STARKVILLE, Miss. – After just about every home game, he goes home to his horses. His teammates go back to the dorms, or the parties, or out on the town, but Johnthan Banks gets in his car and drives straight into the dark Mississippi night, two dozen miles to the only home he's ever known. He is bruised from the game – a little bit physically and a little bit spiritually – but it's nothing church and the horses can't help mend. He knows they are waiting.
They have been waiting all his life, long before the Jets and Giants scouts sat next to each other in the Mississippi State press box to watch him play. They were waiting before he was an almost-millionaire, before he was one of the best football players in the nation, before he shepherded his Bulldogs teammates to a 6-0 record and the precipice of a national title conversation.
They were there when the electricity went out, when the water went out. They were there on the days without his dad, without his mom. They've been there as long as he can remember, and he hopes they'll be there when football is done. He knows that day is coming at some point because Johnthan Banks has lost almost everything on his way to finding an almost unworldly strength in himself.
Practice winds down as dusk creeps over the Mississippi countryside and the Bulldogs gather around head coach Dan Mullen for some fire and brimstone.
"This is a big game!" he barks. "This is a big [expletive] game!"
It is a big game. It's Tennessee at home, and Mississippi State is unbeaten. This is the best they've been in many years, and there's a sense of better things coming.
Mullen yells about "bending that skinny Tennessee quarterback backwards" and the players seem to like that talk. But then Mullen finishes, and another man stands up. It's a player from a tiny town called Maben. It's Banks. The players gather even closer to hear him.
"We're the underdog," Banks says. "They've beaten who? Georgia State? Akron? And we're the [expletive] underdog."
He looks around in amazement. A teammate says one more win will get the team into a bowl game.
"[Expletive] a bowl game!" Banks snaps. "We're gonna win the national championship."
He's not joking. Mississippi State, which has won exactly one SEC title in its history (1941), will have to go into Tuscaloosa next week and beat almighty Alabama to have any shot at a national championship. Fans around here will be happy with the program's 17th bowl appearance in the last 100 years. But if you spend a few minutes with Banks, and if you hear his story, it's hard not to believe in his dreams right along with him.
He rifles through the names of his horses as if they are his best friends: Dakota, Sugar, Big Red, Little Tan. He's been riding since he was 5.
"It gives me alone time," Banks says, "to think things through. If I could ride every day, I would."
He's broken horses and been nearly broken by them. Once, a horse went a little crazy and took him headlong into a patch of trees. Johnthan cut himself on a chain link fence and needed stitches. He was in seventh grade. Asked if he'll put his son, KJ, on a horse one day, Johnthan laughs. He's already been on a horse with his dad. KJ is 1.
It's been a long journey for the Wisconsin Badgers (5-2) and Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-2) and their traveling trophy. When the two teams collide on Saturday in Madison, Wis., the victor will celebrate by "chopping down" a goalpost with Paul Bunyan's Axe.
The Badgers and Gophers will face each other for the 122nd time in a rivalry that dates back to 1890– the most-played rivalry game in FBS history. Minnesota holds a 59-54-8 all-time advantage in series, but the Badgers have kept Paul Bunyan's Axe in Madison for 15 of the past 17 years, including the last eight.
The Axe isn't the original trophy in this series, though. From 1930 to around 1943, the two rivals played for the Slab of Bacon, which was actually a piece of black walnut wood decorated with an "M" or a "W," depending on which direction the trophy was held. The score of each game was engraved on the back.
The Slab of Bacon, however, mysteriously vanished in the mid-1940s and was replaced with Paul Bunyan's Axe in 1948 by the National W Club at Wisconsin. Scores from each game were etched into the handle, and the winner of the rivalry game kept the trophy at its campus.
By 2000, however, Paul Bunyan's Axe was showing its age and the handle was running out of room for scores, so the National W Clubcreated a new Axe with a six-foot-long handle. The original Axe wasdonated to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003.
As for the Slab of Bacon, it was finally located in a Camp Randall Stadium storage room in 1994, roughly 50 years after it was last seen. Even more mysteriously, the scores of the games through 1970 had been recorded on the back, despite its "disappearance." It remains at the University of Wisconsin campus.
– Eric Ivie
See John Elway talk about his Journey to Comfort
To Banks, riding is part of growing up. It's even part of being good at football.
"You have to be tough to fool with a horse," he says. "It makes me a lot more physical. A horse has a mind of its own. You gotta be alert. If you don't have a fast reaction time, you'll fall off."
He means this specifically – understanding a horse's movements and being able to reign it in is a unique but effective training method for being a defensive back. Gotta be quick, smart, strong. But Banks also means what he says in an emotional way.
He learned about life from learning about horses. He learned how to observe, gauge emotions and not be afraid. He learned this from being around his horses in part because he has spent so relatively little time around his parents. Because, when asked to name the members of his family, he does not list them as quickly. He doesn't even know how to spell his mother's name.
"My mom didn't give me up," Banks says, "but she knew it was best for me to live with my grandparents."
His father's family took him in, and Banks says he hasn't seen his mother in many years. "I never had the feeling," he says, "that I could go to my momma for support."
