STARKVILLE – As the football floated down toward Johnthan Banks’ waiting arms, he was back home for a moment. Just walking down McBride Street in tiny Maben, tossing a ball up toward the blue sky and catching it, over and over, oblivious to passing cars or anything else.
His grandmother’s admonition to pay attention to the road went unheeded. Good thing, too, judging by what occurred Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium.
That floating football, which left the hand of the mighty Tim Tebow and was deflected by Mississippi State cornerback Corey Broomfield, fell into Banks’ hands in his own end zone. A few seconds later, he was in the other end zone celebrating a 100-yard interception return for touchdown, the first of two pick-sixes for Banks in the Bulldogs’ 29-19 loss to No. 1 Florida.
The play happened in front of a national ESPN audience in front of a sellout crowd, and SportsCenter had it as its No. 2 play from Saturday. On Monday, Banks was named the SEC Freshman of the Week. The East Webster product received more than two dozen Facebook friend requests since Saturday night.
“I guess I made a lot of new friends today,” he said Monday. “But ain’t nothing changed. I’m the same person I was last Friday.”
He has allowed himself one little indulgence: He said he’s watched the replay of his big return “50 times.”
It’s an awful lot of attention for a scrawny small-town kid, but it’s home that keeps him grounded.
“I think I’m old enough and mature enough to know my role on the team,” he said. “I’m no Anthony Dixon or nobody like that.”
Well, not yet.
MSU was the only place Banks wanted to play. And even though he was a three-sport standout at East Webster High School – he led the baseball team to two Class 1A state championships and the basketball team to one – football was his sport of choice for the next level.
Four days after then-coach Sylvester Croom offered Banks a scholarship, he committed. He never wavered when Croom resigned and Dan Mullen was hired.
MSU is close to home, and home is dear to Banks. He was raised by his grandparents, John and Maggie Banks. John died a few years ago.
“Mrs. Maggie, she’s raised a lot of kids over there,” said Jimmy Carden, the football coach at East Webster and longtime Mathiston mayor. “She’s done a really good job. They’re all pretty well grounded, and they’re humble.”
Carden watched Banks grow up in sports, from T-ball to flag football to junior high and, of course, on through high school.
Carden recalled when Banks was a seventh-grade linebacker, “and you could hear him quite often call the play before they ran the play. It was just a knack he had.”
Banks is 6-foot-2 and weighs only 170 pounds. Mullen liked him early on as an athlete, but his lightweight build was a concern. It isn’t much of one now.
Banks has four interceptions on the season – tied for the SEC lead – having made two against Middle Tennessee State on Oct. 17. He’s made three starts in place of the injured Zach Smith, and he’s exceeded Mullen’s expectations.
“I’m really pleased with how he’s performed on an every-down basis for him,” Mullen said. “If you watch him on the tackles he makes, his physical nature of how he’s playing the position for a young guy that hasn’t gotten really physically mature yet for us.
“He’s picked it up and is making bigger plays than we even thought he would.”
Receiver O’Neal Wilder saw Banks’ potential early on, too.
“I told some of my friends, ‘Johnthan Banks, he’s going to be a good athlete here. He’s probably going to be an All-American if he keeps it up,’ ” Wilder said.
Banks can’t really explain how he has such a nose for the ball. He was a quarterback and defensive back, among other things, for East Webster. He was also an outfielder and a high-flying forward.
The ball has always been his friend.
“Some folks are blessed with things you can’t coach,” Carden said, “and that’s one of the things he’s blessed with.”
So how is Banks handling this sudden rush of attention and praise? Mullen said he monitors such situations, to make sure a player doesn’t get distracted by all the hubbub.
“I haven’t seen any change in his personality, except a guy that comes out with a little bit more confidence every day at practice,” Mullen said.
In practice on Sunday, there was a tipped pass, and who should catch it but Banks.
“I guess I’m just in the right spot at the right time,” he said.
Yes, he is. The spot is here, and the time is now.
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal