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DES MOINES — Amid a pie-eating contest during a timeout, fans furiously jangling cowbells, and many more vivid reminders the Arena Football League isn’t the NFL, a former Heisman Trophy runner-up resumes his career as a football player.
To University of Iowa fans, Brad Banks playing quarterback for the Iowa Barnstormers might be like George Clooney doing community theater or Alicia Keys singing in a karaoke bar. Banks was the soft-spoken, dynamic-playing leader of the 2002 Hawkeyes, the team that tore through the Big Ten season without a loss and transformed Iowa football in this millennium.
But while Banks’ tight end and two of his blockers from that ‘02 team continue to make millions in the NFL, Banks is a newcomer in the carnival-barker’s arena game who is paid, well, not millions.
Is this a sad story? Not really. Not whatsoever if you saw the enthusiasm with which Banks played Friday night in Wells Fargo Arena, as his team edged the defending ArenaCup-champion Spokane Storm 43-42 in a typically manic AFL encounter. Not if you saw the smiles he had after the game.
“He loves football,” said Banks’ fiancee, Jana Owens of Miami. “He’s excited to play. He’s happy.”
It has been almost two years since Banks was released by the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. He played five seasons in the CFL, but threw only seven passes over his final two seasons.
“I was sitting up there waiting behind other guys who had put in time and were great quarterbacks,” Banks said.
Last year, he ran quarterback clinics for youths in Palm Beach, Fla., not far from his Belle Glade hometown. At 30, his playing days appeared over. But Banks found his way back to Iowa to play a different kind of football, on a 50-yard field with boards on the sides, and nets behind both end zones.
“It’s football. It’s fun,” Banks said. “I grew up doing it. I’ve still got some wheels on me. I figured why not do it if the opportunity came up, so I jumped on it and here I am.”
The crowd of 10,552 roared when Banks was introduced at Friday’s home-opener. The franchise has had other former Hawkeyes, including current Barnstormers Rodney Filer and Pete Traynor, but it never had what a Hawkeye marquee player. That’s because such players almost always advance to the NFL.
Traynor, 31, played with Banks at Iowa and got an NFL taste himself when he lasted all the way to the final cut of the Green Bay Packers’ training camp in 2006.
“Brad’s a great quarterback,” Traynor said. “I truly feel he should be playing in the NFL somewhere. Just like a lot of guys in this league, he needs the right opportunity in the right situation.
“I guarantee you other teams have looked at him and thought ‘This kid can play, this kid can be a quarterback in the NFL,’ but they might have drafted somebody or invested in somebody else, and that guy made the team instead.”
A banner noting the Barnstormers’ retired No. 13 of quarterback Kurt Warner hangs in the arena. It is a reminder that you can get there from here, as odds-defying as it may be. But … Warner was 24 when he started his 3-year Barnstormers’ run in 1995, not 30. And, Warner was 6-foot-2. Banks is 5-11. That was short for an NFL quarterback in 2003, when he was an undrafted free agent who unsuccessfully tried to make the Washington Redskins’ roster. It is short today.
You don’t hear Banks talking about any NFL dreams. You watch games from the sideline in Canada for five years, and you stay grounded. He’s just playing now, seeing how this new thing goes. He was intercepted three times in his team’s season-opener the weekend before, a 58-28 loss at Pittsburgh, and struggled at times in the first half of Friday’s game.
“There’s always a learning curve,” said 36-year-old Filer, a chiseled fullback with a touch of gray who owns a physical fitness studio in Des Moines and looks like the fittest person in Polk County.
“But he’s not a young quarterback. He’s been in different leagues, so he knows how to play. He’s just got to catch up to the arena rules and the speed. He’ll be OK.”
Like Banks said, he still has the wheels. After he tore through a scrum to turn an apparent 2-yard gain into a 22-yard touchdown run, he acted like a 30-year-old child on Christmas morning. After another Barnstormers touchdown, he leapt onto the padding of the wall behind the end zone and clutched a crossbar.
He threw five touchdown passes — three to former Iowa State receiver Todd Blythe — and ran for the team’s other two. Had the Barnstormers’ kicker not missed six of seven PAT tries, the margin of victory wouldn’t have been the thinnest possible.
There was pizza in the locker room after the game. And autographs to sign for fans waiting back in the arena. Lots of fans.
“Brad’s the prototype of the Iowa guy,” said Filer, who rushed for a 14-yard touchdown in his final game as a Hawkeyes, the 1996 Alamo Bowl.
“We always want to get good guys who do well in the community and have their heads on straight. That’s what he is. He’s a true professional. He comes and works hard. No ego. Nothing about being a Heisman candidate and all that stuff. He just comes in and works, and we love him.”
The quarterback from a dirt-poor sugar-growing town in south Florida is at home in Iowa, and it showed Friday.
“It’s real exciting being back here, I’ll tell you that,” Banks said. “The fans show a lot of love. I’m just enjoying all of it.”
This week, it’s off to San Jose, Calif., to battle the SaberCats. Life is good.