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Don Banks, giant of NFL writers, gone too soon

Giants of industry are not always what you imagine.

Don Banks was one when it came to our country’s finest NFL writers, as accomplished in his field as most any who penned thoughts and news about the league and its 32 teams.

And yet the first thing I noticed was his immense pride when talking about his family.

Don died in his sleep early Sunday morning at the age of 57, alone in a hotel room in Canton, Ohio, having attended the Pro Football Hall of Fame ceremonies and earlier filing his first story for the Review-Journal.

We recently hired him as our NFL writer and you can imagine the level of pride we all felt. Come on. We were adding Don Banks to our team.

Our coverage of the Raiders moving to Las Vegas in 2020 has continued to grow, but this was beyond the scope of what we had imagined in terms of staffing.

This was the guy we read for nearly 17 years in Sports Illustrated, who shook more hands in a Super Bowl press box than a politician running for office, who never had to worry if Roger Goodell would take his call.

It was Don Banks. Of course the commissioner picked up.

Don was the ultimate clean-up hitter. A pro’s pro. The man who wrote “The Conscience,” column on the Monday Morning Quarterback website.

Mr. Snap Judgments himself.

I sat with Don and assistant sports editor Al Leiker at lunch some weeks back during the interview process, which rightly felt like Don deciding whether or not Las Vegas was the right fit for him than vise versa.

I had met Don at different Super Bowls, introduced by colleagues and yet always amazed at his unassuming nature. You would have thought he was a rookie covering his first NFL game. There wasn’t a big-time bone in his body.

Don was a rarity in 2019 in that he could write on sports with the utmost expertise and not feel a need for his words to scream off a laptop screen. It’s a gift in this me-first, shout-it-out 280 characters world, owning the ability to remain biting and compelling and critical when needed, all the while doing so with a measured one.

He had that. Few still do.

“He never let an emotion go unnoticed,” said John Romano, sports columnist at the Tampa Bay Times and one of Banks’ closest friends. “He was passionate. He couldn’t hide a thing. He would have been the world’s worst poker player. But that sort of also reflected in his boys. They are incredibly mature for their ages. Just amazing kids.”

The latter became apparent at lunch a few weeks back, when Don spoke of wife Alissa and sons, Matt (28) and Micah (21), when I learned his youngest, like my son, had attended George Washington University.

We swapped a few Foggy Bottom stories and, as is customary at such gatherings of sportswriters, some off-the-record ones of life on the road. He got a kick out of that.

“He was such an incredible father,” Alissa told me through tears late Sunday afternoon via phone. “I spoke to both of (the boys) and was so amazed at their perspective. They are both wise beyond their years. I only hope that I can get to that point about this over time.”

Sense of timing

The story goes that Don, a massive Red Sox fan, had an extra ticket to a World Series game against the Cardinals in 2004. He walked into a bar and noticed two beautiful women standing together.

But instead of pulling a Robin Williams in “Good Will Hunting” and sliding his ticket over to friends to go see about a girl, Banks approached one with an invite to the game and, well, he and Alissa clicked.

He even took her back to that bar when it came time to propose.

Those closest to Don tell you this, as much as anything, defined him.

Great storytellers, you see, have an impeccable sense of timing.

“His divorce from (first wife Dorinne), his high school sweetheart, hit him hard, and he always felt meeting Alissa had given him a second opportunity at something he wasn’t sure he would find again,” Romano said. “He was really grateful for that. She helped get his feet back on the ground. She centered him and gave him a path forward …

“He was ecstatic about the (Review-Journal) job. He thought of it as an incredible opportunity to be at a newspaper from basically ground zero with its NFL coverage. It was a chance for him to do what he did best.”

Don Banks was among the giants at doing so.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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