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How a family of champions shaped Zach Frazier into the prototypical Steelers center

FAIRMONT, W.V. — Blood gushed from Zach Frazier’s crooked nose, threatening to end his first varsity wrestling match almost as soon as it began.

As a freshman at Fairmont Senior High, Frazier absorbed a headbutt to the face early in the bout. The referee briefly paused the match as the training staff worked on the heavyweight. Thinking they had stopped the bleeding, they sent him back onto the mat.

But only moments later, it began again. The five minutes of “blood time” was running out. A forfeit appeared imminent.

Heather Frazier, Zach’s mother, charged out of the bleachers toward the mat. Coaches figured she’d say enough and pull the plug on the match. But that’s not Heather Frazier.

“I was like, ‘We. Are. Wrestling,’” Heather recalled, clapping on each word for emphasis. “‘We are getting back out there, and we are winning this match. We’re stopping this bleed, and that’s all there is to this.’”

She grabbed Zach by the back of the head, shoved some gauze up his nose and squeezed.

“His nose went crunch, crunch, crunch,” Heather said. “But I kept a straight face like, ‘No problem. I’ve done this a million times.’”

As Zach’s nose popped, his knees buckled from the pain.

“Mommmm,” Zach whimpered.

“What? Nothing’s wrong,” Heather replied. “We’re good.”

She turned her son around and pushed him toward the mat with one final piece of advice: Get back out there. And end it soon, because the bleeding is about to start again.

With Zach’s face taped up in almost Hannibal Lecter-like fashion, the 285-pound wrestler battled through overtime to secure his first varsity win. And so began a storied high school wrestling career that included four state titles and a record of 159-2.

After his arm was raised for the first time, Zach walked over to his mother.

“‘My nose is broken, isn’t it?’” Heather remembers Zach asking. “And I’m like, ‘Absolutely, it is. We’ll have to get that taken care of.’”

From left to right: Dad Raymond, brother Brady, mom Heather, Zach and wife Stephanie. (Courtesy of Heather Frazier)

With a mother like that — who comes from a long line of state-champion wrestlers and proudly says hitting is her favorite part of football — and a dad who prided himself on preparation as a Division II center at Fairmont State, the Steelers’ second-round pick in the 2024 NFL Draft seems almost genetically engineered to play center in Pittsburgh.



Steelers draft Zach Frazier: How he fits, pick grade and scouting intel

Take a trip to his hometown of Fairmont and you’ll soon realize how the player who bear-crawled off the field with a broken leg was built for this.

“I would say just my family,” Zach said. “I was just raised to do everything you can and do everything in your power to help the team win.”

Where do you start a story about Zach Frazier?

Well, there’s no better place than in his grandparents’ living room in Fairmont, a small town of about 18,000 nestled in the mountains at the junction of the Monongahela, Tygart and West Fork Rivers.

“It all started with me,” Zach’s maternal grandfather, Don Courtney, said with a joking grin and a laugh.

Pam, Don’s wife, pinched him playfully in the side.

“He knows not to mess around with me,” Pam quipped.

With white hair, an easy smile and unmistakable zipper scars from a double knee replacement, Don is the kind of granddad who punctuates sentences with “daggum” and insists you can’t leave his home without tasting one of his home-baked pies. But he’s also tough enough to have thrived for 40 years underground on the night shift as a foreman at the coal mines.

“Underground, it’s not a very forgiving atmosphere,” Don said. “I liked it because it’s like working outside, but you don’t get rained on.”

Don grew up in Fairmont when the area was West Virginia’s largest coal-producing region.

Coal is formed when plants are met with millions of years of heat and pressure. The process of producing a family of state-champion wrestlers isn’t too dissimilar.

Don set the standard in 1970 when he capped an undefeated senior season at Fairmont Senior by pinning his opponent in the championship bout. Ask to see that state championship trophy and, well, no one knows exactly where it ended up. It got broken at some point and was discarded in some closet.

“The trophy wasn’t important. The memories of it are,” Don said, revealing a bit of the family’s humble nature. “If you wrestle just for the trophy, you’re not going to enjoy it. And if you don’t enjoy it, you’re not gonna stay in it very long. You got to learn to like the hard work and the sweating and all of that.”

Don and Pam Courtney, Zach Frazier’s maternal grandparents. (Mike DeFabo / The Athletic)

He and Pam taught their four kids to love the process in the same way. There’s Heather, the oldest, followed by Chris, Ryan and Jeff. All three boys learned their first moves right here in the living room of their humble, ranch-style house. And all three went on to follow in their father’s footsteps. Chris captured one state championship. Ron won two, back-to-back. Jeff also won two and was named West Virginia’s outstanding wrestler, the top distinction for grapplers in the state.

