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Black Quarterbacks

Tony Banks had all the potential in the world

Despite earning a Super Bowl ring, the quarterback never lived up to expectations

The story of Tony Banks is one of expectations not meeting reality. It’s a story of endless potential never quite evolving into tangible results.

Over the span of six seasons, three teams named Banks their starter for a total of 78 games, based on the promise of a smart, big-arm quarterback who was mobile enough to create plays out of thin air.

He showed spurts of the skill: a 400-yard game here, a five-touchdown performance there. But they were few and far between.

Banks didn’t play organized football until his junior year at Hoover High School in San Diego, California, after his friends encouraged him to try out. The eventual 6-foot-4, 220-pounder preferred basketball and baseball (he was drafted in the 10th round of the 1991 MLB draft by the Minnesota Twins) over the rough-and-tumble world of the gridiron.

“I wasn’t a big fan of being hit on,” he said over the phone from Coppell, Texas, a Dallas-area suburb.

Once he got into football, Banks immediately gravitated toward quarterback, a position he always admired because of watching college stars Major Harris (West Virginia) and Tony Rice (Notre Dame) and the Washington Redskins’ Doug Williams, who, in 1988, when Banks was 14, became the first black quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl.

Family and friends, though, told Banks that an African-American playing quarterback “wasn’t really doable” and he likely wouldn’t be given the chance to succeed at the position.

“The stigma back then was that black quarterbacks aren’t smart enough,” he said. “That’s constantly what I heard.”

After two seasons at San Diego Mesa Community College, Banks transferred to Michigan State, where he started for then-head coach Nick Saban, playing in 20 games in 1994 and 1995. He was the first quarterback selected in the 1996 NFL draft (42nd overall) by the St. Louis Rams.

For a Cali kid who spent two years at a campus located an hour and a half from the birthplace of Motown, what was it like being plopped down in St. Louis, the home of the “Delmar Divide”?

“Well, St. Louis might not have been the ideal city for a black quarterback back then,” Banks said. “I had never really seen a city like that at the time, a city so separated.”

In response to the rampant segregation in St. Louis, and growing up in California alongside the rise of West Coast hip-hop, Banks initially played the part of the “thug” quarterback: He had the tattoos, the gold chains, the bandana under his helmet and the Rottweiler puppy he infamously named Felony.

Regardless, the fans, coaches and media believed in him.

Banks had a rocky rookie season, completing just 52 percent of his passes for 2,544 yards, 15 touchdowns and 15 interceptions during a 6-10 campaign. But he showed promise, evidenced by leading the league in yards per completion (13.3). That offseason, the Rams passed on drafting Heisman Trophy finalist Jake Plummer, going all-in with Banks.

“He has the arm. He has the torso. He has the legs. He has the earring. He has the charisma. He has the look. He has the profile,” a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article read at the time.

On top of that, he was very cocky, nearly to his detriment.

Banks quickly developed a last-one-in-first-one-out mentality, believing he could get by solely on talent. There was no extra time put in on the practice field or in the classroom, and his attitude rubbed his teammates and coaches the wrong way.

After a loss to the Dolphins in Miami in 1998, Banks skipped the team flight back to St. Louis and didn’t show up to the team’s facilities the following day, “which is not what a starting quarterback should be doing,” he now says with a hearty laugh.

It didn’t help that Banks also thought he knew more than the team’s coaches and coordinators did.

“I think I had the best arm, by far, during my era of playing,” he said. “I feel that deep down in my soul that’s the reason that I was given so many opportunities, because I had that wild factor with my arm. I just don’t know if I had the wild factor with my preparation.”

He was supposed to build off that 1996 season and improve in his second and third years, but the progression never happened. His 42 interceptions from 1996-98 were the fifth most in the league, and the 132 times he was sacked in that same time span are the sixth-most sacks in a player’s first three seasons in league history.

Then there were the fumbles. Banks was stripped of the ball 21 times in 14 games his rookie year, the most ever for any player until 2001.

“Some of those fumbles were because I either saw things too early or were confused at the line of scrimmage,” he said. “So those fumbles weren’t from running or being careless with the football. Most of those were on snaps.”

The 1997 Rams team was dubbed the best collection of under-25 talent in the league. Along with their budding quarterback, St. Louis also boasted running back Lawrence Phillips, the sixth overall pick from the 1996 draft, receivers Isaac Bruce and Eddie Kennison, and rookie offensive lineman Orlando Pace.

But things fell apart.

Bruce couldn’t stay healthy, Kennison regressed from his breakout rookie campaign, and Pace wasn’t quite yet the future Hall of Famer he morphed into over the next 12 seasons. Phillips was released 12 weeks into the season because of insubordination and alleged substance abuse. The former Nebraska running back was out of the league by 1999, sent to prison in 2008, murdered his cellmate in 2015 and hanged himself in his cell in 2016.

