No Small Feat: Banks clears all hurdles en route to MOP
“I’m over it but I’ll never forget it. It took me all the way up to the next year playing football and I probably won’t really be satisfied until I win a Grey Cup now, and I’ll forget it then.”
– CFL Most Outstanding Player Brandon Banks on 2014’s Grey Cup loss
rowing up near Raleigh, North Carolina, Brandon ‘Speedy’ Banks and winning went hand-in-hand.
He was undersized, but it didn’t matter.
He won a championship in basketball. He was a nationally-ranked sprinter in high school.
“I accidentally won a state championship in baseball just by being on the team,” Banks says, laughing.
But when it comes to the sport that he loves the most, the game that he’s dedicated his life to, Banks went into the 2019 CFL season empty-handed.
“I’ve never been a champion in football,” he says. “I’ve been playing since I was four-years old.”
He doesn’t have that championship yet — he and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats will get their shot on Sunday against Winnipeg in the 107th Grey Cup presented by Shaw — but on Thursday night, Banks put his name in the league’s history books when he was named the league’s Most Outstanding Player.
Voted to the top of the CFL mountain by the Football Reporters of Canada and CFL coaches, Banks is just the 10th receiver to ever win the MOP award and the first to do it since Chad Owens won the award with the Toronto Argonauts in 2012.
Moments after he stepped off of the Ticats’ charter flight to Calgary this week, Banks was asked if the MOP award mattered to him.
“A little bit, but it’s more about the Grey Cup. I think it would matter after I win the Grey Cup,” he says.
“I’m not going to discredit the award at all, it’s definitely an honour and I definitely always want to be called the best. I’m a competitive freak. But I think Grey Cup means a lot more to me, my team and my organization.”
* * *
It was five years ago in Vancouver that Banks felt what it might be like to win a Grey Cup.
Late in the game, the Tiger-Cats had almost dug their way out of a 17-0 hole in the first half. Then-starting QB Zach Collaros aired a 45-yard pass out to Banks for a touchdown to get Hamilton on the board.
Trailing 20-16 in the final minute of the game, Calgary punted. Banks did what he’s come to be known for in his seven-year CFL career and took the punt 90 yards for what he thought was a Grey Cup-winning touchdown run.
The flag on the field was a good 80 yards behind him by the time he realized what had happened. Illegal block, called on Hamilton No. 44, Taylor Reed.
In that moment, Banks was crushed. He fell to his knees on the sidelines as the offence set itself up for a hail Mary that went high and bounced off the turf, hands on either side of the ball unable to find it. Game over, Grey Cup to Calgary. Banks sobbed on the bench, then stormed out of the Ticats’ locker room.
On Thursday morning, he filled in the blanks of that night. He went straight from BC Place to his hotel room and shut the door. His phone buzzed and lit up all night but he didn’t answer it. He couldn’t. At some point in the night, then-Ticats coach Kent Austin knocked on Banks’ door. Banks remembers turning the cover on the peephole and seeing the fish-eyed view of his coach’s face.
“I just told him I couldn’t,” Banks says. “I was too mad.”
Time really is the miraculous healer of all wounds. What was a no-go topic of conversation, an instant trigger to pain and the kind of thing that turns you into a navel-gazing philosopher (Can you mourn something you never had?) eventually gives way to other stages. Five years later, five years older and wiser, Banks talks about the play with ease.
“I do (still think about it), I’m not going to lie. I’ll be honest, I try to forget it but I haven’t,” he says.
“I’m over it but I’ll never forget it. It’s one of the defining moments of my career. It made me a stronger person. And I’m trying to get revenge on that moment.”
You don’t so much get over some heartbreaks as much as you learn to live with them. They become a part of you.
“I probably won’t really be satisfied until I win a Grey Cup,” Banks admits.
“I’ll forget it then.”
* * *
The plan, Banks says, was never to chase the individual award. It was to be the best that he could be, to come back for another season and do whatever his team needed him to do to get back to this stage, to get another shot at the Grey Cup.
That manifested itself in Banks’ finest season. The 31-year-old posted a career-best 1,550 yards and 13 touchdowns. He returned two missed field goals for touchdowns early in the season, bringing his career total to a CFL record five.
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“I was more focussed on the details, the little things,” Banks says of his approach to this season.
“Staying healthy and helping the other guys, the details on little things, and doing the right things so we have the right outcome. That’s pretty much it. Other than that, I was just being Brandon.”
Just being Brandon, it turns out, means being the most impactful player on the field week after week. Whenever there were big plays to be made, whenever a game has been at stake this season, it’s more often than not been Banks that has pulled in the pass that’s made the difference for his team.
After nabbing the game-winning touchdown at home against Calgary on July 13, giving the Ticats their first win against the Stamps in 11 years, Banks’ coach gave him the ultimate praise.
Through two decades in the CFL as a player and a coach, Orlondo Streinauer has seen elite talent, like Doug Flutie, Anthony Calvillo, Ricky Ray, Damon Allen and Danny McMannus. He’s seen Milt Stegall and Geroy Simon, on and on.
“I don’t want to discount anybody that I never played with or people that came before,” Steinauer said that night. “I can just speak of the time I’ve been in the league and the time I’ve coached.”
When asked where Speedy fit in that list, Steinauer didn’t hesitate.
He’s unique, the coach said, and he proves it time and time again.
