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Living out his dream

Zach Banner didn't make it a secret.

When it came to free agency, there was one thing he truly wanted.

And that was to stay in Pittsburgh…and his wish was granted.

The Steelers signed the offensive tackle to a two-year contract, keeping him in the black and gold, which is right where he feels comfortable.

"Both my mother and father worked themselves from the bottom up to where they are now," said Banner. "They aren't the richest people in Tacoma, Washington, but my family is way more well off now than we were when I was younger. To be able to watch them grind and succeed and have their ups and downs over their lives, it's been special.

"When I moved to Pittsburgh, that is exactly what this city has been. You know about the steel mills and the perseverance of the city when the mills closed. From a football standpoint, that is how our team operates, how Coach T (Mike Tomlin) operates. He came up to me and said this next part of being a mid-year vet and trying to step up not only in your own personal career, but being a leader, you have to take action. Action is better than words. And keep on being the energizer bunny I have been.

"One example of that was always Maurkice Pouncey in his career. That is one of my aspirations, chasing greatness like he did."

Banner had a strong relationship with Pouncey, who retired this offseason. It was Pouncey and former guard Ramon Foster who motivated Banner when things were tough early in his career. And on top of the relationship, he had the utmost respect for Pouncey and knows that he will be missed on the line and off the field, where he was a leader for the line, including hosting them at his house on a regular basis.

"You will never replace 53, but we can do our best trying to," said Banner. "When I say we, it's a unit. The offensive line is not an individual thing, it never has been and never will be. The successful ones, all five are good at what they do in five different ways. Our challenge is not to just step up and be more consistent on and off the field, but to put in an effort this offseason to respond. His absence is going to be huge when we go into OTAs, whether that is virtual or in person. It's going to be the same thing in camp. It's going to feel weird at first. We are going to have to get used to it and do everything we can to chase another ring.

"If anything, it's a blueprint we will follow. The offensive line has always gotten together once a week and chowed, had great experiences with each other on and off the field. We're going to carry what we are doing at work off the field, carry on that tradition. It will be at my house now. Whether we have to do it in the film room, or off the field, it's a brotherhood. I am blessed and excited to be a part of it."

It's the same feeling he had last year when he won the starting right tackle spot in 2020, but that excitement waned fast. He suffered a season-ending knee injury in the season opener against the New York Giants, missing the remainder of the season. It wasn't easy for him, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic limiting how much he could be around the team.

"Because of COVID I wasn't able to be on the sideline or else you would have seen me on crutches on the sideline, with my brace on the sideline, walking on the sideline. I would have gone through that rehab on the sideline with my guys," said Banner. "Because of COVID we weren't on the sideline. For the first six weeks, I had to elevate my leg, so it was okay.

"But it was miserable. I was going from rehab at the facility to straight home over and over again for months at a time. My parents were so responsive being around helping. Sacrificed time. They are educators so they were online anyways. They were switching shifts to take care of me. My brother, Xavier, took on the role after the first six weeks. He lives with me now. He is no longer a 'nurse' right now, he is now back to being a brother. To have that support from the three of them, my family, was great but still miserable because I wasn't able to be around my guys.

"I asked Coach T what I can do, can I be in the film room, can we get the IR thing fixed. He told me the best thing I could do was the rehab and go home to get that leg ready because 2021 is the comeback season and you are going to come back from this."

Banner is already working on that comeback. He continues to work on his rehab, continues to prepare for the 2021 season, because he knows what it means to him.

Banner was originally drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft, the 137th overall. He was released by the Colts in 2017, and signed with the Cleveland Browns, playing in eight games in 2017.He signed with the Steelers as a free agent in 2018 and was inactive all season.

In 2019 a lot changed for him when he played in 14 games, starting one. He became a cult hero with the 'No. 72 has reported as an eligible receiver' announcement on a regular basis during the season, but set his goal to become a starter, a role he earned before his injury.

"There are different reasons and types of motivation," said Banner. "The first year was to make the team. I have been blessed to be on the active roster my entire career. I wasn't settling for that. Then it was to make an impact. Then it was '72 is eligible' the next year. Then Coach T challenged me and said become one of 64, one of 64 tackles in the league, and I did.

"Getting hurt last year after that, it was heartbreaking, the knee was definitely heartbreaking. Through the reassurances of the team and my rehab and my work, it shouldn't hinder me. It's now a new motivation. It's a lot on my shoulders because when you sign a bigger contract like that it gets more attention. There is more both good and bad pressure. At the same time, I am ready for it. It's something I have been dreaming about my whole life. The motivation is there. I am settling in to solidify Pittsburgh being my home."