But ask anyone and they’ll tell you the truth.

“I think if they’re gonna be honest with themselves, Heather’s the toughest of all them,” said Zach’s father, Raymond Frazier.

When Raymond accepted a football scholarship to Division II Fairmont State — mostly because it was the only place a film junkie could get a scholarship to keep playing the game he loved — he became teammates with Chris. He knew Heather, but they didn’t date until later when she watched his Miami Dolphins lose … and called to talk trash.

The joining of a football family and a generational wrestling juggernaut was sealed when Raymond asked Heather to marry him in front of Cinderella Castle in Disney World, with fireworks booming overhead.

But don’t let that proposal fool you.

“We didn’t deal in fairy tales at our house,” Heather said. “We only dealt with reality. I wasn’t the mom who told you it was going to be all right. I told you, ‘Oh, you don’t like it right now? Well, how are we going to get out of it?’ That’s the kind of house we have.”

To get to the Fairmont Senior Armory, where the matches are wrestled and many sons and grandsons of coal miners have been hardened, you have to take Mary Lou Retton Drive, named in honor of the famous resident who scored consecutive perfect 10s at the 1984 Olympics.

It was just off this street that a young perfectionist was raised, surrounded by a tight-knit family featuring more than 50 aunts, uncles and cousins within a small radius.

One afternoon, a young Zach Frazier returned home from his first day of kindergarten and told his mother about the President’s Award, a distinction given to any student who achieves a 4.0 grade point average.

“No, you don’t have to get that,” Heather remembers saying.

“I know I don’t have to, but I want to,” Zach replied. “Dad, there’s something wrong with Mom. I’m getting straight A’s.”

Around the same time, a teacher asked students to write down what they wanted to be when they grew up. Zach scribbled that he wanted to play in the NFL and taped the paper in his room.

He looked at it often as inspiration, but he almost never talked about his dream publicly. He just worked toward it.

Before one Christmas, he wrote out his list to Santa. The only thing on it was a jump rope.

Piece by piece, over years of Christmases and birthdays, Zach transformed the detached garage off the family home into a weightlifting haven. After the jump rope came a bench press. Then a squat rack. An Olympic lifting platform. A tread climber.

West Virginia offensive line coach Matt Moore joked that the rusty weights looked like they were from the 1950s (and some probably were), but they did the job.

“A lot of times, I would just hear the weights dropping on the floor at five o’clock in the morning before school,” Raymond said.

As his growing 6-foot-3 frame packed on muscle, Zach trained with the tenacity of a wrestler. He lost only two matches his entire career — both as a freshman — but even that is deceiving. One was because of an arm bar that the referee deemed illegal. The other, in the prestigious Winner’s Choice tournament, was a 1-0 decision in the semifinals.

As Zach developed, he breezed through the competition so swiftly that, eventually, coaches went searching for someone who could give him a test. Vincent Delligatti, who coached Zach in middle school and his final years in high school, would seek out former high school state champions who were then in their early 20s, like Bridgeport’s Garrett Stanley, to challenge the high school standout at practice.

“Zach would always handle them,” Delligatti said.

Now, his grandfather — who never cared much for trophies and who will sweep his front walk half a dozen times a day if he sees a single leaf — instilled in Zach that winning wasn’t enough. In one now-famous family story, Zach was wrestling in an all-day, duel tournament in Parkersburg. They scouted the competition and realized it wasn’t much competition at all.

“I told him he couldn’t just sit there and then go out there and pin somebody and say that was a great weekend,” Don Courtney said. “So I told him to jump rope the whole time.”

For about eight hours, Zach jumped rope, taking only brief breaks to pin his opponents.

“I said, ‘Don’t waste a day,’” Don remembers, a phrase that could easily be the family mantra.

Zach never did. One summer when his dad’s lawnmower broke and a friend loaned him a walk-behind, he ran with it through the two-acre lawn for extra cardio. Knowing his future was as a center, Zach designed his own elaborate contraption to practice snapping. Almost like a basketball rebounding machine, the ball would come back each time he placed it just right.

“He wanted to patent that,” Heather said.

At Gorilla Strength, the gym where Zach trained, Wes Brown disciplined kids who were struggling in school with a grueling workout he called the “Thunderdome.”

“He’d tell me, ‘They say these workouts are so terrible,’” Brown said. “‘Can I just do one?’ I was like, ‘You ain’t never been in trouble.’”

