Message boards, radio stations and newspapers alike generally get the same answer any time the question is posed.
“Who is the greatest West Monroe Rebel of all time?”
Longtime West Monroe PA announcer Mark Fenn took all of one second to answer the question.
“Tommy Banks,” said Fenn, after witnessing one championship run after another with the Rebels.
West Monroe play-by-play man Rick Guillot is admittedly biased to his close friend, Andrew Whitworth, and an argument can be made the 38-year-old All-Pro left tackle is the greatest football player to ever emerge out of West Monroe’s proud program. Heck, Whitworth has been playing in the NFL since 2006, and that alone makes for a valid argument. But when it comes to the greatest West Monroe career ever, even Guillot has to give the edge to Banks, who Guillot and thousands of others alike grew up watching.
“You have to give that to Tommy,” Guillot said.
For the new generation to learn about the history of West Monroe football, they must first educate themselves on Banks and the rise to prominence in the ‘90s.
In many ways, that's what makes Banks the local legend he is. It’s actually something Banks can’t escape. Rebel fans won’t allow him to, because they remember when Banks was 240 pounds and punishing linebackers and defensive backs in a West Monroe uniform.
“I don’t consider myself (the greatest West Monroe player),” Banks said. “I’m honored that people feel that way. I always say, ‘Look, I just went out there and played ball.’ I didn’t do it for any kind of notoriety. I went out there and had fun and tried to do whatever it would take to win. It’s not that I don’t like talking about it, but I think people just have memories that may be a little off kilter there. I’ve heard people say, ‘You’re the greatest high school player I’ve ever seen,’ and I’m just like you probably need to watch more high school football.”
Whether his legend has been exaggerated or not, there’s no denying Banks has become exactly that — a hometown legend.
His frame, tenacity and momentum in the open field made him a unique running back that former teammate Steven Dollar had never seen before or since.
“Looking back at his career, to be honest, we knew he was really good, but you don’t know how good he is until you’re out of high school for 20 years and realize there hasn’t been a legit running back like Tommy in two or three decades,” said Dollar, who was the quarterback for the Rebels during that ’96 championship run. “Every clip he’s outrunning people. The thing with the option is generally whoever has it, it’s a catch-up game for the defense. Once (Banks) hit that hole wide open, if he broke a tackle or two on the front line, he’s traveling for a while before somebody could get him down.”
Banks doesn’t get hung up on those glory days. He’s a little busy. In fact, he spends most of his days in a doctor’s office in West Monroe treating patients, and when he’s at home he’s just as busy chasing around his seemingly ever-growing family. But at least once a week, he’ll get a familiar look from a patient or two. The wheels start to turn when they piece it all together.
“It’s either, ‘are you the Tommy Banks?’ or ‘are you the football player?’” Banks said. “I can always kind of tell what they’re thinking. Starting out it was almost every day, but it’s slowed down to about once a week.”
Imagine an alternate universe where Banks is just your average doctor without the West Monroe and LSU memorabilia on the walls. That was nearly reality had Banks never caught the itch.
After going through spring training at Ouachita Christian School as an eighth grader, Banks made the switch to West Monroe before his freshman year. And before the season started, Banks had decided football wasn’t fun anymore, so he wasn’t going to play for the Rebels.
“I was going through a spell where I just didn’t like it,” Banks said. “Football is one of those games you have to like. You can’t just go out there and do it. You have to want to do it.”
West Monroe’s legendary head coach Don Shows wasn’t going to accept no for an answer. At least not without making a few final pleas. He even called Banks out of his freshman biology class one day and told him he needed to come out to practice. Banks didn’t bite, at least not immediately.
“It took me about a week after the jamboree when I contacted coach and asked if it was still OK for me to come out,” Banks said. “I think being at the jamboree at West Monroe and seeing the fans and excitement made me miss it. I played two games of junior varsity and then our fullback got injured, so I went straight to varsity.”
Banks’ freshman season in 1993 forced him to play more than he would have ever predicted, but he played a part in the Rebels’ first state championship. West Monroe won district for the first time ever and followed through with a 28-21 Class 5A State Championship victory against Destrehan. The birth of a dynasty was here, but championships didn't immediately follow.
The Rebels had dominant teams in ’94 and ’95 but for one reason or another, West Monroe did not get the opportunity to win another state title. In fact, the ’95 season ended abruptly against Natchitoches Central in the quarterfinals after the Rebels tied a then school record of five shutouts during the season (the 1998 team now holds the most in a season with six).
After that loss, and Neville’s 35-7 victory against Hahnville in the Class 5A State Championship Game, the Rebels figured to be just another team in the mix in district play in 1996.
“We were underdogs the whole year in 1996,” Dollar said. “I don’t know if we felt that because that was really back in the beginning of when we started to get on a run. For us as seniors, we had been put through the ringer since we were freshmen. The games were easy compared to the practices. I don’t know what it’s like to play for Nick Saban, but you hear those stories, it sounds like what it was like to play under Don Shows. Sophomore and junior years we lost when we shouldn’t have. Going into our senior year, we had never outright won the district. We tied when we were freshman.”
Teams like Ouachita and Neville were favored over West Monroe in the district in ’96 because they were coming off of state championship berths in 1994 and 1995, respectively. And the players heard the predictions. More accurately, the players did not hear “West Monroe” in those preseason picks. But Banks had a conversation with Shows before the start of the season that changed everything.
