Opening a Window on the “Steel Curtain”

By: Griselda Ramirez


Oilers Steelers Football

John Banaszak (76) and L.C. Greenwood (68) put the wraps on Houston’s Dan Pastorini (7). (Photo: AP)

John Banaszak said he doesn’t have time to think about the days he was hospitalized in 2009 when there was bleeding in his brain four years ago, or whether the concussions he received while playing in the National Football League in the 1970’s will cause brain damage.

Banaszak, 62, who played professional football with the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1975 to 1981, is too busy to worry. Between spending time with his six grandchildren, golfing in the summer, and coaching, Banaszak is always filling his time. The three-time Super Bowl Champion has been an assistant coach under Joe Walton at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh for 11 years. In December he will become the head coach when Walton, 77, retires.

“I don’t think about not being able to remember my name later on. I am doing what I need to do to coach a college football team and plan to do so for the next five to 10 years,” said Banaszak in a phone conversation from his office at Robert Morris. “I am not worried about having any kind of dementia problems. I don’t worry about that. Even after my brain bleed, you know what, it doesn’t enter my thought process during any part of the day.”

Banaszak was a starter at right defensive end for the Steelers in Super Bowls XIII and XIV. He was a free agent from Eastern Michigan University who joined the defensive unit known as the “Steel Curtain,” a legendary group of players who had five shutouts and allowed only 28 points in the last nine games of the 1976 season. Playing in the Steelers dynasty years has had its rewards for Banaszak, but it has also contributed to concerns for his health. He is one of about 4,000 other former professional football players in a class action suit against the NFL because of concerns about head injuries and latent neurodegenerative disorders and diseases.

A paragraph in the lawsuit alleges Banaszak “suffered repeated and chronic head impacts during his career in the NFL and is at an increased risk of latent brain disease. As a result, Banaszak has experienced cognitive difficulties.” His wife, Mary Banaszak, also a plaintiff, “has been deprived of marital services including, but not limited to, loss of companionship, affection, and support.”

Banaszak’s 40-year-old son recalls the day his father was hospitalized, and he recalls the 11 days he spent in intensive care. “I was painting a room in the house. My mom called me to go to their house,” said Jay Banaszak in a phone interview from Pittsburgh. “He was having serious headaches and he was being stubborn to get looked at. I walked inside the house and he was obviously in a lot of pain.” John Banaszak said he was working out at a gym when he got a massive headache. He went home and his son drove him to Washington Hospital in Washington, Pa. outside of Pittsburgh. “That was a rough couple of weeks,” said Jay Banaszak. “I don’t remember how long he was at the hospital but it wasn’t fun – not knowing what was going on. It was obviously a very scary time, but he made it through.”

His son-in-law Terry Dunbar said Banaszak was then flown to Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh where the doctors later determined Banaszak suffered from a brain hemorrhage. “The doctors first thought it was an aneurysm,” said Dunbar, 35. “ When you hear aneurysm, it’s hard. It was difficult, but we knew once he survived we had no doubt that he would recover.” Banaszak said his doctor told him that the incident could have been football-related, but that there was no definitive link.

Dunbar, who has known Banaszak for 17 years, started dating Banaszak’s daughter Carrie in 2002 and married her two years later. They now have three children ages 7, 4 and 11 months.  Dunbar knows Banaszak as a coach as well. He played Division III football for Washington & Jefferson College, a four-year liberal arts school in Washington, Pennsylvania. Before becoming an assistant coach at Robert Morris, Banaszak coached at Washington & Jefferson for 11 years and was Dunbar’s coach from 1996 to 1999. “From a coaching standpoint he expects his players to work hard, give an honest effort and improve every day,” said Dunbar. “He expects his players to be good students. He doesn’t want knuckleheads to play for him.”

Dunbar described Banaszak’s coaching style as intense. “He has an us-against-the-world mentality,” said Dunbar in a phone interview. “In his mind the guys that are wearing the same color jerseys and helmets are the good guys and the others are the bad guys. All he wants to do is help his team win.” Banaszak left the college as the third most winning coach in school history. He was fired from Washington & Jefferson after publicly exploring other coaching jobs, according to various media reports.

Now that Banaszak is preparing for his head coaching position at Robert Morris, a Division I-AA team, he’s more enthusiastic than ever, he said. “As long as I feel that I can motivate the football team and I am physically able to do it,” said Banaszak. “But we’ll see. God willing and the creek don’t rise I will coach until 72. Hopefully I can make it that long because I really do enjoy what I do – it’s fun, exciting and challenging.”

His coaching technique is different from the way he was coached when he played in the NFL, he said. “We had a technique called the head-butt. We led with our face. It was a violent technique. Now, I don’t teach that. Nowhere in the world would I teach that,” said Banaszak. “I know through personal experience you will get a headache. That was an effective way of playing defensive line – when the ball is snapped, you come off the line of scrimmage and your helmet is the lead of attack. That is when you hit your opponent. Everyday I would do that. That was the way it was back then.”

The concussion court case accuses the NFL of concealing the long-term consequences of head injuries, a charge the NFL has publicly denied.


