From tin cans and asphalt to shining trophies, Banks moves now to Hall of Fame

MORGAN'S PAPA BEAR

December 08, 1992|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Staff Writer

The room is filled with time capsules. There are wooden plaques and shiny trophies, a painted football and chrome clocks. Dozens and dozens of mementos hang from what is wall-to-wall-to-wall history. And more is packed away in the basement.

Earl Banks slumps into a chair in the den of his home in northwest Baltimore and shakes his head.

"Since the Hall of Fame announcement, I've gotten four clocks," he says ruefully. "Don't need any more clocks."

The clocks, perhaps, are a reminder that time never lingers in the past, no matter how grand. The memorabilia that fill Banks' den represent a lifetime of contributions to football in general and Morgan State University in particular.

Collectively, it is a road map of Banks' grand tour through football. From the projects in Chicago to semi-retirement in Baltimore. From University of Iowa All-American to Morgan State living legend. Through Princess Anne and Maryland State, where Banks began his coaching career, planned to spend six months and stayed nine years. Through the Orange Blossom Classic and the Tangerine Bowl, where he recorded two of his biggest victories.

That road, once unpaved, now takes Banks to the bright lights of New York. Forty-six years ago, he visited the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel as a wide-eyed Iowa freshman. Tonight, two decades after he completed a highly successful run as Morgan State football coach, Banks, 68, returns for his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.

"Nineteen forty-six was the highlight of my career, at the time," he said of his All-American trip to the Waldorf. "This is the twilight of it."

, A way out of the projects If this is Banks' last hurrah, his first came as a youngster growing on the South Side of Chicago. He grew up on welfare, without a father, fighting for his place in a society that, at best, was reluctant to accept him. He had two brothers and a sister and a mother who instilled in him the desire to better himself. Right from the start, it was not easy.

Banks' son, the Rev. Raymond Banks of Baltimore, remembers stories of how Earl had to run the gauntlet just to get to school. "His brothers would try to block him from going," Raymond said.

There was more than family in-fighting on the streets of Chicago in the early 1940s, though. There were the gangs. Everyone, Banks said, belonged to a gang. He belonged to one known as the Raiders.

"The school was on 39th Street," he said. "I lived on 31st. I had to pass 35th. That was gang territory. Sometimes, I would run all the way from school to our building.

"You had to be in a gang to survive. We would run around stealing things. In those days, we didn't have drugs. We didn't attack people, either, we just did mischievous things."

Then there was the poverty. Odessa Banks, Earl's mother, received aid to dependent children. "Charity, we called it," Earl said.

Charity came in the form of food stamps. Banks remembers getting a blue stamp worth 25 cents for his lunch. He remembers the humiliation of picking up supplies with a little wagon. He remembers having to clean the neighborhood streets of litter because that's what children on welfare did. He remembers playing touch football with a tin can, and being told he should go out for football. It became his way out.

A coach and a role model At Wendell Phillips High, an all-black school in Chicago, where and Claude "Buddy" Young, who would became the Colts' All-Pro back, became inseparable friends, Banks played under Leonard Sachs. That association changed Banks' life.

"I wanted to be like him," Banks said. "He was tough, but fair, and good to us. Once, I got sick and he came in my building. For a white man to come in the building where I lived took a lot of nerve. My ambition was to go back and do his work."

An All-Illinois guard at Phillips, Banks wound up at the University of Iowa. That's where he was befriended by a drugstore owner named Jack Luvin. The only black on the team, Banks was on the verge of leaving Iowa until Luvin talked him out of it.

"He said: 'They've been playing football at Iowa for 100 years. They're not going to stop because you go home. All they'll say is you couldn't take it. They have what you want -- go take it,' " Banks said.

Banks achieved All-America honors at Iowa as a short (5 feet 7), squatty (220 pounds) guard. He was good enough to join the New York Yankees in the All-America Football Conference, given a shot on the word of his pal, Buddy Young, a budding star in the pros. But a knee injury cut short Banks' pro career and sent him into coaching at Maryland State (now UMES), where he was a line coach under Skip McCain. That's where he met Essie, his wife of 37 years.

Banks intended to stay at Maryland State only a short time; he ended up coaching there nine years before moving to Morgan.

"Earl was a city boy," said Essie. "That was like camping out for him. But he fell in love with Princess Anne. He cried when he left. He really did not want to leave."

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