MINNEAPOLIS – A short, stocky running back trudges off the practice field, sweaty and tired after a preseason workout in the heat of the day. He’s solitary, one man walking alone after hours of being just one part of a scrum, a play, a formation.
During practices, Cole Banham blends in. He’s little more than an unremarkable blob of maroon and gold silhouetted against green, a part of something much bigger. But afterward, when he’s no longer just No. 31 and should become Cole again, it’s still impossible.
Banham is a walk-on, a backup who will likely see limited action this season for the Gophers. He’s one of the masses of players who might never be recognized without his uniform, who should be granted a dose of anonymity off of the field. Yet unlike the dozens of players who share his role, Cole Banham will never truly be just Cole Banham. Not at the University of Minnesota, not when his sister, Rachel Banham, is the star of the women’s basketball team, the best women’s basketball player to come out of Minnesota since Lindsay Whalen.
It would be easy to assume that Cole Banham lives in his sister’s shadow, that he’s been saddled with this burden of being the less-talented sibling. It’s so simple to imagine that he’s secretly bitter, that he wants to be the star, that he would love to escape and play at a school where he could be just another football player and nothing more.
But that’s too easy. Cole Banham chose this, all of this. He chose to fight for his time on the field. He chose to transfer to the school where his sister was about to make her highly anticipated basketball debut. He chose to be Cole Banham, Rachel Banham’s brother. He gave up any possibility of being just Cole Banham the football player.
And he loves it. He loves every bit of it.
Cole Banham graduated from Lakeville North High School in 2010. A standout football player and runner, he decided to play for Minnesota State-Mankato, but an ACL injury kept him out his freshman season. After that, Banham was able to transfer to the University of Minnesota, the school he’d always wanted to attend, and walk on to the football team.
“I just wanted to be here,” Banham said. “I always wanted to be here, to come here and play. It’s my favorite school. It wasn’t necessarily that my sister came here, just coincidence.”
For both the Banham children, the University of Minnesota has always been the desired target. Neither wanted to go to school far from home, and both enjoy being close to their family and watching each other’s games. The decision that was for Rachel in many ways a sacrifice – she could have played for a much bigger-name program – was a stretch for Cole, but it’s hard for him to see a downside to his situation.
For years, the Banham children have been competing, mainly in basketball. Cole is 16 months older, and though university lists both at 5-9, he admits that his younger sister is in fact taller. To look at them, it’s a stretch to see that they’re related; Cole’s compact body is a striking contrast to his sister’s lankier form. But even if he might be predisposed more for his role as a running back than for basketball, Cole can’t help but point out that at one time he was outplaying the Gophers guard.
“She probably wouldn’t admit it – I don’t know if I could beat her anymore – but I gave her a run for her money back in the day,” Cole said. “I don’t know about it now. We haven’t played in a while.”
Cole is happy to admit that Rachel has become the family’s star, and he has no complaints about the additional attention she’s brought. As two talented athletes coming out of Lakeville North and looking to play in college, the siblings were already in the prep sports spotlight. Once Cole left for Mankato and Rachel became the Gophers women’s team’s biggest recruiting get in years, the attention intensified, and with Rachel remaining in Minneapolis for school, it’s remained. That might make Cole seem like the afterthought, but that’s not how he sees it.
He enjoys being Rachel Banham’s brother. He doesn’t mind that the spotlight comes not when he’s on the football field, but when he and his family gather at Williams Arena for Rachel’s games. He’s proud of her.
“I’m not like a jealous brother or anything,” Cole said. “I’m one of her number one fans. I love everything she does… I love going to her games and watching her play. I’m her number one fan. I’ll be there every time with my family.”
Last season, the attention surrounding Rachel reached its highest level yet as she led the Gophers’ women’s team to an improved 19-17 record and showed the same promise in college as she had as one of the nation’s top recruits. All the while, Cole sat out a season after transferring and played on the Gophers’ scout team, completely under the radar. Now, as basketball season still looms in the distance, Cole is finally taking the field as an eligible member of the Gophers football team, and though he’s no prized recruit, he will get every opportunity to prove that he deserves playing time.
Cole joined the Gophers team at the perfect time, concurrently with a new staff that’s not shy about giving walk-ons a shot. He had a year to acclimate himself to the school and the program, and he’s already shown improvement since spring practices. Running backs coach Brian Anderson, who was part of Jerry Kill’s staff at Northern Illinois, said that seven of the staff’s nine all-conference players at Northern Illinois were former walk-ons, and he believes players like Cole will earn the same chance in their system in Minnesota.
“It’s the ones who survive, the ones who can fight through the grind, the ones who can be playmakers, the ones who can be counted on every single day,” Anderson said. “That’s what we’re looking for.”
Cole seems poised to fit that role. He’s been competing for years, not just with other football players but with a sister who’s grown into a more gifted athlete than he. He gave up playing time at a smaller program to play for his dream school, to play in his sister’s shadow, and in doing that, he’s made a statement.
Like his sister, Cole Banham is committed to the University of Minnesota. To the siblings, it’s as if other opportunities – more playing time, a chance for a national championship, a higher profile program – don’t exist. They’re here by choice, and that’s the best thing a coach can ask for.
“Especially with an in-state kid, if they’ve got a lot of passion and it’s not about money and they want to play for the Gophers, I think that’s important,” Anderson said. “That tells us right there that football and playing for the U is important and it means a lot to them and their families.”
This season, Cole will likely get his first shot to take the field in a game at TCF Bank Stadium. He won’t be starting. He won’t be leading the team in rushing. He might not even get many minutes. He’ll still be Rachel Banham’s brother.
But he’ll get a chance to play for the team he’s always wanted to play for, to cheer for the sister he’s supported all his life, to attend the school he’s always hoped to attend. And really, why shouldn’t that be good enough?