Oct. 4, 2012
By: Craig Chval, Sr.
Hayward, Calif., is more than 3,000 miles from the University of Miami campus in Coral Cables, Fla. But that distance didn't prevent young Braxston Banks from keeping a sharp eye on the Miami Hurricanes football program. When it came time to select his jersey number as a high school football star, Banks chose number 30, in honor of Miami running back Alonzo Highsmith.
Meanwhile, Hurricanes' head coach Jimmy Johnson had his eye on Banks. Johnson was building a dynasty in Coral Cables and he figured the hard-charging running back from California would be a perfect fit.
But Banks' mother had other ideas. When Johnson called with his recruiting pitch, she wouldn't put Johnson through to her son. What's more, she didn't even tell Braxston until after he had signed a letter of intent to play at Notre Dame.
Notre Dame fans, of course, would insist that mother knew best.
"She's an unbelievable lady," Banks says. "And I hate to give her credit on this, but yes, she did know best."
One thing is beyond question - Banks was destined to play on the largest stage in college football regardless of whether he wound up suiting up for the Irish or the Hurricanes.
Johnson built on the success of Howard Schnellenberger, who lifted Miami out of decades of mediocrity and led the Hurricanes to the 1983 national championship. Under Johnson, Miami won the national title in 1987 and was riding a 36-game regular-season winning streak when the top-ranked Hurricanes arrived in South Bend on Oct. 15, 1988.
Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz, on the other hand, wasn't building, he was re-building. Holtz had already been hired away from the University of Minnesota to replace Gerry Faust when Johnson and the Hurricanes scored early, often and late in Faust's final game as Irish head coach, thrashing Notre Dame 58-7.
Holtz's first shot at the Hurricanes came in 1987, his second season at Notre Dame. The upstart Irish opened the season 8-1 before losing a cliffhanger on the road at Penn State. Their regular-season finale matched them against unbeaten Miami.
Despite a valiant effort, the young Irish just didn't have the horsepower to keep up with the eventual national champions, losing 24-0 and prolonging Notre Dame's frustration.
"I remember swinging out to catch a little swing pass," recalls Banks of the evening of futility, "and the ball just hit my hands and fell to the ground.
"That just kind of summed up our day."
But 1988 was a new day.
"There was going to be no repeating of that," he says.
"It was time, and we were ready."
And what a battle it was.
"It was one of the fastest games I've had the pleasure of playing in, in terms of tempo and speed," relates Banks. "It was the first time that I've run into a team that was just like us."
Well, not exactly just like Notre Dame. Banks observes that the two teams were evenly matched athletically, but that they went about their business in very different ways.
"Their offense was more wide open, where we were more ball control," he explains.
"We never thought we couldn't beat them," Banks insists. "There was never a thought that we couldn't beat anybody."
The Irish knocked off the Hurricanes, 31-30, in a game for the ages en route to the 1988 national championship. Notre Dame proceeded to win its first 11 games in 1989 to bring a 23-game winning streak and number-one ranking into the Orange Bowl. But Miami prevailed that night, 27-10, going on to win its second national championship in three years, with Notre Dame finishing second.
"We lost some, we won some, but every time we all played hard," Banks says.
Banks actually missed the entire 1989 season with a knee injury and then lost his NCAA eligibility when he tested the NFL draft waters. When a lawsuit against the NCAA failed to restore his eligibility, Banks knew it was time to move on to the next phase of his life.
"The whole reason I went to Notre Dame was preparation for after football," he says. "I knew that the degree would be recognizable anywhere in the world, and it has paid off big time."
Banks first went to work for the National Football League Players Association, where he was mentored by long-time NFLPA executive director and Hall of Fame member Gene Upshaw. Banks spent seven years with the NFLPA, progressing from an intern to a regional director, helping hundreds of NFL players navigate the waters as players experienced true free agency for the first time.
Then, it was back to California, where Banks has spent the last 10 years helping school districts save money and become environmentally-responsible citizens by learning to plan for the useful life and beyond of their physical assets, through The Banks Group and BanksCisneros (Banks-Cisneros.com).
As Banks puts it, he helps school districts "turn trash into cash," by introducing new approaches to purchasing material, ensuring that when the shelf life ends, the materials can be put to use elsewhere, enhancing both the environment and his clients' bottom line.
In explaining his pioneering role, Banks reflects on a lesson he first learned from Holtz and put to use working for Upshaw.
"Everything you do is preparing you for what you're doing today," he says. "Lou was putting me up against the best and that has conditioned me.
"I hated to be the fullback, I wanted to be the tailback," Banks confesses. "Now later in life, I know why I was the fullback. It's the most awesome position - you run, you block, you catch the ball, you can even pass the ball. You get the opportunity to do everything. You get to shine sometimes and you aren't seen most of the time - just like in life.
"Lou prepared me for that and my Notre Dame experience prepared me for that."
Along with putting those lessons to work in the business world, Banks is imparting them to his children - daughters Khabyl (12) and Khorin (11) and son Storm (11). All three are budding athletes, and Banks is projecting Storm to play on the other side of the football.
"He's not like his dad, he's going to be a big boy," Banks chuckles. "We're going to see how that turns out - he's pretty aggressive."
Perhaps mindful of how hard he was pushed by Holtz, Banks leads his children through 5 a.m. workouts on the track during the summer months.
"They hate that 5 a.m. wake-up call," he says. "They never think I'm going to do it, but it's my way of getting them back."
Chances are good that someday, just like their daddy, they'll come to appreciate having a parent who knows best.