He's upset about this, especially now, as he says she has tried to become part of his life again recently. Asked how he would feel if he looked up into the stands and saw his mother at one of his games, he says, "I wouldn't know how to feel. It would be the worst game of my life."
He was raised mostly by his father's parents, with his dad living nearby. "My grandma was the best thing that ever happened to me," he says. But things weren't easy. Sometimes there wasn't electricity. Sometimes there wasn't running water.
"If you were my friend," Banks says, "you never knew something was wrong."
His dad, John, was always working, always up before 5 a.m. and home after 9 p.m. He was a logger, one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, and every scar and drop of sweat went into helping his little boy.
Johnthan was on the school bus one morning when the driver, who was also a police officer, heard a report over his walkie talkie: There had been a huge accident on nearby Route 82. Johnthan's schoolmates all murmured their worry that they knew someone in one of those cars. Maben, the town where he lived, had only 850 people. But Johnthan didn't worry. He just hoped everyone was OK.
Then he was dropped off at his house and there were cars everywhere, people everywhere. "They told me my daddy was killed in a car wreck," Johnthan says. "Where do I go from there?"
He was 12.
"Not a day goes by," Banks says, "when I don't think about his smile."
Four years later, his grandfather passed away too. So Banks says he had to learn a lot on his own. He doesn't say it with any bravado or self-pity. He says it in a monotone, as if he's describing how he learned the two-deep.
He started playing flag football around the time his dad passed, and a lot of his lessons came from friends and adults nearby. He says he learned how to ride a bike when he sat on the seat and one of his cousins shoved him in the back. His eyes light up when he says he recently learned how to barbeque.
"I learned how to play sports on my own," he says. "Just about everything I had to do on my own."
So Banks wasn't highly recruited. He only followed one team, and only wanted to play for one team: Mississippi State. He appeared one day on campus, driven over by an older friend who wanted to meet the coaches, and Banks got a rare stroke of luck: He met Melvin Smith, the longtime secondary coach who also happened to mentor one of the best players in the history of the school, Fred Smoot.
Banks got his only scholarship offer from Mississippi State. He was tall and skinny and not necessarily a cornerback. He wanted to play quarterback. He looked like a receiver. Smith put him at safety. Then, in one of his very first practices, Banks leapt up and palmed an incoming pass with one outstretched hand. Smith felt he had to alert the offensive side about a possible playmaker. Yet as time went on, it was clear Banks was not only a natural at cornerback but also the best cornerback on the team. As a freshman.
"He was quiet," says Smith. "Really observant. Didn't say a lot, but he looked a lot." And he learned a lot.
His meaning to the program grew as his local legend did. Banks' first year was also Mullen's, so it was hard to tell the story of the Bulldogs' ascent to relevance without including either of them.
Banks made major interceptions in SEC palaces – two against Tim Tebow – until quarterbacks stopped throwing near him. He's been targeted only 29 times this year in man coverage, allowing just 17 catches for 136 yards and zero touchdowns. Still, he is second in the nation in career interceptions with 15 and he leads the nation in interception return yards. "He's always doing something," Smith says. "He makes the [opposing] offense go fast. It's like playing with 11 ½ guys."
Smith struggles for the right analogy, but they all work: "He's a bobcat. Not a regular cat … He's a grinder. He's a country boy … He's like a rattlesnake. They want to be the hunted. The more you bother him, the more he'll bother you."
His influence, like his arms, only seemed to get longer until this season, when State got out to a 6-0 start and both Giants and Jets scouts were among those in Starkville to see him. Many mock drafts have Banks as a first-rounder, and a few have him in the top 10. Former LSU safety Tyrann Mathieu ate up the headlines, both good and bad, but Banks devoured passes.
"He's a height-weight-speed guy, what we call it in the National Football League," Giants general manager Jerry Reese told a MSU blogger. "He has all those specific characteristics that we like."
And yet Banks stayed for his senior year, despite such a difficult childhood and the knowledge of what NFL money can do. He felt he could get better, he wanted to show his son the value of an education, and, yes, he felt he could win a national title.
"Why can't we get more national respect?" he asks. "If we go to Tuscaloosa and beat Alabama – which we can do – we should go to the national championship game."
He's a hero on campus, at a school that doesn't really have a national footprint despite its SEC credentials. Most people think of State as the school Ole Miss plays in the Egg Bowl. But this season, State is something more. And Banks has already left his imprint.
He is the first football player in school history to be a finalist for the CLASS award, which "honors the attributes of NCAA Division I senior student-athletes in four areas: community, classroom, character and competition." Amazing for an athlete who has never had a parent attend a single football game.
Johnathan Banks will be a nationally-known name soon, on his way to New York to be drafted. (He doesn't even know the name of the famous auditorium where this will take place. "Radio … what's it called?" he says.) But he's already got goals for after football. He wants to be a highway patrolman "so I can serve," he says.
"I'm not the type of person to sit back and do nothing," Banks adds. "I'll go out and get a job."
And he wants a ranch. It doesn't matter where. Any NFL city. Or even here in Mississippi. He wants a place where he can get away and be with his girlfriend, Mallory, and teach KJ the character that got him to where he is.
And he wants a place for his horses – Dakota, Sugar, Big Red and Little Tan – the beautiful creatures that were there for him when everything else fell away.