Tavian Banks is like a lot of Midwestern high school seniors: Most afternoons you can find him at Happy Joe's Pizza and Ice Cream Parlor in Bettendorf, Iowa, sitting in a booth with his girl or loafing with his pals. In fact, he is just like all high school seniors who signed their first autograph in the eighth grade and grew up to become the focus of college football recruiting wars.
Every winter, college coaches flock to places like Bettendorf to woo kids like Banks, players with record-breaking statistics and local-hero reputations. By the time Banks had rejected the advances of some 50 schools and selected a university on Jan. 27 (the national signing date for letters of intent was Feb. 3), his ears were ringing. "They talk and talk at you," Banks says. "And mostly what you say is, 'Uh-huh.' "
When Miami's Dennis Erickson, Washington's Don James and Nebraska's Tom Osborne went to Bettendorf to vie for Banks, they were viewed by the locals with a mixture of awe and anxiety. Awe because Bettendorf is the sort of place where a big-time football coach is a major celebrity, and anxiety because the townspeople had launched a campaign to keep Banks at home, playing for the Iowa Hawkeyes. Banks is a 6-foot, 185-pound tailback with speed that is somewhere between blazing and just good enough, depending on whom you talk to, the school that got him or the ones that didn't. In only two high school seasons he rushed for 4,299 yards and 74 touchdowns and was twice named Iowa player of the year. Banks is the best player to emerge from the state since Roger Craig graduated from Davenport Central in 1978. Craig went on to Nebraska and the NFL, and that, as far as Iowans were concerned, was the point. The state had lost farms and factories, and it did not intend to lose Banks.
Bettendorf (pop. 28,000), located on the state's eastern border, is one of the so-called Quad Cities nestled against the Mississippi River. It's a place of atrium malls, Putt-Putt courses and pseudo-Bavarian restaurants. The specialty at Ross' diner on 14th Street is lunch meat piled on hash browns. The John Deere corporate headquarters is across the river in Moline, Ill. If Banks got away, many Bettendorfers believed, it would be worse than the July day in 1992 when the Diamond Lady left. The Diamond Lady, a riverboat that plies the Mississippi with legal gambling aboard, had been berthed in Bettendorf, but the locals were too temperate to financially support her, so she pushed on down the river to Biloxi, Miss. A lot of folks feared that Banks would cast off, too. A column in The Des Moines Register in November suggested that Banks be named a natural resource of the state, thus fending off out-of-state recruiters who would take him away.
Banks patiently listened to the pitches from all of the coaches who made the trek to Bettendorf. Erickson wore two national-championship rings so large that they appeared to weigh down his hands. Iowa's Hayden Fry was a good buddy who made an impassioned case for the state. Osborne was fatherly. So was James. Banks sized up the rivals this way: "Miami talks about the national championship every year, Washington talks about how it won the championship last year, Iowa talks about the Big Ten championship, and Nebraska says it knocks on the door." What did all this add up to? "Football is there at all of them," he said.
Despite his many suitors, Banks has not come down with a case of swelled head. "He's not pompous like some of these kids," says Bettendorf coach Merv Habenicht. Banks was guided throughout his recruitment by his mother, Merrikay, a formidable woman who was a gifted sprinter while growing up in Moline. Merrikay is a single parent who works days as a secretary at John Deere and evenings as a saleswoman at the Casual Corner dress shop in Bettendorf. She divorced when her sons were six and two, and she has raised them by herself. The older son, La Vance, a star receiver at Southern Illinois, will graduate next year and is being scouted by the NFL. Merrikay told every coach she met that she didn't care if Tavian ever scored a touchdown in college, as long as he got his degree. "I'm not easily impressed," she says. "I don't need the press and TV."
Tavian has been appearing on local newscasts since elementary school, when he first began setting track records. When he was in the eighth grade a teacher asked him for his autograph, suspecting that it might someday be valuable. Banks had long been bracing for the recruiting storm, and he had developed an encyclopedic knowledge of college football by taping and studying televised games. In 1990 a harrowing injury helped define his goals outside of football. In his first game as a sophomore Banks broke the fibula and tibia in his right leg. He underwent surgery, spent five months undergoing therapy and now has a steel plate and seven steel pins in the leg. He also developed an abiding interest in physical therapy, which he says he will pursue in college.
For all of his research into the college game, Banks still exhibited a healthy naivetè during his official campus visits. While he was touring the Miami campus, his eyes widened at the sight of the tanned, seemingly affluent student body. "Regular people driving around in Ferraris," he marveled. At a dockside restaurant he was served lobster and didn't know what to do with it. In Washington the food was more recognizable, but the mountain scenery was strange. At Iowa, he felt at home. He went to Nebraska with his mind all but made up and scanned the flat, brown expanse of Lincoln for reasons to change it. He found none.
Back home, with two weeks remaining before the signing date, Banks finally wearied of the recruiting process. He decided to announce his decision a week early, if only to stop the phone from ringing. On Jan. 26 Banks informed Bettendorf High athletic director Charles Nolting and principal Tom Castle that he had made his choice and asked them to call a news conference. That night he watched a college basketball game on TV. The phone rang. He left the answering machine on. "Hi, Tavian," said Miami recruiter Pete Garcia. "I just wanted to know what you were thinking." The phone rang again. It was Trev Alberts, a native of Cedar Falls, Iowa, who is now a junior at Nebraska. "I can tell you about both places," Alberts said into the machine. "I'll tell you the truth. Really, man."
The next morning, Osborne called Castle. He wanted to know if Nebraska was still in the race. Castle said he didn't know. An hour later Banks convened his press conference. After a brief statement, he took a sweatshirt out of a bag and unfurled it. He would be going to...Iowa. The audience burst into applause. The other finalists responded with grace. "Obviously, we're disappointed," said Washington recruiter Dick Baird. "But that's a tough get, all the way across the country." Nebraska recruiter Dave Gillespie thought he had convinced Banks to do what Roger Craig had done. "But when you've been in it for a while, you can't spend much time worrying about the ones you didn't get," he said. Fry, the winner, congratulated Banks.
Explaining his decision, Banks notes that you have to be a certain type to play for Miami. "Glamor and glitz, that's not me," he says. Nebraska was impressive but dreary. "I just couldn't see waking up there." Washington was too far away. Iowa hadn't done anything spectacular to get him, except to be close by and appeal so relentlessly to his loyalty. Or maybe it is just this simple: "I don't like seafood," he says. "I like steak." Banks, after all, is an Iowan.
JOHN SCHULTZ/QUAD-CITY TIMES
Twice Iowa's player of the year, Banks scored 74 TDs for Bettendorf.
A star on the field, Banks still has to pull his weight in physics class.