“As corny and cliché as it sounds, I had a dream before the season that we were playing against Ruston in the Superdome,” Banks said. “I asked Coach Shows before the season, ‘Be honest, do you think we have a shot to win this thing?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I think we do.’ Maybe that gave me a little extra motivation. Maybe it gave me that drive from day one to get that ring.”
The dream season was off and running as West Monroe outright won the district for the first time in school history. That involved beating a Neville team that had owned West Monroe years prior. From 1964 to 1992, the Tigers held a 26-1 record against the Rebels, and Neville defeated West Monroe, 29-20, in Bill Ruple Stadium in ’95. The Rebels started their own win streak in 1996 with a 26-20 overtime victory against the Tigers. That sparked a 10-game win streak over the Tigers that remains alive today.
“That game (in 1996) was unbelievable,” Banks said. “Derek Dyer (went on to play for UL-Lafayette) was a great quarterback for that team.”
The Rebels began the playoffs on cruise control, but a second-round postseason matchup against Natchitoches Central made every Rebel fan uneasy. That’s because the Chiefs not only eliminated West Monroe in the quarterfinals one-year prior but also scored a regular-season victory against the Rebels during the 1996 season. Banks was also on record as saying that defense is the toughest he’s faced in his high school career.
And boy did it look like it with a 13-6 Rebel lead late in the fourth quarter.
“We had the lead, and they had the ball going down to try to score. The ball was on the 2- or 3-yard line,” Banks said. “They score, they win and we’re done. We stop them a couple of plays. I was playing defense at the time. It was fourth-and-goal and I ended up hitting the guy on the sideline. He fumbled the ball out of bounds and that ended up being the game. (Coach Shows) didn’t have a heart attack at the game, but he had symptoms later that night. I think that’s probably what started everything. It was intense.”
West Monroe head coach Jerry Arledge was coaching the defense at the time, and he borrowed Banks for that one final stand.
“They had scored a bunch of points on us in the regular season,” Arledge said. “It comes down to a couple minutes in the ballgame, and Tommy made all four tackles. He kept them out of the end zone, and we end up winning the ballgame. They ran it inside three straight times, and wham, wham, wham. Then they went out side, and there he was.”
While Shows recovered, the Rebels won a hard-fought contest against LaGrange before taking on one of the top teams in the entire country. A showdown with Catholic in the semifinals showcased the Louisiana Sports Writers Association Player of the Year Travis Minor against Banks, who went on to become the coaches’ pick for player of the year in the state. Minor ended the season as the National Gatorade Player of the Year, and he started the game with a kickoff return for a score.
Catholic was the No. 1 seed in the state and ranked 10th in the nation coming into the contest. West Monroe was a massive underdog, but Banks just had a feeling.
“I knew they were good, but I didn’t have a doubt in my mind,” Banks said. “My parents asked me that week if I was nervous, and I said I wasn’t because I felt like it was our destiny. I remember Chuck Redden always did his predictions, and he made his football prediction that Catholic is going to run over West Monroe. I was like, ‘Oh man…’ West Monroe fans were probably wondering why they traveled down there, especially after Minor ran that kick back. I don’t think there were many people that picked us to win.”
West Monroe rallied and defeated Catholic 21-14. Dollar iced the game with a knee as Banks took off his helmet and raised his hands high in the air. The Rebels were set to play for the state championship.
With Shows in the press box in the Superdome, the Rebels defeated Carencro 24-21 to win the Class 5A State Championship. Banks earned LSWA All-State honors alongside teammates Brad Smalling (tackle) and Adam McConathy (linebacker).
The road was paved. A year later, after Banks graduated, West Monroe wrapped up its first perfect season and a 44-game win streak lasted until 1999. The Rebels were a dynasty that Banks and his teammates helped create.
Now Banks has a son, Tag, who gets to reap the benefit of his father’s success.
“The weight room is outstanding, and that field house, it’s like a collegiate field house,” Banks said. “When we were there, we had two showers that worked. And I said worked, but it was really trickling water. We had some growing pains as far as that was concerned. But I’m glad we were able to provide these guys that. And that’s a sense of pride we get from it. And these guys, nobody wants to be the group that stops the momentum. And yeah, you’re going to have years where you don’t do as well, but they don’t want to be that team that goes 5-5 and misses the playoffs.”
While West Monroe limited foes to a total of 14 points in its first four playoff games in 1997, Banks was down in Baton Rouge playing fullback for the LSU Tigers. He took part in more memorable football nights in Louisiana. The most famous, of course, was the night LSU took down No. 1 Florida.
“I got to play a lot my freshman year, but the Florida game was the game that really cemented just how big football was at LSU,” Banks said. “I’m sitting here warming up, and Steve Spurrier walks by me. They’re No. 1 and just killing people. He’s the face of college football just five feet from me yucking it up. Then, of course, getting to score a touchdown in that game. I’ve talked to a million people who have been to that game…”
Banks was forever immortalized in Sports Illustrated, as a two-page spread highlighted Banks’ touchdown scored in the 28-21 upset that rocked college football to its core.
After years of medical study, Banks returned to West Monroe as the hometown hero. And now you can simply call him “Doc.” Less than a mile from the stadium he made memorable runs in, Banks is back in the center of the community he provided so much for. And that’s what he continues to do.
“Tommy is always going to be the best running back, and I don’t think that will ever change,” Dollar said. “He was Mr. West Monroe that year. He’s super smart. He’s super nice. He was just kind of the All-American boy.”
Banks was, is and will always be a West Monroe legend.