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Player provides inspiration during pandemic

It’s depressing to acknowledge that it’s been nearly a year since I last attended a professional sporting event.

My son and I took in a division rivalry Monday Night Football game at Heinz Field — Steelers vs. the Bengals — Sept. 30, 2019. Steelers won, 27-3. Not bad, I guess, for my last game in a year.

Since the end of football season, there has been no opportunity to attend any Cleveland Indians games this summer, despite the fact that my husband and I thought we were all set at Christmas when I gave him his usual gift (that really is a gift to myself, too) — two seats for a small Tribe season ticket package.

Also, there have been no Pirates baseball, no Penguins or Blue Jackets hockey, no Cavaliers basketball, not even any Scrappers games in Niles. You get the picture.

That’s why today I’m gearing up for Monday Night Football. This time, though, I’ll be settled on the couch with my Terrible Towel when the Steelers take on the Giants.

My husband will be settled in the same spot at 1 p.m. today when the Browns kick off the season against the Ravens.

My family is comprised of big sports fans. No, we don’t all root for the same teams, which makes for some interesting Sundays.

I really started getting excited for the return of football when the sports section in this newspaper finally started carrying NFL stories, including one last week about Steelers right tackle Zach Banner.

The article described the young man as a “project” who had arrived in Pittsburgh in the summer of 2018 overweight and poorly disciplined. After two years in Pittsburgh, Banner learned last week he won a starting spot.

I chuckled as I read the story, recalling the game last year with my son at Heinz Field.

Over and over during the game, the referee had called out, “No. 72 is an eligible receiver.” The announcement was met with wild applause. Banner, who was then filling a role as a “jumbo” tight end, had become a fan favorite and mini cult hero.

Despite the crazed fan support, no passes ever came his way, and Banner’s role as a tight end wannabe is now over.

What’s really interesting is that Banner made the transition to his new job as a lean, mean starting right tackle via hard work and dedication during a pandemic that left most of us sloppy and overweight.

Banner said he realized during the offseason that if he wanted to stick around, he needed to get serious. A clinical pharmacist did bloodwork that revealed just how damaging Banner’s diet was to his massive body. He worked with a personal trainer and relied on his brother Xavier to keep him in check during the lengthy COVID-19 shutdown.

Banner said he occasionally suggested going out to eat to break up the monotony. Xavier told him to drop the keys and grab a spatula.

“I think when you have people around you who care about you like that, not only from a science perspective but a family perspective, I think that’s the best thing. I kind of closed my circle this offseason, and I have no regrets about it.”

Instead, Banner arrived at training camp 30 pounds lighter. Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner called Banner a “perfect example” of what a player can do when he commits to taking care of his body.

“It’s a battle, right?” Banner said. “It’s a battle with your weight. It’s a battle with your mindset. It’s a battle with the mindset that you have to wake up with, that you have to execute every single day and when I leave here, I’m going to continue with that mindset because there’s so much work to be done.”

If ever there was a reason for being a sports fan, that inspiration provided by our new starting right tackle is a really good one.

Go Steelers.

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