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Before CFL fans knew him solely as Speedy, Brandon Banks remembers arriving in Hamilton, his long drive from North Carolina complete.
It was late in the summer of 2013. Banks’ stay in the NFL with Washington had come to a disappointing end. He stepped out of his car and looked around at his new football home. It was raining, he said, “so hard. And it was SO cold.”
The Tiger-Cats were in the midst of a major transition. Ivor Wynne Stadium and all of the grit/charm/grime/history it housed had been torn down and Tim Hortons Field was in the process of being built. The team’s offices were at 1 Jarvis Street in downtown Hamilton. In the basement of the office were the team’s facilities: training room, locker room, meeting room, weight room. They were all in that one space. The team was playing its home games at the University of Guelph. They rode buses back and forth from practice. Coaches drove their own cars.
For someone whose last football experiences took place at FedEx Field in front of about 82,000 fans it was a change, to put it lightly.
“I’m going to be honest. My first hour here, I was second-guessing it because I didn’t want to be at Jarvis St. We didn’t have no real facility and then I went to Guelph and seeing how far it was from (the facilities) and it was raining,” Banks said on Tuesday morning, trailing off.
“I didn’t like it.”
Six years later, Banks can tell the story and laugh. He stood in the Ticats’ expansive locker room at Tim Hortons Field, 15 games into what has been his best crack yet at an MOP campaign. Teammates walked past him, on their way to physio and massages in an adjacent room, or the weight room in the opposite direction. They yelled out his name and laughed while he spoke. There’s an energy in the room, fueled largely by those men winning 12 of their 15 games this year and securing the top seed in the East Division. Sure, there are three games left in the regular-season, but the Ticats are already a win away from a trip to the Grey Cup.
As Banks looked at that office on Jarvis St. that first day, he had no idea about the history of the team, how hard he’d fall for the city and how its fans would reciprocate.
“To come from seeing that day to what we’re seeing now every day is a complete 180,” he said.
“We went from a good team to a professional organization. They treat us well.”
Banks and the Ticats have bigger goals than just regular-season accomplishments, but this week they have the chance to give something to their fans. The Ottawa REDBLACKS come to town on Saturday and the Ticats are primed to make history.
A win against 3-12 Ottawa would give the Ticats their first ever 13-win regular season.
“Whenever you do something that’s never been done before, that’s legendary,” Ticats linebacker Simoni Lawrence said.
“Everybody’s going to do great stuff, make great plays but when you do something that nobody’s ever done, that’s when you’re a legend. That’s all we’re trying to aspire to be, is the best ever.”
There have already been history making moments along the way in this spectacular Ticats’ season. Banks set a CFL record early this year with his fifth-career missed field goal return touchdown (two of them have come in 2019). Lawrence set a single-game record for tackles on Sept. 30, when he had 17 in a win against Winnipeg.
These things are nice souvenirs along the way, but the Ticats know that if the trip doesn’t end with them ending the city’s 20-year Grey Cup drought, none of it has the same meaning.
“I think the ultimate goal is for the confetti to fall,” Ticats head coach Orlondo Steinauer said.
“We could be 18-0 and you still have to win the Eastern Division championship. There’s no pass into the Grey Cup. That’s kind of how we view it.
“All you can do is get to the East Final game, that’s that’s what your reward is. You want to be playing your best football at the end of the year.
“We always ask our staff, ‘What do we want it to look like in November? What has to happen and what can’t happen?’ We’re in the process of that.”
The Ticats haven’t lost sight of the bigger goal, but win No. 13 is still meaningful.
“Being here and seeing it built from the ground up, from Jarvis St. to the stadium being built, I think we need to reward the fans and organization by winning 13 games,” Banks said.
“That’s something that we’ve never done in history. Plus, we want to keep winning and it’s for the home streak (the Ticats are undefeated at home this year). It means a lot to get 13 wins.”