Carl Banks remembers the precise moment when he knew he wanted to play football. He was nine years old, had just moved to a new neighborhood, and he saw kids his age suited up in full pads. He walked up to the coach and asked how much he had to pay to join the team. Playing Pop Warner started him on a path to a 12-year career as an NFL linebacker, which included two Super Bowl victories with the New York Giants.
Banks also remembers the moment he planned what he would do when he left the NFL—a year after he first suited up as a pro. Even as he was playing at an elite level, Banks was planning his inevitable exit from the league and laying the groundwork for his postgame career. Today, he’s not only a football analyst on television and radio, he’s a successful entrepreneur running the sports apparel subsidiary of a $1.4 billion company.
“I never thought I was the chosen one for anything,” says the 51-year-old Banks, sitting in a comfortable leather chair in New York City’s Grand Havana Room. He takes out a Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2 that he has brought with him, slices the head off with practiced ease and toasts the foot. He takes a puff, blows the smoke toward the air, and begins reflecting on his days prowling the gridiron of the Meadowlands as a member of the Big Blue Wrecking Crew.
He’s a big man, standing six-feet-four with a thick, powerful build. His strong hands were thickened by years of digging graves during summer jobs as a youth, and he has extremely broad shoulders that once wreaked havoc on running backs who dared try to pass him by. As a youngster growing up in Flint, Michigan, he played all types of sports, throwing the shot put, jumping hurdles, and played a considerable amount of basketball, which became his favorite sport. “I was, in my mind, a better basketball player than a football player,” he says. A camp where he met Magic Johnson improved his game, but also provided some perspective. “I was 6' 4" playing power forward. He was 6' 9" and a point guard,” says Banks, who didn’t have the ball handling skills to be a guard and was undersized to go further as a forward. His coach pulled him aside. “Your future,” he said, “is in football, son.”
Banks played several positions in his early years, and had the hands to be a tight end, but every time he caught the ball during drills, he instinctively ran toward his own coaches rather than attacking the end zone. “They said ‘You’re going to be a linebacker.” He was recruited by Michigan State when the team was in tough shape, but his playing time there coincided with a tutorial from four-time Pittsburgh Super Bowl champion Jack Ham, one of the greatest outside linebackers ever to put on pads. “Jack Ham taught me so much—proper leverage, angles,” says Banks. A standout performance in a Christmas day All-Star game got him noticed by NFL scouts, and Banks was chosen third overall in the 1984 draft by Bill Parcells and the New York Giants.
Banks was breaking into a tough group. “They had four all-pro linebackers at the time,” he says, talking about the Crunch Bunch, made up of Lawrence Taylor, Harry Carson, Brad Van Pelt and Brian Kelley.
“My first day at mini camp, I walk in, I see the great Lawrence Taylor, I see Harry Carson,” says Banks. “Harry looked at me and he said ‘What the hell are you going to do to get on the football field?’ That was my welcome to the NFL.”
Banks came to a Giants team that had gone 3-12-1 under its new coach Parcells, finishing dead last in the NFC East and posting their worst record since 1976. The team struggled despite its cadre of linebackers, but Parcells made difficult cuts, trading away Van Pelt and Kelley.
“We had been a very good defense up to that point. When Carl came aboard, I was getting over losing those two guys,” says Carson, a legendary Giant who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006. “Our feeling was, ‘OK, we know we’re good—what are you bringing to the table?’ Carl had to really work to earn a place with the linebackers.”
Banks’s first inroads came as a special teams player, and in time he earned his spot as a starting Giants linebacker, working with the talented veterans who had been there before.
“He was a big guy who wasn’t quite as flashy as Lawrence,” says Carson. Taylor was a quarterback killer, while Banks (like Carson) aimed more at thwarting the opposing team’s running backs. “That was my forte—being a run stopper,” says Banks. The Giants were playing better football, and in 1986 they finished 14-2. After crushing the 49ers and Redskins in the playoffs, they headed to Super Bowl XXI to take on John Elway and the Denver Broncos.