“He deserves to be talked about as one of the best.”
Two weeks after Steinauer praised Banks, Dane Evans, became integral to the MOP’s season.
Evans stepped in at quarterback when Jeremiah Masoli suffered his season-ending ACL injury. The consensus after Masoli was ruled out for the season was that the Ticats’ Grey Cup hopes were sliced and diced under the surgeon’s knife that worked on Masoli’s knee.
Of course, it didn’t play out that way. The two found almost instant chemistry and the team went to the next level in its season. Evans has gone 11-2 and Banks’ production soared along with that.
“It was a lot easier than people initially thought it was going to be,” Banks says.
“I give a lot of credit to the front office. A great backup quarterback that was here, always ready to go at any moment when his number was called. Then obviously, Dane being a great player and staying on top of his game and coming in and not missing a beat.”
Evans stood at his stall in the Ticats’ locker room in October when he spoke about Banks and there was still a sense of amazement from the 26-year-old over him. He’s been around Speedy for two years now and is still surprised by him. He’s almost unsure of where to start when he’s asked about him.
“I mean, look at him,” he says, gesturing across the room to Banks’ stall.
Standing there at five-foot-seven and 150 pounds — Ticats’ special teams coordinator Jeff Reinebold swears he’s seen Banks weigh in in the high 140s — it’s easy to forget sometimes just how small Banks is, in this world of gigantic, powerful humans.
“He’s a littler guy but the dude gets open,” Evans says. “And he has a catch radius like no other.
“We could put him in the backfield and let him play running back and nobody could tackle him. It’s really fun to get to play with him because he’s just a special, special talent. I don’t know if I’ve ever really played with anyone like him, honestly.”
* * *
It was a few hours after the Ticats had punched their ticket to the 107th Grey Cup presented by Shaw and Banks saw something he didn’t like.
Someone had mentioned him in a tweet, trash talking him for his reaction to the flagged punt return in the 2014 Grey Cup.
Banks didn’t hesitate to set the guy straight. It’s not a regular occurrence but if you follow Banks on Twitter you’ve seen it from time to time this year. It doesn’t matter who it is. If Speedy feels slighted by something or someone, he’ll let you know.
“I got little man syndrome, I wear a lot of sh– on my sleeve,” he says.
“I’m going to keep it straight, I don’t lie about nothing. I keep it straight and tell you how it is, how I feel.
“To be honest, when I comment back I’m not looking for an argument. I’m just looking to conversate about things, I’m not trying to go back and forth. I feel like some people shouldn’t feel the way they feel about me,” he laughs, “but it’s all good. I like the interaction with the fans. I’m not trying to cause commotion.”
There are tons of stories out there about athletes and their competitive drive. Michael Jordan was famous for digging to find something to get angry about. A quote in a story about him, trash talk from an opponent, even a heckler in the crowd. You get that feeling from watching Banks, that having someone tell him he can’t do something is all he needs to show you that he can.
“Everybody knows who I am, I’m a competitive freak,” he says.
“Anytime I do something good after someone’s heckled me, I’m going to rub it in their face.”
For the longest time, the thing that people told Banks he couldn’t do was play receiver at the pro level.
He was revered as a returner after playing at Kansas State, then spent time on the Washington Redskins roster from 2010 through 2012.
It was in Washington that he had the biggest douse of gasoline added to his fire. He said that a coach on the staff — he didn’t want to name anyone — told him that he wouldn’t play receiver at the pro level.
“He pretty much told me I needed to be a returner, because wide receiver wasn’t going to be it for me,” Banks says.
“At that level, I was so tuned in, I was in the NFL, I took it as him trying to help me so I took it as that’s what I needed to focus on. Now I look back at it, I should have never listened to him. I should have played wide receiver.”
Banks was a special teams star in the CFL, but it’s the addition of receiver to his resume that’s put him into the elite level of this league. That green light came from June Jones when he assumed head coaching duties for Kent Austin after the Ticats fell to 0-8 in the 2017 season.
Under a reinvigorated run-n-shoot offence, Hamilton had a late-season gasp for a playoff push but fell short. The positive out of that year was that the offence was set for an explosive season, with Banks as it benefactor.
Reinebold recalls working under Jones at the University of Hawaii in 2006 and both coaches had an eye on Banks while he was playing at a junior college. He chose Kansas over Hawaii, but when the two coaches reunited in Hamilton, Reinebold knew that there were big things in store for what to that point had almost exclusively been his special teams star.
Banks said on Wednesday that Jones had texted him this week, offering his congratulations on his season.
* * *
Thursday was undoubtedly nice for Banks, but his focus is clearly on finishing the job on Sunday.
He’s a part of the league’s history as an individual, but he wants his name etched on the Grey Cup along with his teammates and coaches. He’s been a Tiger-Cat for the entirety of his CFL career and never ventured into free agency. Hamilton is a lot different than North Carolina, but Banks sees similarities between the two. At this point, Steeltown is a second home to him.
“It’d mean the world to me,” he says of a potential Grey Cup win.
“I’ve never been a champion in the sport that I truly love. If I won, I’d probably be crying like a little punk.
“It’s also bigger than me. It’s been 20 years since (the Ticats) won. We’ve been so close, had so many ups and downs and big injuries. We were 0-8 (in 2017). I think (the people of Hamilton) deserve it more than I deserve it.”