When The MMQB launched in 2013, Peter King decided that Don Banks would write a weekly column named, “The Conscience.” It didn’t need much explanation for those who were regular readers of SI.com.
“He would consider both sides of a story,” King says, “and he would write not the expedient opinion, but the correct opinion.”
If there’s a way to describe Banks, it’s this: He was the voice of reason, both in his job and beyond it. Banks died early Sunday morning, at age 56; he was in Canton, Ohio, for the Pro Football Hall of Fame ceremonies, doing the job he did so well for decades. Banks covered the NFL for most of his 36-year career in sportswriting, establishing himself as one of the most reliable media voices by always finding a way to make sense of what we were all watching and talking about. More importantly, he was also one of the most trusted people you could ever work with. He leaves behind his wife, Alissa, and his two sons, Matt and Micah.
Here at Sports Illustrated, Banks spent 16 years as an NFL columnist. After he was hired in 2000, his popular “Snap Judgments” column on SI.com joined Dr. Z’s writing and King’s Monday Morning Quarterback column as a formidable triumvirate of pro football coverage.
When the news of Banks’s death broke Sunday evening, colleagues, competitors and NFL teams alike tweeted out remembrances of Banks, who last week started a new job as an NFL writer for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He was thrilled to cover the next chapter for the Raiders—"How can it be boring?” he said recently—and the team’s fan base would have been all the better informed for it. But Banks will be remembered for much more than his work.
One such example: While filing his columns late on Sunday nights, he got to know one of SI’s night producers, a Buccaneers fan who first became familiar with Banks when Banks owned the Bucs beat for the St. Petersburg Times in the ’90s.
In January 2003, after Ronde Barber picked off Donovan McNabb and returned the interception 92 yards to seal a Tampa win in the NFC Championship Game, Banks called that producer and let him know he would take care of him. Banks secured him tickets to Super Bowl XXXVII, his seats located right next to Jesse Ventura. “He didn’t have to do anything for me—I was just a guy on the night shift in Atlanta at the time,” says Ryan Hunt, now the managing editor of SI.com. “But whether you had been here one day or 25 years, whether you were the boss or the lowest guy on the totem pole, he treated everyone the same.”
Everyone has a story about Banks like that. Bette Marston, associate editor for The MMQB, recalls Banks celebrating a group of SI employees who ran the Brooklyn half marathon by buying them rounds at a local bar. “He hung out with a bunch of 20-somethings all evening like it was no big deal,” Marston says. Darin Gantt, a reporter for Pro Football Talk, shared a story about Banks being in Spartanburg, S.C., for Panthers camp in 2004 when Gantt’s father had complications from a surgery that forced him to race home. When Gantt returned, Banks talked to him for an hour and asked about Gantt’s dad every time they saw each other for the next 15 years. “He was one of the best people in this business,” Gantt says.
Here is one of my stories: A few years ago, I was attending the NFL league meetings, which is not always the easiest place to be a female reporter. I was eating dinner alone at the hotel bar one night, and there was a man sitting next to me who was a bit intoxicated. As I waited for my meal, I was growing more uncomfortable in the conversation. Banks was sitting on the other side of the bar and soon could tell that something wasn’t right. He walked over and asked if I was ready to leave, making it sound like we were both scheduled to meet someone that evening. We ended up walking to a restaurant in a different part of the hotel. I was so thankful for how considerate he was, not only to realize that something was off but also to help me leave quickly and discreetly.
And one more: When Banks was caught up in a wave of layoffs at Sports Illustrated in 2016 (his final Snap Judgments column for SI is filled with stories from his time on the job), I sent him an email, expressing my dismay to no longer be teammates with him. He replied with a note not lamenting his situation, but rather encouraging me. He reminded me not to let myself get too stressed out. “It’s only a job,” he wrote. “Not who you are.”
The last three years, Banks worked harder than he ever had to keep going at the job he loved. He talked about his wife, Alissa, going through a similar challenge in her career the year before, and how much she was helping him get through it. He continued to write about the league for NFL.com, Bleacher Report, Patriots.com and The Athletic. Then, this summer, the Review-Journal called.
“He wasn’t going to give up, but it was tough,” King says. “The last two weeks are the happiest I heard him in years. He was so thrilled, utterly excited and he was back to being the guy I talked to three or four times a week about story ideas. He was euphoric.”
Banks’s first article for the Review-Journal was published the afternoon before he died. It was typical of his work: reporting and insight you couldn’t get anywhere else.
In Canton, Banks was not only covering the Hall of Fame ceremonies—he was also celebrating one of his closest friends, L.A. Times NFL columnist Sam Farmer, who was inducted into the Hall's writer's wing this weekend. This is who Banks was throughout his career, both a trusted scribe and a supportive friend and colleague, in a business where so many are neither. The respect you hear for Banks echoing around the NFL and among journalists is for not just how well he did his job, but for who he was while doing it.
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