It was actually at the gym that Zach’s high school sweetheart and now wife Stephanie, a state-champion basketball player in her own right, took a page out of Heather’s playbook when she initiated their relationship by asking him to prom … in the middle of a workout.

“I had this really cheesy poster that said, ‘Can I pin you as my prom date?’” Stephanie said reluctantly. “They took a video of me asking him, and to this day, Zach and I can’t watch it because it’s cringey.”

When the Fairmont Senior football coaches talk about their anchor on the offensive line, they admit the stories sound almost like tall tales.

“He has Paul Bunyan-esque stories. He’s Bill Brasky,” Fairmont Senior head coach Nick Bartic said, referencing the famous “Saturday Night Live” skit.

Off the field, Zach is a soft-spoken, gentle giant. Stephanie likens him to a teddy bear. Zach’s brother, Brady, called him his “life coach and mentor” and beams when talking about his protective side. His grandfather likes to say you’d think Zach plays clarinet in the marching band instead of center. And his cousin, Addison Courtney, still remembers Zach climbing into the hospital bed alongside him when he endured numerous surgeries as a kid.

But on the field? Zach has a way of flipping a switch.

He honed that process during a unique pregame ritual. Each Friday night, he’d escape into a secluded equipment room, hop on an exercise bike and turn off the lights. In the darkness, alone with his thoughts, Zach’s aggression built until it was ready to bubble over.

“I always just picture our D-line coach cracking the door open, and he’s like shaking, trying to hand him a candy bar,” Bartic said. “He’d just grab it from out of the darkness, like a movie scene.”

Zach Frazier became an intimidating force on the field. When he pancaked a defender, that wasn’t the end. He’d bear crawl over his face (a move that was eventually banned in the state of West Virginia). Against rival Bridgeport, a perennial power that runs a variation of the wishbone, the Polar Bears lined Frazier up at nose tackle, and he almost singlehandedly wiped out half of their playbook.

Frazier never understood people who weren’t willing to work as hard and weren’t as committed to the team as he was. When he became a team captain, if he felt an underclassman wasn’t putting the team first, he’d tell him he had to “read the book.”

The book was a children’s book — introduced to the team by an assistant who worked at the local elementary school — with one line per page, called “Be a Good Teammate.” Selfish teammates had to stand up in front of the entire team on Thursday night dinner and read it aloud.

Zach Frazier, right, and running back Caleb Walker with the book “Be a Good Teammate” at Fairmont Senior High. (Courtesy of Lance Loya)

Frazier’s leadership and dominant play as a two-way lineman helped fuel a memorable run during his junior season. The Polar Bears tore through opponents with a perfect record to earn a trip to the Class 2A state championship game, played at Wheeling Island.

One problem: When they got to the stadium, there was no place for Frazier to do his pitch-black pregame routine. So the coaching staff took one of the shower stalls and, using old newspapers, blacked out the entire space.

As game time approached, without warning, Frazier burst through the papers full of fire.

“We had this other bad dude who was a defensive lineman,” Bartic said. “He almost fell down out of shock.”

Frazier was ready, physically and mentally.

“We’re in the state championship,” Fairmont Senior offensive line coach Troy Bigelow said. “He is our daggone right guard, and he’s checking the plays at the line for quarterbacks and running backs. And they’re right, and we’re running the ball down their throats.”

With the Polar Bears leading Bluefield, 23-13, Frazier put an exclamation point on the final play of the game by sacking the opposing quarterback.

As Zach developed into a Division I prospect with a 4.5 GPA, he and his father traveled to Stanford for a recruiting visit. Because Zach starred on both sides of the trenches, some coaches envisioned him plugging holes up front as a defensive tackle, while others projected him on offense.

While he watched defensive line drills, Zach heard music emanating from a nearby aquatics meet. He nudged his father.

“‘Do you hear that?’” Raymond remembers Zach asking. “Then, I listened. And it was ‘Country Roads’ playing off in the distance.”

Soon after, Zach became, in Neal Brown’s words, an “integral part” of the new coach’s first recruiting class at West Virginia. When he got to campus, Zach recognized that the step up in competition would force him to work harder than ever.

“His freshman year, he was like, ‘I have to be a starter. And this is what I’m going to do. So I’m not going to see you until I become a starter,’” Stephanie remembers. “And it wasn’t even like a day later that they told him he was going to start.”

Frazier started Week 1 at center in place of an upperclassman who was suspended for the opener for a disciplinary violation, then bumped over to guard for the rest of the season and quickly proved himself as a Freshman All-American. That desire to work never left him when he moved to center for the final three seasons.

