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Redskins' Brandon Banks, reunited with childhood friend John Wall and providing big returns

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 11, 2010; 11:58 PM

On the morning of May 17, Brandon Banks awoke uncertain of his future, and not just in football. A motherless son raised solely by his father, he was the father of his own little girl, not yet 4 months old. A kid unused to trouble, he had spent the previous five months staving it off, because police in Manhattan, Kan., had accused him of abusing the mother of his daughter.

And then that morning, the Washington Redskins offered him a job, or at least a tryout for one: Wide receiver, kick returner, catalyst. Because 5-foot-7, 145-pound, undrafted wide receivers aren't expected to make as much as a slight impact, even the most ardent Redskins fans shrugged at the ramifications. But Banks, 22, understood them all too well.

"I could be sitting at home pushing carts or something," Banks said.

The following night, in a television studio in Secaucus, N.J., an NBA executive pulled from an envelope a card bearing the logo of the Philadelphia 76ers. Even casual basketball fans understood what this meant: The 76ers had just been awarded the second pick in the upcoming draft, and the Washington Wizards - the only team in the annual draft lottery whose name had not yet been called - were awarded the right to select John Wall.

Instantly, Banks, long-shot receiver, sent Wall, sure-thing point guard, a text message: We're both going to be in Washington.

"Amazing," Banks said. "One of my best days."

"Having a friend that you grew up with that reached his dream the same year you did? In the same city?" Wall said. "It was great for both of us."

When Wall plays for the Wizards - something he has done sporadically during his rookie season because of nagging injuries - he is what he was expected to be: The team's most dynamic force, an up-and-coming star around which a franchise could be rebuilt. When Banks plays for the Redskins - something he has done in every game since he was signed from the practice squad in October - he is what only he and a scant few others expected him to be: the team's most dynamic force, a game-changing kick and punt returner so quick he rarely takes a direct hit, but so small his little sister turns away from the television when he drops back to receive a kick.

"He's so little," Gabby Mayo said. "I'm scared someone's going to hurt him."

Banks and Wall, 20, grew up in similar circles and similar circumstances. When Banks starred in football at Garner High, just outside Raleigh, N.C., Wall would go to the games just to watch him. When Wall left Garner and ended up at Word of God Christian Academy in Raleigh, Banks kept tabs on him from afar. Wall's freshman season at Kentucky coincided with Banks's senior season at Kansas State.

"High school, middle school, whatever - he was always one of the best players, no matter his size," Wall said. "Just so fast."

They are linked, too, in one other way. Wall grew up without his father, who spent much of Wall's youth in prison before died. Banks grew up without his mother, who, records show, has a history of criminal charges - a litany of misdemeanor drug cases, suspended sentences, the odd night in jail, probation - that date back nearly 20 years.

"I think it left a void in his heart," said Daryle McNair, Banks's father. "It left a void in him you can't fill. I had to sit there and watch him with that pain, and nobody can understand that but me. When his mom called, I'd see him light up. And then she wouldn't call for days and months. It was painful to watch him endure that."

Sheronda Banks gave birth to Brandon when she was 20, and Brandon remembers, from a very young age, watching her battle addiction, occasionally doing drugs in front of him. Because of his mother's problems, he had to stay with his great aunt, until the day his father decided he had to seek sole custody. That was the day Brandon Banks essentially broke away from his mother for good. Occasionally, he would hear where she was. Once in a while, they had some interaction. But in the biography he submitted to the Redskins' for use in the team's published materials - media guides and game programs - he listed his parents as "Daryle and Monique McNair," a nod to his father's wife of the past eight years, a shunning of his mother and what she did.

"I didn't know if it was good or bad for you, what she was doing," Banks said. "Now, I can't do nothing about the past. It hurts me, but it doesn't, because I'm so used to it. It's what I know. It's what I seen, and what's been done. But I don't wish nobody to be in that position."

A fast impression

The position in which Banks found himself almost exactly a year ago, last Dec. 13, was unfamiliar and unsettling, enough to ruin a career. He had an argument with his girlfriend, who was more than seven months pregnant, at his apartment in Manhattan, home to Kansas State. Neighbors called the police. Banks was arrested.

"I was very, very disappointed, because I never, ever had any trouble out of Brandon," McNair said. "I was shocked to hear some of the things he was doing."

Growing up in the southeast section of Raleigh, Banks and Mayo, his half-sister, now an Olympic hopeful who has set sprint records at Texas A&M, used sports to stay focused. From a young age, Banks was on travel teams for track, football, basketball. As a Pop Warner player at halftime of a Carolina Panthers game, he stiff-armed a defender and - as the portion of the crowd that wasn't buying hot dogs and beers rose and cheered - sprinted 60 or 70 yards for a touchdown, an exciting enough play that the Panthers mascot jumped on him in the end zone. He was, too, a point guard in basketball, not that he had a future in that sport.

