By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
UPDATE: MSU cornerback Johnthan Banks is a second-team AP All-American.
You know what they say about hindsight, and in the case of Johnthan Banks, we should’ve seen his greatness coming, right?
Mitchell McCurry saw it. He was, and remains, Banks’ best friend. The two grew up together in tiny Maben and were practically brothers.
Both lost a parent – McCurry his mom, Banks his dad – to car accidents at a young age. They lived about a block apart and played together from childhood up through high school, where both starred in multiple sports at East Webster.
“I always knew he had the potential,” McCurry said Monday. “We had a lot of good people around us that gave us a lot of influence, and that gave us hope, and we felt like we could do it. He pursued it more than I did, actually. He actually made it.”
McCurry, who was a year ahead of Banks in school, played two years of football at East Mississippi Community College. He’s now pursuing an education degree at Ole Miss.
Banks, of course, is wrapping up a stellar career at Mississippi State and will soon be in the NFL.
McCurry has some regrets about his own athletic career, but he believes the success of Banks will inspire other East Webster athletes to keep achieving past high school.
“They were always told, you’re from this school, you’ll never make it, you’ll probably play junior college ball the rest of your career,” McCurry said. “He basically went beyond and gave everybody hope that they could make it now. It’s kind of a belief factor.”
At MSU, Banks has earned All-American and All-SEC honors as a cornerback. His 16 career interceptions are tied for the school record.
And last week, he took home the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s top defensive back.
McCurry, who still talks with Banks on a daily basis, said none of that has changed his friend.
“We always said we’ll look after each other if one of us made it. He’s still showing me the same love, never changed. Still the same Johnthan I knew ever since he was little.
“He’s not the big and famous John, he’s just Johnthan Banks to me.”
Still, McCurry had a surreal moment when he watched Banks win the Thorpe Award. “It’s kind of unbelievable,” he said.
After MSU plays Northwestern in the Gator Bowl on Jan. 1, Banks will focus on the next level. He could very well be a first-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. But even if he never played another down, he’s already the pride of Maben and East Webster.
Bill Brand, a native of Webster County and the principal at East Webster, said Banks is the best athlete to ever come out of the school.
“More importantly, he’s a good kid, a good person, and he hasn’t forgotten about where he comes from,” Brand said.
In 2006, during his sophomore season at East Webster, Banks was a quarter- back preparing to lead his team into the Class 1A state championship game.
By this point in his young career, he’d already played linebacker in junior high and receiver as a freshman, earning all-division honors at the latter position.
He also played defensive back and returned kicks for the Wolverines.
His coach at the time, Jimmy Carden, praised Banks’ instincts. He noted that when playing linebacker in junior high, Banks would call out the offense’s plays before the snap.
East Webster lost that state title game and hasn’t been back to Jackson since. But Banks went on to have a decorated three-sport career in Maben, winning state titles in both basketball and baseball.
“Johnthan had a certain determination about him the entire time,” Brand said. “You see a lot of great athletes, but you could tell he had a little something extra.”
Despite his exploits, Banks had just one college scholarship offer: MSU. It’s the only place he wanted to go, so that worked out.
The main reason Banks didn’t get many looks was because Maben is hard to find on a map, plus it can be tough to judge small-school talent when you’re recruiting it to an SEC school.
Perhaps Banks could have practiced more self-promotion, but that’s not in his nature. Heck, he never even bothered to correct the misspelling of his first name until the state basketball tournament his junior year. All the media had been spelling it “Jonathan,” until a reporter finally asked him to spell it following a semifinal win over Myrtle.
Banks embodies the humble small-town ethos, but he’s also one of the most focused people you’ll ever meet.
You might’ve read about Banks’ plans to become a state trooper once his football career ends. McCurry said he first heard Banks talk about that aspiration in elementary school.
“He always wanted to be a state trooper,” McCurry said with a laugh.
Talk about long-range focus. That focus was evident in 2006.
Just before that championship game that year, Carden said of Banks, “He sort of sees the end, in that he wants to play football or basketball or baseball once he’s out of high school.”
With his 6-foot-2 frame, Banks could’ve been a receiver for MSU. Coaches initially put him at safety before finally settling on cornerback. He’s also been a regular on punt returns the last couple of years.
Banks made a splash as a freshman, when he intercepted Florida’s Tim Tebow and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown. He had another pick-six later that game.
He’s felt comfortable on the big stage ever since, but he’s most comfortable at home, where his girlfriend and their son live. Banks can often be spotted at East Webster sporting events, and on Saturday he rode one of his beloved horses in the Mathiston Christmas parade.
He reads to kids at the local elementary school. When a tornado ravaged the community and his alma mater in 2011, Banks spent a few days helping clean up.
Was he out there directing people, taking a lead role? No, Brand said, Banks was just doing what he’s always done on the football field.
“He was just pitching in and doing anything he saw that needed to be done.”
Brad Locke (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Mississippi State for the Daily Journal and blogs daily at DJournal.com.