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.
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 [email protected].