That game was the pinnacle of Banks’s career. “For me, that Super Bowl, if you have to have a perfect game, that was it for me. I don’t think anything Denver did caught me by surprise.”
Taylor was the high-profile shark of the Giants defense, but on that day Banks was the star defender. He led the team with 14 tackles, 10 of them unassisted, four for negative yardage. He lined up on the outside opposite Taylor, his trademark white neck roll shining in the light, and seemed to be everywhere on the field, stopping runners, blocking passes and dramatically ending a reverse before it began.
“Carl had a better game than both of us,” says Carson of him and Taylor. “I kept hearing, ‘Tackle by Banks, tackle by Banks.’” That championship may have been Banks’s greatest game, but not his most memorable play. For defenders, touchdowns are rarities, and he has but one for his entire career. He remembers every detail about the play.
“It was a fake field goal, versus the Eagles,” says Banks, who was playing on the special teams unit, setting up against a player known for diving aggressively at his opponent’s legs on the snap. Early in the game, on a field goal attempt, he spoke with Banks. “We line up, he’s negotiating. He says, ‘I’m not going for your legs, you don’t go for mine.’ ”
Banks and his coaches had prepared for this during practice. “I said, ‘Fuck you, I’m going for your legs.’ ” The two started jawing, and Banks dove for the player’s legs at the whistle, which led to an argument between the two. When Banks returned to the sidelines, he told his coaches: “We got him.”
The attack and the argument was all a ruse, a trap set in motion during the practices nearly a week before game time for the second field goal attempt by the Giants. At the snap, Banks sidestepped the anticipated leg dive by his opponent, turned, and caught a pass that he ran into the end zone. Touchdown Giants. “It was the greatest thing,” Banks says with a wide smile.
There was a second Super Bowl victory, against the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV in 1991, a one-point win decided by a wide-right field goal miss by Bills kicker Scott Norwood. After that second moment of glory, the Giants faded in the aftermath of the Super Bowl with the departure of Parcells, a quarterback controversy and injuries to several stars. There was a two-year drought from the playoffs.
In 1993 Banks was traded to the division rival Redskins. “It was the worst year of my career, for several reasons. I got into a fight almost every day at practice,” he says. “They saw me as a Giants player.” He played two seasons with the Browns before retiring after the 1995 season. Banks had his health. He says he suffered one concussion—officially—during his playing days, and few serious injuries. “I played violently, but I was fortunate. I didn’t get any major injuries. I didn’t have knees or any of that stuff. I had a broken wrist that was surgically repaired, but that was it.”
Banks was ready to put his playing days behind him, but he needed one more test. “The opening game of the following year after I retired, I ordered the pizza, sat in the living room by myself, watched the game just to see if I was over it. I watched the whole game, did not feel like I should have been out there, enjoyed my pizza. I knew it was out of my system. And I never looked back.”
Being busy—and successful—has helped the transition. Banks has eased seamlessly into the world of broadcast, having planned for this since the 1980s. Even in his prime days as a Giant, when most players would have been thinking only of the next tackle, Banks was mapping out his exit strategy.
“I never had the luxury of knowing how good I was. My college degree is a legit college degree. I went to college to learn broadcasting. I wanted to be able to write commercials, read commercials and broadcast,” he says. In his second year, while doing an appearance and signing autographs, he mapped out a post-game show idea that he pitched to a sponsor. WNEW picked it up, and soon Banks was talking football after each game. “We did a pregame that I taped during the week, and then win, lose or draw I would head up to the press box after the game to talk about the game. It actually served as a balance. To be able to calm down and rationally talk about things gives it perspective.”
Today he can be seen on Fox talking Giants strategy before games during the NFL season, and he calls Giants games on Sirius and sports radio WFAN.