"He was out of control," Wall said. "But he was fast, so he would just break the press by himself. Athletic. He couldn't really dunk because of his height, but he could jump. Good defensive person - but he was way, way better at football."

So that became his focus at Garner High. With the two oldest of his three children beginning to excel at sports, McNair was moved to the second shift at the post office, leaving him unable to attend games and practices. So he quit.

"I was nervous and scared, and wondering: Was that the right thing to do?" McNair said. "My friends said, 'Man, are you crazy?' But I was like, 'I don't have too much of a choice.' I need to be with my kids."

He eventually started a business driving disabled children to and from school. He wanted to be there for Banks and Mayo, so he was. In Banks's case, he had to be.

"School wasn't my biggest thing," Banks said. "I could care less about school."

His father implored him to change. "It's student-athlete for a reason," McNair said. "You know they go hand-in-hand."

But after graduating in June 2006, Banks was directionless. He ran AAU track that summer, but as fall approached, he had no plan.

"I was chillin', about to find a job," Banks said. "It could've gone any way. I wouldn't be nothing."

Encouraged by one of his AAU track coaches, he pursued an opportunity at Bakersfield College, a junior college in California where a few other North Carolina athletes had landed. From there, he took off. Tutors helped him lock down on schoolwork, and he excelled as an all-purpose football player, becoming a JUCO all-American. The Division I offers started rolling in. And on a snowy weekend late in 2007, he visited Kansas State, where he was hosted by the Wildcats' quarterback, Josh Freeman. Freeman was entering his senior year, and he had watched Banks on film. Immediately, he became convinced Banks's height - or lack of it - would be a non-issue.

"He had such great ball skills, and he just moves so well, I think he makes up for any deficiency he has in the height department," said Freeman, who will play against Banks on Sunday as the quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "I remember him making a number of just extraordinary plays. He's just a rare talent."

So Banks became a standout for the Wildcats, the Big 12 special teams player of the year as a senior, when he returned four kickoffs for touchdowns, as well as a second-team all-conference receiver.

Then came the arrest. Banks called the entire episode "a misunderstanding," but he admits to arguing with his girlfriend. He eventually pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor domestic battery charge, and charges for disorderly conduct and possession of a controlled substance - which Banks said was codeine prescribed to his roommate - were dismissed.

The impact on Banks was enormous. He is convinced the incident kept teams from drafting him, even in the sixth or seventh round. His thoughts turned to quitting football.

"I about gave up," he said. "I almost shut it down."

All the right moves

Two weeks ago, Banks took a punt from the Minnesota Vikings deep in his own territory and cut to his left. He found an opening, and slithered through. It was his eighth NFL game, and by that point, Redskins coaches - who cut him after training camp, then signed him to the practice squad, then brought him to the regular roster in Week 4 - knew what they had.

"When guys start looking around and trying to avoid those contacts, it's tough to play well," Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. "But he doesn't think about it at all, and that's why he's done such a good job on his returns: He's not worried about getting hit."

When Banks caught the punt, the Redskins trailed 17-13. He had already handed Washington a field goal by returning one kickoff 65 yards, and he was developing his personal highlight package. He had a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Detroit, a game in which he set a franchise record with 271 return yards - a number that would have been higher had a 95-yard kickoff not been called back because of a penalty.

"It seems like every time he runs one back," Wall said, "they call it back for a penalty."

So here he was against the Vikings, planting his left foot and cutting upfield. When he arrived in the end zone - oblivious to the flag that lay on the field some 80 yards behind him - he celebrated in what has become his customary fashion, flexing his bicep, then turning his fist in and out, the exact same dance Wall branded during his days at Kentucky. Wall watched on television. Same old Brandon.

"I never was surprised," Wall said. "He always had the separation speed to get away from people, and he caught the ball. I never was surprised. It runs in his family. And he always had the heart."

Said McNair, Banks's father: "That's what people can't see."

They also can't see what Banks has been through to get here, growing up without his mom. Now, he serves as a father to 10-month-old Jade, who has spent much of the season with Banks and her mother in Virginia. More than his arrest, more than his flirtation with leaving football and getting regular job, he said Jade has changed his life.

"Before I had her, I was kind of out running the streets, living the partying life," Banks said. "But when I had my daughter, it kind of settled me down and I realized I got some work to do. I need to raise her right so she don't go through the things I went through when I grew up."

That world, in a few quick months, seems far off. On Friday night, Banks went to the Wizards game, sat in the second row. He and Wall occasionally retire to Wall's downtown apartment after games.

"Every chance I get," Banks said. "Gotta see my boy."

Banks's boy was the one who was supposed to be here all along. Banks himself? He was small. He was shaken. He could have quit.

"I think about it every day," Banks said. "I always sit down and think: What if I chose just to get up and get a job? What if I thought about never playing football again?"

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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