... I want these kids to have the same experience I had.”

He meant the friendships, not the grief.

‘Very scary situation'

Banaszak had his own brush with mortality in 2009 when he suffered a brain hemorrhage caused by an aspirin overdose while treating chronic neck and back pain. He fully recovered, but “it scared the (heck) out of us,” said Walton, who is stepping down after 20 years as the only football coach in RMU history.

“I'm fine, but it was a very scary situation,” Banaszak said. “It came out of nowhere. And it's behind me.”

During his examinations, doctors found evidence of some concussion damage. Banaszak joined the NFL concussion lawsuit but describes himself as a “normal 63-year-old.”

“I forget names and dates sometimes,” he said. “Cognitively, I think I'm sharp enough that I'm not going to jeopardize the outcome for my football team.”

Banaszak said he eats right, stays in shape and does “brain things,” like crossword puzzles. He said he will take the baseline concussion test when it becomes available. He calls the settlement an “insurance policy.”

“If something happens down the road, I know I'm gonna be taken care of and my family's gonna be taken care of,” he said.

Banaszak has read the books by famous coaches — Lombardi, Wooden, Dungy — and played for Chuck Noll. It all rubbed off. But he said his own philosophy is simple: work hard, have fun, win.

“You're not gonna be good enough if you don't have passion,” he said.

Perfect fit

A former coach at Division III Washington & Jefferson, Banaszak came to RMU in 2003. When Walton's contract was renewed for two seasons in January 2012, he picked Banaszak to replace him.

“He's the perfect guy,” Walton said. “I wanted to keep the same atmosphere around here. John and I think alike, and we're good friends. I just felt like he was the guy who was next in line.”

Walton is 77. Banaszak will be 64 when he coaches his first game next season. The AARP likely would approve.

“It's not about age,” said RMU athletic director Craig Coleman, who in 2010 made Andy Toole, then 29, the youngest basketball coach in Division I. “It's about fitness for the job and a lot of intangible elements. ... (Banaszak) has extremely high energy. He's a very intense and effective leader of young men. High moral values and an excellent recruiter.”

He also is a survivor. Banaszak said he sometimes wonders why he is so lucky. There is no answer. Instead of grasping for one, he focuses on his family and coaching. His wife, Mary, is the CEO of a substance-abuse treatment center in Washington County. He calls her “the accomplished person in the family.” They have been married for 42 years. Banaszak is equally proud of his three children and six grandchildren. Meanwhile, the Colonials have won three straight to take control of the Northeast Conference race, and a new opportunity awaits.

“It's a pretty good fourth quarter I'm heading into,” he said.

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bcohn@tribweb.com.

Related Content
TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.