Zach Frazier at guard during his freshman season. (Michael Wade / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

WVU head strength and conditioning coach Mike Joseph could set his watch to Frazier’s 6:05 arrival at the team facility each morning. The Mountaineer sports science staff tracks how much recovery work each athlete does to analyze how each player responds.

“His name came up as a glitch because of how much more recovery he did than everybody else on the team,” Joseph said.

While teammates went out to celebrate wins, Frazier poured over film. (His wife said she’s sat next to him so many times that she can draw up a play.) He gets that from his dad, who scouted Frazier’s upcoming college opponents and has already begun digging into Cleveland Browns tape. Brown got used to walking past the offensive line room to find Frazier leading his own meetings, where he’d watch practices and break down film for his peers. He credits Frazier for transforming the culture at WVU.

During meetings, Moore — the offensive line coach — would see Frazier’s notebook had more notes than anyone else. Each Friday night in the team hotel, Frazier recopied each note.

“I’ve just always said he’s either gonna be really good in the military or a really good NFL player,” Moore said. “That’s just his mentality.”

A three-time team captain and two-time winner of the Iron Mountaineer Award as the hardest-working player at his position, Frazier watched that preparation come to life on the playing field.

West Virginia led all Power 5 teams in rushing last season (228.9 yards per game) and allowed the second-fewest sacks (10), with Frazier making all pass protection calls and identifying fronts in the run game. Pro Football Focus measures how many times an offense faces an unblocked defender at the point of attack, which is basically a way of saying the offensive line made a mistake. The Mountaineers were consistently at the top of college football in that advanced metric, as well.

“We’ve gone from an offensive line that struggled to one of the better offensive line units in the entire country,” Brown said. “And that’s because of him, his leadership and his established work ethic that he brought to that room.”

So it was no surprise when Frazier bear-crawled off the field with a broken leg on his final college play to save the team a 10-second runoff, as the Mountaineers rallied for a last-second win over Baylor.

As draft day approached, Zach Frazier, an avid woodworker who says he’ll build anything his wife wants that he doesn’t want to buy, brought out the power drill.

Even with Zach’s first NFL paycheck on the horizon, his uncle Chris put him to work. In his uncle’s basement — which looks like some corner of a Hall of Fame, with signed jerseys lining every inch of wall space — Zach installed some extra TVs for the viewing party.

During the pre-draft hype, as Zach recovered from the broken leg that ended his college career, teammates and friends would often tell him where they saw him going in mock drafts.

“He would kind of shut them down,” Stephanie remembers. “He would say rounds don’t matter.”

When Zach won awards in high school and college, his parents would hide in their room to silently celebrate, knowing Zach was almost embarrassed by the spotlight. Surrounded by his eight cousins and a horde of family members, Zach watched calmly on Day 2, knowing that the fateful phone call was just another step toward his ultimate goal.

“He didn’t like a lot of attention at all, and even let out to that he didn’t want a bunch of people cheering or congratulating him,” said his granddad, Don Courtney, who of course made cheesecakes and pies for the event.

The Steelers’ interest in Zach was one of the worst-kept secrets during the process, given their glaring hole on the roster and a prized product right in their backyard. They did their homework and heard many of the same stories you just read. General manager Omar Khan stood pat in the second round and landed the team’s target with pick No. 51.

In his uncle’s basement, Zach saw his phone light up.

“When I came up here in the pre-draft process, coach (Mike) Tomlin was joking around, ‘Don’t answer the phone unless it’s 412 (area code),’” Zach said. “So, once I saw it, I knew right away.”

Zach tried to answer. But because of a connection issue, the Steelers couldn’t hear their newest player react. He raced up the stairs trying to find better reception. His dad, mom and brother took off right behind him … like they’ve always been.

“It was surreal to see him be drafted,” Heather said. “You wait for it for all these years. The day comes and you’re like, how is it possible that all your dreams come true in one phone call?”

“When people would say (he could go to the Steelers), it was almost too good to be true,” Stephanie said. “And now it’s true.”

While the draft day mishap makes for a good story, and the phone call will be yet another piece of family folklore, it was his grandfather who summed up the family’s feelings best, in the way that only an old coal miner can.

“He knew he was good enough to go to the NFL. And that’s all that draft is good for,” Don said. “All it’s good for is to get you a chance and opportunity. Then once it’s over, it’s over. Really, it doesn’t mean a thing.

“Once they line up and go out there with Pittsburgh to practice, they don’t say, ‘Well, you can’t hit him. He’s the second-round draft pick. You can’t touch him.’ No, they say, ‘You want a job? Get the job. Take the job.’”

(Top photos: David Buono, Fred Jansky / Icon Sportswire by Getty Images)