“When you’re a radio analyst, you’re the eyes and ears. [Fans] driving in their car don’t want a bunch of B.S. They want to know what happened—whether it’s good or bad. That’s where I get this thrill of broadcasting, being able to be honest and tell it like it is.”
The 2013 season was a difficult one for the Giants, who started in a 0-6 hole before finishing 7-9 and out of the playoffs. Interviewed around the midpoint of the season, Banks complimented the resolve of the team. “To me, the most impressive aspect was they somehow didn’t allow themselves to believe their situation was so grave,” Banks says. “It’s rare that you see a team that can really will themselves back into a state of mind that keeps them competitive.”
Banks takes another puff on his cigar. He began smoking while still in the NFL. “I’m an occasional cigar and Scotch guy,” he says. “It’s an event for me.” He smokes cigars on the golf course, and when he’s relaxing, but he has different cigars for each category. “I have golf cigars, and I have my social, chill out cigars. My golf cigar, it has to be a great smoke, but a long smoke. An Ashton VSG is a great golf cigar. If it’s a non-domestic, it’s a Robaina.”
Most of his cigar smoking is done while watching game film on Wednesday nights, a ritual he started as a player but has continued as a broadcaster. “Wednesday nights are normally my nights when I start to prepare for my broadcast. Similar to when I played, Wednesday was the big preparation day. So I watch film, go over my notes. I still have that practice.”
For these moments, he turns to his relaxing cigars, one of which is the Hoyo Epicure. “A Padrón 26, Trinidad,” he says, naming two other favorites. “And if it’s a really special night? It’s a Behike.” He eschews smoking in his house, opting for a club in New Jersey or Merchant’s, a cigar bar in Manhattan.
Banks is opinionated about the current state of the game. He mentions his old practices with the Giants, high-speed, full-contact affairs that prepared him for the punishment of an NFL game. “You can’t perfect your technique if you’re in walk-throughs every week. You can’t practice at full speed. And that’s the difference in the inability to get players ready every week. Until you see it at full speed, it’s the first time all over again.”
Banks is busy with broadcasting, but his apparel business commands the lion’s share of his time. “I started making these leather jackets for myself and a few friends,” says Banks. “I went to the NFL and asked them for a license for big and tall leather jackets. When I presented to the NFL I had a line already set. So they said we’ll give you big and tall suede only jackets.”
He made the most of the small niche. “I built a good business, Foot Locker was one of my first customers.” The NFL licensing deal led him to a giant of the apparel industry, G-III Apparel Group Ltd. “G-III gave me the ability to make better outerwear than anybody,” says Banks. “I went to the NFL to see if they would expand my license to leather and give me regular sizes—they said sure. We’ve grown the business now from just outerwear to women’s apparel and men’s apparel.”
The partnership also led Banks to a look from his past—Starter satin jackets. The colorful jackets—emblazoned with team logos—were ubiquitous in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2007, G-III purchased the brand from Nike, and in 2013, Banks, an original endorser of the line, brought back the satin jackets with a high-end look and $150 price tag. So far, sales are strong.
G-III Apparel Group is a public company that did $1.4 billion in revenues in fiscal 2013. The company doesn’t break down the sales of subsidiary G-III Sports by Carl Banks, which is headed by the former Giant, but Banks says his business is “sizeable.”
In many ways, the thrill of inking deals supercedes the thrill he had when crushing runners trying to invade the Giants end zone in the 1980s and 1990s. When he isn’t working, Banks goes back to basketball—strictly as a fan. “My only other pleasure in life is the Knicks,” he says with a smile. “I’ve had season tickets for almost 25 years. That’s when I get to really be a fan. I scream, that’s my thing.”
This night, the Knicks are calling, and Madison Square Garden is only a few blocks away. He takes a final puff of the Hoyo, wraps his big right hand around a reporter’s hand, and heads into the night, ready to put aside the mantle of being a sports expert for a few hours and to enjoy the time when he can simply be a fan, rooting for his favorite team.