Mike Webster of the Steelers made it to the Hall of Fame before his untimely death. (Photo: AP)

Banaszak played with Hall of Famers, including center Mike Webster, who died from a heart attack at age 50 in 2002. During Banaszak’s first two years in the NFL, Webster was his roommate. His toughness and strength earned him the nickname “Iron Mike.” Webster played 15 seasons and 220 games, more than any other player in Pittsburgh history. But the superhero image deteriorated when he was diagnosed with brain damage in 1999. Webster fell into drug use and homelessness after he retired from the NFL. “He went downhill pretty quickly,” said Banaszak. “It was a genuine concern. Obviously when somebody that close dies at a young age, it would be crazy not to think about it.”

In 2005 — three years after Webster’s death — Bob Fitzsimmons, his lawyer, defeated the NFL after a court ruling that football injuries permanently disabled him. Webster was paid about $2 million in disability payments by the NFL retirement board, according to various news reports.

Between 2005 and 2007 Doctors Bennet Omalu and Robert Cantu examined the brain tissue of three deceased NFL players, including Andre Waters of the Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals, Terry Long of the Steelers and Webster. Omalu, chief executive medical examiner in San Joaquin County, Calif., was the first researcher to identify severe brain damage in a former NFL player Mike Webster. Cantu, the chief of surgery at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Mass., and a co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University, is also a senior adviser to the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee.  “All three of these individuals suffered multiple concussions during their respective NFL careers. All three exhibited symptoms of sharply deteriorated cognitive functions, paranoia, panic attacks, and depression,” according to the lawsuit court document. Omalu found that the athletes’ deaths were partially caused by chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition he discovered related to multiple concussions suffered during the athletes’ NFL careers.

Banaszak said he had a few concussions of his own. “I remember finishing games and not remembering them. I also remember getting walked off fields and playing again, Banaszak said. “A couple of times I was taken off the field and into the training room and not remembering a thing. You wake up and you’re in a fog. You’re scrambling to think of what happened and the circumstances that got you there.” Banaszak, who also has had both knees replaced, said he decided to join the lawsuit against the NFL to cover himself if something happens to him in the future — any other damages or residual effects of concussions.

Although Banaszak said he still gets headaches — he doesn’t know whether they’re a long-term effect of concussions or a result of the hemorrhage — he said he would play professional football all over again if he could. “Oh, I wish I could play one more down,” said Banaszak. “I wish I could buckle my chinstrap one more time.”  After his stint with the Steelers, Banaszak played for the Michigan Panthers, of the United States Football League, in 1983 and 1984. He then played and coached with the Memphis Showboats in 1985.

Banaszak has a soft side. He signs autographs for anyone. “We were waiting at a restaurant in North Carolina and two guys with Steelers hats walked right behind us,” said Dunbar. “I could see them talk back and forth. ‘Is that John Banaszak?’ they asked each other. I leaned over to them and told them it was him. They then asked me if John would sign their hats and I told them he would. They got his autograph and talked to him.”

Scott Farison, the defensive coordinator at Robert Morris, said Banaszak is someone anyone can talk to. “There are no borders around him. He is down to earth,” said Farison. He said the coaching staff sometimes shows the defensive linesmen at Robert Morris film of when Banaszak practiced and played for the Steelers. “The players love it,” said Farison. “It’s teaching them what he did and it’s more meaningful.”


Banaszak is scheduled to become the head coach at Robert Morris University. (Photo: Robert Morris University)

Farison said the players at Robert Morris undergo a head-impact test to check their memory and knowledge. If the players have concussion-related symptoms they are given the test again, he said. Banaszak said doctors also test the student-athletes at Robert Morris anytime they receive head injuries.

Banaszak works on his coaching seven days a week, 8 to 10 hours a day, he said. “It’s been awesome. It’s been a great experience coaching. I’m more than a football coach. I am a mentor, teacher and counselor,” he said.

Jay Banaszak who has two kids, a 3-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter, said he enjoys watching his father’s football games with his children. “Everyone keeps him active. He is always on the move,” said Jay Banaszak. “I guess for me, looking back as how he was as a father, I hope I can be the type of father he was for my kids as he was for us.”

Jay also said his father’s health seems fine now, but he still worries about him, he said. “Especially when you see a lot of former players that pass away early. The life expectancy of a football player is shorter,” said Jay Banaszak. The average American male lives to be almost 75. According to a 2006 St. Petersburg Times report, an NFL player, whose career lasts roughly four years on average, lives to be 55. “My father lost quite a few teammates unexpectedly,” Jay said. “This is something that is in the back of my mind but him being active has helped. I hope he continues as he is and is in the high end of the life-expectancy group.”

Banaszak said the times have changed since he played professional football and there is more exposure to the long-term effects of concussions as well as awareness of the dangers of head injuries. At Robert Morris he said the athletic department is well aware of the precautionary measures needed to take when head injuries do occur. “It’s not crazy,” said Banaszak. “We work hard but we are not like the NFL. We get our work done and then we go home.” He said he doesn’t dwell on the injuries he received when he played. “Sometimes when I get a headache I do think about it. Hey, whatever happened, I still stay in good shape. I am not the one to say I’m afraid to do something.”

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