Editor’s Note: Guest columnist Arnold Heflin is an Auburn graduate and the author of the book Mockingbird’s Song: Hettie Keller's 10 Maxims for Peace and Happiness.
A thirty-month-old boy huddled next to his mom on a cold January afternoon in 1951. They were in the stands watching the first Senior Bowl game played in Mobile. The kid kept his eyes fixed on his dad, Tom Banks, a 175-pound guard from Alabama Polytechnic Institute.
In spite of his size, he was chosen to play in the All-Star game because he was a fierce competitor and an All-SEC player. The South team won 19-18. The legendary Steve Owen, coach of the New York Giants from 1930 to 1953, gave the game ball to the great tackle from Kentucky, Bob Gain. He was a two-time All American and winner of the Outland trophy in 1950.
Before Banks left the locker room, Gain walked over to him and gave him the game ball signed by the players. He said, “Little man, I’ve never seen anyone play the game as hard as you do. This ball belongs to you.”
Today, the autographed football is in the den of Tom Banks, Jr., who was inducted into the Senior Bowl Hall of Fame in 1999. We talked recently and I asked him, “Nineteen years after your dad played in the Senior Bowl you played in the game, too. In fact, you and your dad were the first father-son to play in the Senior Bowl. Tell me how you got into football?
“I grew up in the game. After dad graduated, we moved to Birmingham, the hometown of my parents, and he was the head football coach at John Carroll High School for about 15 years. I knew a lot more about practice fields than I did about television. My dad kept me busy as a kid doing push-ups, sit-ups and exercises to strengthen my neck. I started playing ball when I was 11 and by the time I was a senior at Carroll, I was 6-2 and 205 pounds.
“Of course, I always knew if I played college ball it would be at Auburn. Coach Bryant (former Alabama football coach Paul Bryant) asked me to come to Tuscaloosa for a visit, but I told him it would be a waste of time.
“Freshmen could not play varsity ball and I played my sophomore year behind our starting center, Forrest Blue. Blue got hurt his senior year and I started the last two games of my sophomore season. Forrest was the number one pick by San Francisco in the 1968 NFL Draft. When he was drafted, it was the first time I thought about playing in the league, but I knew I had to gain weight and become stronger.”
What was Auburn’s record during your career?
“We were 6-4 my first two years and then along came Sully (quarterback Pat Sullivan), and we won eight games in 1969 losing to Tennessee and LSU. We lost to Houston in the Bluebonnet Bowl played in the Astrodome.”
What Auburn game do you remember most?
Tom chuckled and said, “That’s easy. We beat Alabama at Legion Field 49-26 in 1969, my senior year. I remember we were ahead with about four minutes left in the first half and took possession of the ball on our own 30. As we ran onto the field I looked at Sully and said, “Are we going to run out the clock?
“Pat looked at me like I had forgotten my helmet and said, ‘We have plenty of time to score.’ And we did. I don’t think I have ever jumped higher than I did when Connie Frederick ran 89 yards for a touchdown with a couple of minutes remaining in the game.”
I was at the game, Tom, and I will never forget that play. He went back to punt the ball from our one-yard line and instead ran for a touchdown. I think the line of scrimmage was the fourteen-yard line so officially that was an eighty-six yard run. That was the most points ever scored on a Coach Bryant team.
Tom, who was your favorite coach at Auburn?
“My position coach--George Atkins. He played in the league and he got me tough enough to play professional football. The St. Louis Cardinals drafted me in the eighth round in 1970. I hurt my knee the first year and didn’t play, but after that I played center for the next ten years.
“We struggled in the early ’70s until the Cardinals hired Coach Don Coryell in 1973. He was the head coach for San Diego State University and he brought many of his assistant coaches with him including Joe Gibbs, Jim Hanifan and Rob Dowhower and all of them became head coaches in the NFL.
“Coach Coryell was one of the first people to use what is known as the West Coast Offense. His nickname was ‘Air Coryell,’ and he loved to throw the ball. He turned the team around in 1974 and we went to our first playoff game in 28 years. We played in three consecutive playoff games after that. We had Jim Hart at quarterback and Terry Metcalf, a real scat back. In 1975 Terry set the NFL record for total combined yards in season. It was close to 2,500 yards.”
You know who broke his record?
"Good for him.”
I did some research before I called you and the Cardinals had an incredible offensive line. Three of the five played in the 1976 Pro Bowl: tackle Dan Dierdorf, guard Conrad Dobler and yourself at center. You guys were a force, tell me about your offensive line?
“We had a great one: left tackle Roger Finnie, left guard Bob Young, right guard Conrad Dobler, right tackle Dan Dierdorf and myself at center. In 1974 we threw the ball over 350 times and had only eight sacks. Bob Young was named to the Pro Bowl team twice in the late 70s. Our line coach, Jim Hanifan, was the best coach I’ve ever had.”
Why was he so good?
“Playing on the offensive line, you need to understand and master technique and Jim was a superb teacher. He loved us like we were his children and when you have a coach like that you will give it all you have on every play.”
I recall hearing that Conrad Dobler was the meanest guy in pro football. I heard he used to bite his opponents. Any truth to that?
“Dobler was a tough one. The play that developed his reputation happened one Sunday afternoon when we played the Cowboys. Lee Roy Jordan was their middle linebacker and he jammed Conrad under his facemask with his hand and Conrad almost bit his finger off.”
As you know Tom, I love football and I could talk with you all day long. Just a few more questions, please. Who was the best running back you ever played against?
“Walter Payton (Chicago Bears). He was the only guy I ever saw who could gain yards with no blocking.”
What defensive lineman gave you the most trouble?
“Bob Baumhower (Miami Dolphins), he was so quick off the snap.”
Who was the best football player you ever saw or played against?
“Roger Staubach (Dallas Cowboys quarterback), and by a wide margin.”
You played for the Birmingham Stallions in the USFL didn’t you?
“Yes, I played for the first two years in 1983 and 1984 and I helped coach the last team in 1985.”
Tom, I appreciate your time and please give your mom my love.
“I sure will and if you are anywhere near Fairhope, please stop by and see me.”
War Eagle, Tom.
“War Eagle, Arnold”
Postscript: Every time I asked Tom about his performance, he always deferred to his dad, a teammate, or his beloved Coach, Jim Hanifan. Now, I know why he was such a great player. He was the consummate teammate. Four of the Cardinals' offensive lineman were multiple Pro Bowlers (voted by the players).
It had to be one of the greatest offensive lines in the history of the NFL.
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