TAMPA, Fla. — Johnthan Banks is thankful today. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie cornerback is about to leave the practice field, everything he has lived since the draft proof that he has made it.
These are the slow days of training camp, a time of instruction and attrition. But for Banks, the Bucs’ second-round pick from Mississippi State, living these sessions is more than a sign of how far he has come.
They are a reminder of the woman who lifted him along the way.
“Growing up seeing my grandmother struggle the way we did, we didn’t have much,” he says of his paternal grandmother, Maggie Banks. “It just motivated me to go out here, work hard and get to where I am now. We did some things to change some things.”
Banks’ voice picks up when he speaks about Maggie, his legal guardian. Men throughout the NFL play for a variety of reasons, some public, others private. Inspiration comes in many forms: family, security, a search for stability, a quest for fame.
Maggie kept her grandson grounded, mature. Raised without a mother and father for most of his childhood, Banks credits her as one of his greatest influences.
As Banks speaks, now as a family man, Maggie’s influence has remained strong as he moves through life. He is a husband to his high school sweetheart, Mallory, and he has a son of his own, 2-year-old Keidan. Long after he was young boy trying to find his way, Maggie’s example lives with him.
“It was hard, but she was always positive,” Banks says. “She always did what she could for me.”
The voice on the other end of the telephone is soothing and wise. Maggie giggles when asked if a tight family bond makes her proud. She saw her grandson rise from a three-sport star at East Webster High School in Maben, Miss., to someone who signed a four-year contract in May as Tampa Bay’s top draft pick this spring.
She inspired his dream, keeping him focused on the reward ahead. In time, the path led past his small northeast Mississippi hometown, onto the fields of the SEC and now within the halls of One Buc Place.
A piece of his success belongs to her.
“I was very proud for him to get out of high school and go out to college and get out of college and become the young man he is,” says Maggie, 72. “I had to teach him in my older days that I wasn’t able to finish high school. I did everything I could for him.”
That mother-like presence filled a void for Banks. His mother was in and out of his life, and his father died in a car accident when he was 8 years old. The death of Banks’ father shook him: He struggled in school, and life was difficult.
With help from her now-late husband, John, who died when Banks was in high school, Maggie sacrificed for her grandson. She did maid work for area households. She also was employed in a factory as a sewing machine operator, each hour spent with a greater good in mind.
Maggie’s labor was a sign of her love. She dropped out of high school to work for her father, but she wanted a better life for Banks. Banks describes growing up with Maggie this way: His family could be down to its last cent, but his grandmother stretched it to a $100 bill.
Always caring, forever resourceful.
“We always followed him wherever he went to make sure he had someone to back him up, to stay with him,” said Charlotte Townsend, Banks’ paternal aunt. “We always followed him wherever he went and encouraged him to keep on doing what is right.”
Maggie has always considered Banks a mild-mannered young man. The trait is clear when hearing the 6-foot-2, 185-pound player speak about his family. He has uncommon awareness for a 23-year-old, one of Maggie’s gifts to him.
Banks’ maturity has been a common subject with Bucs coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik since he was taken No. 43 overall in April. He was a captain at Mississippi State who started 45 of 51 games from 2009 to 2012. He won the Jim Thorpe Award last year, given to the nation’s best defensive back, and he had 221 tackles with 16 interceptions during his college career.
His discipline, however, begins with Maggie’s influence.
“I always taught him the best that was accurate, the best to my knowledge,” Maggie says. “His grandfather was always big in church, and we raised him in church and kept him in church and tried to do the best we could.”
The importance of family to Banks was obvious to Dan Mullen, Banks’ coach at Mississippi State. As a senior in high school, Banks earned 1,740 yards of total offense as a quarterback, and he collected seven interceptions in the secondary. Still, the Bulldogs were Banks’ only scholarship offer.
Shortly after he was hired, Mullen met Maggie when pitching Banks on the new staff’s vision. Mullen saw a young player who was eager, humble and aware. The sale was simple, Banks’ convictions strong.
“When you point him in the right direction, and he understands what the right thing to do is, he has the mental toughness to follow it through,” Mullen said. “That’s something you saw from recruiting all the way through his career.
“He’s going to have a little chip on his shoulder to make sure he’s successful, which certainly helps with the level of competition he’s going to be facing playing at the highest level of football in the world. … His priorities are taking care of his family, his wife and his son and making sure he provides for them and setting a great example for the extended family.”
Banks considers this destination a collective journey. He knows none of it would be possible without early help from Maggie: the patience, the love, the care.
That is why his family continues to inspire him. He is aware of how Maggie sacrificed to make his dream possible, a road that has led from a humble start to Raymond James Stadium. He knows there is more distance to travel.
“My family is very important to me,” he says. “My son, my wife, my grandma, my whole family. They always push me. They want the best for me. Just seeing my family struggle so much and be so helping for me, they comfort me. They feel like they’ve made it too, and I want them to feel that way, because I think we all made it.”
That perspective is part of why Banks seems different. After he was drafted, Dominik shared his excitement for what Banks could bring off the field as well as on it: A grounded, mature mind that is a product of his past.
The pattern was simple: Maggie instructed, and Banks followed the advice. Over time, the young grandson became a man.
“I’m glad to hear that he’s still thinking of how I raised him and what I did for him,” Maggie says. “I did the best I could for him. Sometimes, it would be a struggle. But I kept him up enough to get him through school. … When he became where he his now, that made me feel (good).”
Adds Townsend: “He has a lot of people looking up to him now. He has a lot of little cousins coming along — they tell him they’re going (to the NFL) too. Now they see that they can do it.”
That is the way with family love. It carries from one generation to the next, the bonds growing stronger if preserved. Maggie’s love was passed to Banks, and now he looks at his son with an eager eye. The cycle continues.
“I don’t want do see him needing anything, being dirty, wearing dirty clothes,” Banks says of his son. “I just want to be a positive role model to him and have one day where he can look and say, ‘My daddy did this, my daddy did that.’ It just motivates me and pushes me every day.”
His drive lives on … all because of a strong woman who started him on his way.