“[Head coach] Dick Vermeil tried,” Banks said of his former teammate. “I don’t think Lawrence got enough of a chance. He was on the verge of turning his life around. He was just an amazing football player.”

Banks was traded to the Baltimore Ravens after the 1998 season, and the very next year, little-known backup quarterback Kurt Warner led the Rams to a Super Bowl victory.

In Baltimore, Banks went 11-7 through his first 18 games, including starting the 2000 season with a 5-1 record. But after back-to-back losses, and leading an offense that hadn’t scored a touchdown in four consecutive games, the Ravens benched Banks for Trent Dilfer. Banks says the team, which went 7-1 the rest of the regular season en route to a Super Bowl title, changed the offense to accommodate Dilfer, an average-at-best quarterback. He may have a point:

In the first eight games of the season, Banks attempted 33 passes per game while bulldozer rookie running back Jamal Lewis averaged just 13 carries. The last eight games? Dilfer attempted just 26 passes a game to Lewis’ 25 rushes.

After the Ravens’ 34-7 victory over the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV, Banks didn’t take the ring out of its case for five years. “If I wear it, I get the question: ‘Oh, what position did you play? Oh, you know Trent Dilfer?’ ” he said. “I don’t like going through that.”

Speaking of Dilfer, if you think, at age 44, Banks has let go of what happened with the Ravens, you would be mistaken. In fact, he has many opinions on the quarterbacks he spent time with over his career:

Baltimore Ravens’ Trent Dilfer:

“I never thought Trent Dilfer, specifically, could do anything close to what I could do. It was definitely nothing against Trent, but [the Ravens] changed that offense dramatically after they put him in there.”

St. Louis Rams’ Trent Green and Kurt Warner:

“Kurt Warner was my backup’s backup. I would have never told anybody Kurt was going to be any good. I didn’t see it.”

“I felt like if they would’ve let me compete with Kurt and Trent, I would’ve won that job. I don’t think physically neither one of those guys could do what I could do. At least at the time.”

Dallas Cowboys’ Quincy Carter, who beat out Banks during 2001 training camp:

“He was terrible. He was awful.”

If he could go back 21 years, Banks said he would do things differently. First, the bandana would be scrapped, and Felony’s name would have been kept confidential. He would’ve taken his job more seriously and leaned harder on veteran players, specifically other black quarterbacks, in the league for guidance.

“At first I thought I knew everything. I thought I was the good guy; I am not a criminal, fairly articulate. I thought that’s all you needed to be and then be able to sling the rock around,” he said. “But it’s a lot more that goes into that position. I think more guys have been beaten up by the intangibles.”

It took him many years to realize that the quarterback position, especially for African-Americans, comes with both higher expectations and levels of maturity. “You can’t act like a receiver. I don’t care how good of a linebacker you might be, you can’t act like those guys. You can’t do those things. You’re basically tied in with the owners and head coach at the hip. So you really have to toe the company line, so to speak.”

While Banks was fortunate enough to play 10 seasons, starting 78 games, he recognizes the short leash that black quarterbacks are given to start in the NFL compared with their white counterparts. For every Tyrod Taylor, Josh Freeman, Byron Leftwich or Terrelle Pryor Sr., having virtually one shot to be The Guy, there’s a Josh McCown, Brock Osweiler or Ryan Fitzpatrick being given multiple opportunities across half the league.

Banks even theorizes it’s just as difficult for African-Americans to be backups. Most black quarterbacks in the 1990s, he says, were, unlike Taylor (6-1, 215 pounds), physically superior to the white quarterbacks of the time.

“Most of the black quarterbacks throughout the time that I’ve been following quarterbacks were so much better physically, like so far superior physically, than the other quarterbacks on the roster who weren’t black that it has made it, I think, sometimes harder for black quarterbacks to be backups.”

When Banks backed up David Carr in Houston from 2003-05, he said he was told by coaches to ease up in practices so as to not outshine the much younger Carr, a No. 1 overall draft pick.

These days, Banks spends his time molding the future of the NFL. His 11-year-old son Anthony, aka “Deuce,” has aspirations of following in his father’s footsteps as an NFL quarterback. Dad preaches preparation, maturity and commitment over natural talent to his son, a lesson Deuce can learn from his old man’s past mistakes.

“He doesn’t have to be watching film right now, but he has to be different. If you want to play that position, you’ve got to be different,” he said. “You can’t get in fights on the field, you can’t go yelling at your coaches. It’s just different.”

Thinking back on being told around the same age that blacks can’t play quarterback, Banks hasn’t yet discussed the racial politics of the quarterback position — those conversations will be had in the future — but he has made his son aware that there are different expectations for him, whether on a football field or off, just because of the way he looks. It’s a conversation Banks wishes he could’ve had not only growing up in California but also throughout his time in the NFL.

“He knows it’s different being a black man in America.”

Liner Notes

The Undefeated will profile 30 black quarterbacks leading up to the 2018 Super Bowl, which marks 30 years since Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to win the big game.

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"