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Banaszak: 'It was a tremendous experience'

Legends Series: John Banaszak
Defensive Lineman

Football is something that has been in John Banaszak's blood since he was a kid playing the sport for fun.

It stayed in his blood when he battled for a spot on the roster as a rookie free agent with the Steelers back in 1975, beating the odds to make the team.

Today, it still runs through his blood as he is in his third season as the head coach for the Robert Morris University Colonials. Banaszak has a passion for coaching, something that he developed while playing for Coach Chuck Noll.

"There's no question there's a lot of Chuck Noll in me," said Banaszak. "I coach our kids the same, in the same manner. Fundamentals are very, very important. They were always stressed by Coach Noll. He was an amazing coach. He would on the practice field some day and he would say, 'You know John, I think if you moved your right leg three more inches outside and widened your stance, I think you would be able to get off the ball a little bit quicker.' And you're just like, 'Wow. Chuck Noll just noted noticed that I needed to widen my stance by two or three inches.'

"But that's the kind of coach he was. He was a fundamentally sound individual, he needed his players to understand that. We were the best tackling football team, we were the best blocking football team, we were the best running, catching, throwing football team in the National Football League, and that's the reason why the Steelers were successful back then."* *Banaszak also weighed in on a variety of other topics in this exclusive interview:

You came in as an undrafted rookie free agent, what was that like?"It was a tremendous challenge. I knew going in that as a 25-year old rookie, I was only going to get one chance and one opportunity, and the Steelers gave me that opportunity. Was I an underdog? There's no question about that. I'm sure that after the draft, there were 17 rounds in the draft back in 1975 and I wasn't taken, then I was going to be a longshot to make any realm. I made it even more of a longshot by signing with the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers.

"There were a lot of reasons why I did that, but the biggest reason that I signed with the Steelers was because I truly thought I was going to get an opportunity to show what kind of football player I could be for them. Woody Widenhofer was at Eastern Michigan my first semester there, and he told me they were going to keep me in training camp until at least the College All-Star Game, which was a two-week period of time. If I couldn't show them what I could do in two weeks, I probably didn't belong there anyway. So that's the biggest reason why I signed with the Steelers."Was there a lot of pressure in that two week period to prove yourself to the defending Super Bowl champs?"There's an awful lot of pressure no matter where you go, I knew that. There was an awful lot of pressure to play in the NFL, taking the step from college to the NFL is huge. I just felt that I was very confident in myself. There wasn't anything that was going to happen to me that was worse than going through Parris Island, South Carolina, in boot camp. I was in great shape. Really, the philosophy that I had coming out of the boot camp experience in the Marine Corps was that every day had to be a good day. You couldn't give them an opportunity to release you. I knew that I was going to give it my best shot, which obviously was good enough."What's it like coming in the way you did and then becoming a Super Bowl champion?"My rookie year was 41 years ago and I can remember it just like it was yesterday. All the memories that I have from training camp all the way to Super Bowl X. It was just a tremendous experience. After the game, after Super Bowl X, I sat in my locker and watched the celebration go on. And all those thoughts about how far I was able to come and how far I was able to make it, it was just an incredible feeling that 'I'm on top of the world.'

"One of the reasons I signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers, as the defending Super Bowl champions, was that I had never played on a championship team prior to that. The motivating factor of playing for a championship was absolutely incredible for me. To have that happen as a rookie was quite an experience. The games that led up to it, the playoff games, the regular season, the preseason games where I had to prove to the coaches that I was capable of making their football team, it all came to an end after Super Bowl X and it was a pretty awesome experience."What was it like when you first learned you made the team?"That was kind of scary because you know that Monday is the last cut, and nobody explained how that was going to go down to me. So I walked through the entrance at Three Rivers past the secretary in the main office and she didn't say anything. And then you make the right turn and go down past the coach's offices and nobody grabbed me and said, 'John, you made the team,' or 'John, we're letting you go.' I walked through the training room and into the locker room and my locker was still there. So I had an idea that I had made it. I sat down at a stool in front of my locker and I said, 'Wow, this is pretty cool that I had made the defending Super Bowl champions' football team, the Pittsburgh Steelers.' And I'm feeling really good about myself and I look up and Chuck Noll was walking right across the locker room and to me, it looked like he was coming right at me. And he had this look on his face that was very serious, and you know that coach always wore his emotions on his sleeve. You could tell the kind of circumstance by just looking at his facial expressions. It looked like he had some bad news for me as he was walking toward me. Well, he walked past me to talk to Gerry Mullins and Jim Clack and Gordon Gravelle about their holdout and their contract negations. My body just sank on that stool because I felt like he was walking right at me. So when he left I was like, 'Oh my God, this is awesome. He didn't tell me I was cut, he didn't tell me I made the team, so I must be ok.' Then I went into the meeting room and George Perles shook my hand and congratulated me on making that football team."What would you say was the highlight of your career with the Steelers?"Obviously, the three Super Bowls that I played in were the three highlights of my career. Starting in Super Bowl XIII and Super Bowl XIV were great accomplishments. From a rookie free agent to starting two Super Bowls was a tremendous journey for me. Each practice that I had, each workout that I had, I felt that I got better as a football player. I got better as a football player by watching Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood and Ernie Holmes. Those guys were not only my teammates, those guys taught me how to play the game of football at that level. The friendships that came out of that are still very important to me to this day. It was just a tremendous experience. And I would say that the seven years I wore that uniform was the biggest highlight of my life."What did it mean to play for the Steelers?"It all stems from the organization and 'The Chief,' Art and the way things were handled and the way things were run. I wasn't there in the bad years, but I saw the bad years growing up in Cleveland and watching the Browns play the Steelers every year. So I never really knew how bad the Steelers were because they always played the Browns tough, even when they had their bad years.

"I learned an awful lot about the Steeler history prior to the Super Bowl years, and the organization was tremendous. The way they treated players and handled situations was very good. There's no question that the Steelers are the best organization, the number one organization in the National Football League. They've deserved that, they've earned that, they've worked at it, they haven't changed the way they do things, and as a player you get a great deal of respect for the family. I think that trickles down to the locker room, and it's a family atmosphere there. Players care about each other. You're there to do your job, and once you learn, once you show the veterans that you're capable of playing, you've made it and your whole world changes then. You're accepted by the best players in the National Football League, you're accepted by the family. It's a great experience and it's something I'll always remember."

How do you evolve relationships with your football players, the way coaches did with you in the past?"That's the reason I do what I do. The relationships my coaches had with me through high school, college and the NFL was something that was very important. This is more than just a game of football, especially at the level that I'm coaching at. It's about building a relationship with the young men. During my recruiting I will tell a young man, 'If you're looking to come to Robert Morris University and never have a bad day, that's not going to happen. You're going to have tough days, and that's when you need somebody to lean on.'

"Now I understand that there's a few generation gaps between myself and my players. I may not be the go-to guy for that player. But somebody on our football staff has to be that go-to guy. When that bad day comes and everything comes crashing down on that player, he has somebody he can lean on. That is something that is very important to me to develop, and develop that relationship of trust."

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