STAMFORD — The idea of a college education never crossed Mike Banks’ mind, looking for community and camaraderie as a kid on the streets of Norwalk, let alone playing lacrosse.
Granted a second chance after five months in jail, mentors like then-McMahon coach Mike Epstein got him into the sport and got him a degree. Tuesday afternoon, he told his story to the McMahon and Stamford varsity and junior varsity lacrosse teams before their games Tuesday.
“I took a lot of life message, that you can overcome anything, that anything is possible,” said Stamford senior Quran Langston, who’ll play in college at Post University.
“Being in a predominantly white sport, you can make it as an African American in this sport.”
When Banks, 30, showed the players two features, a couple of years apart, that MSG Network did on him in high school, he told them, “pay attention to the way I talk, the way I articulate, even the way I dress.”
The changes reflected a conversation he’d had earlier with a player, “a kid coming from a poorer community, being black, and playing a predominantly white sport, and that judgment you get of how you’re supposed to walk and talk, and friends (say) ‘Oh, you a white boy now, (a white) kind of sport.’ I said it’s funny you say that: that’s a bridge I had to cross.”
Stamford coach Mike Nazzaro played against Banks, when Banks was at McMahon and Nazzaro was at Trumbull. “I just remember him being the big defenseman they had, eating people up,” Nazzaro said.
It’s the second time Nazzaro asked Banks to speak at Stamford. Banks said he doesn’t give many such talks, though he’d like to do more, perhaps even as a career.
“We had him here to speak in front of some of our other sports programs to get the initial draw for lacrosse,” Nazzaro said. “Back when we had 35-40 kids in the program, he helped spark that.
“I’m using Mike Epstein’s model, pulling kids out of the hallway and other sports to play. This year we have already four kids committed to play in college, and since (Banks) was here, we’ve had five first-generation-college kids go on to play lacrosse. It’s been great.”
When Banks was 15, he committed three crimes in a week — getting caught with a knife at Norwalk High; firing a BB gun out a window and striking a man; and burglary, trying to take a desktop computer from a home on a bike in a duffel bag: “stupid!” he said, as some players laughed — which got him five months in Cheshire’s Manson Youth Institute.
When he arrived, he said, he spent the first week on 23-hour lockdown in a cell with a toilet, a sink and a cellmate who didn’t speak English. He found out, eventually, that the cellmate was in for double homicide, trying to shoot someone else but killing a pregnant woman.
“If you could make a mistake that would have you away for the rest of your life,” Banks said, “I don’t care if you’re somebody with money: Any opportunity that’s bad is a bad opportunity.”
He came home around Christmas but wasn’t allowed back into McMahon until the fall. Then-Senators coach Mike Epstein worked on him to play lacrosse, not letting up. Banks agreed, finally. On his first day, handed a long pole, he missed a teammate’s pass that hit him in, as he said, a place a man doesn’t want to be hit. He threw the stick down and said enough was enough.
Epstein, “psychology teacher,” Banks said with a laugh, got in his face — Banks demonstrated with a player — and asked, “You soft? You scared?”
Banks reclaimed his stick, took more penalty minutes than he got playing time in JV, but saw a world open up over that season. He became an All-American by his senior year and found a brotherhood at the University at Albany.
“I was the first person in my family to finish a college degree,” Banks said. “I didn’t have that mindset to do any of that. I didn’t see the endpoint from where I was standing.
“You’re going to always meet that fence. What’s the next step? What’s the next step to work for me and be successful? At that point, you’re going to have to make a decision that defines how you transition from a boy to a man. … You’re going to need all your might to make that decision, whatever it is. It doesn’t matter how wealthy you are, how much you’ve struggled. Everyone meets that same wall.”
Coach Brian White figured Guilford would be competitive in the first stretch of the season, and true to form, the Indians are 5-0. The offense has been as advertised, a key to the big start
“Also, the defense has been pretty solid, too,” White said. Junior goalie Devlin Ahlefeld has returned as the starter, playing well, and top returning defenseman Owen Nizolek has done the job in front of Ahlefeld.
And when you have an All-American like Quinnipiac-bound John DeLucia, plus the likes of Jack Dacey and emerging junior James Wrynn on the attack, you’re in good shape. Guilford has scored at least nine goals in all five games, and at least 16 three times. They’ve allowed a total of 19.
But the degree of difficulty increases next week, and, at least according to the GameTimeCT poll this week, it keeps growing over the next four games.
They’ll visit Notre Dame-West Haven on Monday. Hand comes next door two days later — “that rivalry’s always tough,” White said — then the Indians goe to No. 10 Newtown on April 27 and co-No. 2 Fairfield Prep on April 29.
“All those teams are good,” White said. “It’s a matter of how we play.”
SPEAKING OF OFFENSE
Notre Dame-West Haven’s Alex Hird scored 10 goals Monday in a 14-6 win over West Haven. Steve Kirck, the school’s director of athletic communications, put the call out to Green Knights alumni to check if that’s a school record.
— NDWHAthletics (@NDWHAthletics) April 16, 2019