Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Sometimes your trip home lasts longer than you expect. That was the case for Aaron Banks.
Banks became the man after the man on April 30. Selected 48th overall, he followed the 49ers’ slightly more high-profile pick, Trey Lance. He was brought in as one of the men who will be tasked with protecting that franchise-altering investment for the long haul.
The whole Banks clan was on hand that Friday night in Napa, not too far from where Aaron had grown up, in El Cerrito. They’d rented a house to watch the draft, and Banks invited those closest to him and those who’d helped him get to that point; his immediate family, girlfriend, high school football coaches and close friends.
While the celebration wasn’t expected to be abbreviated, there was an expectation that it would have to be cut short at some point. Banks had his bags packed in the garage for whichever team picked him and sent him flying to some new part of the country. He’d have to report to wherever that was within three days.
There were a couple of times when he thought he got the call, which instead turned out to be people figuring out how to get to the house. His heart raced, then dropped, and he got back to waiting.
“Please don’t call,” he texted back.
But eventually the call did come in. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t welcomed with golf claps.
General manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan both got a kick out of their struggle to hear Banks through the roar that came from a room full of overjoyed friends and family.
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) May 1, 2021
It’s hard to ask people to contain themselves at a time like that; especially when most of the room, including the majority of Banks’ old coaches, were 49ers fans.
“We tried our best to not just mess that up for him,” Aaron’s father, Lamont, told KNBR. “But once we were shut off… man.”
Video courtesy of Kenny Kahn
Aaron being drafted by the 49ers meant those bags could stay packed. He popped a bottle of champagne in the backyard and had time to breathe with those who mattered most to him. A surprise bonus came from the owner of the home, who was watching the draft with his son — both 49ers fans — who realized that the Aaron Banks they just watched get drafted was the same Aaron Banks who was renting their house.
The owner called Lamont to ask if he could stop by and congratulate them. The homeowner and his son got some autographs and he gave the Banks family a wine tasting, donated some pork from his pork farm next door, and extended their stay for another three days to allow them to soak in the moment.
“It was like a once in a lifetime moment,” Lamont said. “To see my family, and see my son just, in a pick, move to another level, to another high. His life is gonna change, and what a dude that deserves it.”
Lamont was not a 49ers fan. He’s trying to come around to it, though. When the pick came in, the lifelong Raiders fan said he said reached into his pocket for his Raiders mask and had a moment with it, briefly lamenting that his team, which had traded up five spots with the 49ers from 48 to 43, had wasted its chance to draft his son.
“Raiders, it was your pick, but I think I gotta put you back in my pocket,” he said.
Lamont says he’s softening his stance though, and always respected the success of the 49ers. He’s already bought a 49ers hat, and that’s a real step.
At a family birthday when Banks’ kids were younger, his older brother, Ronnie, brought a haul of 49ers gear to his house for a birthday party. Ronnie could stay, but Lamont said he told him, “the gear has to go.” That gear’s no longer off limits.
That return home can be tricky to navigate. Players who get drafted where they grew up have to face a layer of pressure that’s impossible to prepare for. It’s a burden of your newly-earned wealth being very public, and the inevitable ask for favors.
Aaron’s former and now current teammate Mike McGlinchey warned him.
“There’s a little pressure that comes with that and there’s a lot of people that you know that are still close to you and you gotta learn how to be a pro and manage all that,” McGlinchey said on KNBR on May 4. “I know for me, if it was me in Philadelphia, it’d be a whole different story. So it’s definitely something that’s a really cool blessing for him but it’s also something that’s going to present a challenge, and he’s gonna have to learn to be a pro and be a grown man pretty quick.”
Aaron, though, has said he’s not concerned about those potential distractions.
“I haven’t thought twice about it,” he said. “When I can help some of my family, I will, but if I can’t, I’m gonna say no. I don’t think that has been on my mind at all.”
Aaron is one of four kids: his older sister, Dalisia, 28, his older brother, Lamont Jr., 25, himself, 23, and his younger brother, Franklin, 20.
He has myriad people to thank for getting to this point; his parents, Lamont and Teresa, his high school football coach Kenny Kahn, his offensive line partners and offensive line coach at Notre Dame, Harry Hiestand — but in talking to Banks, his father and Kahn, it’s clear much of it comes back to his sister.
Anyone with sisters knows how tough they can be, and Dalisia reigned supreme over her younger three brothers. With both parents often busy, she was in charge. And she could hold her own.
“She was the alpha,” Aaron said. “Huge shout out to her. My parents were often pretty busy. Coming up, she did a great job of stepping in, taking care of us when she had to.”
“[She] ruled in my house until she was maybe 13, 14,” said Lamont. “It took three of them to take her down. She ruled, which was the best thing in the world for them because they were the boys that didn’t actually get into a whole lot of stuff because she was always on their butts. Plus, she’s heavy-handed.”
“She kind of instilled in them boys that they’re not going to be any punks. They were tough on each other, but being tough on each other made them stronger. And they felt that and they always had confidence because of it.”
Aaron was humbled early. His father, a former football player, and mother, a former bodybuilder, made sure their kids, who were extremely competitive with one another, were active. That meant literally 1,000-2,000 jump ropes and/or a couple hundred free throws every night before bed.
Get in trouble? You’d be jumping rope “for a while.”
Part of that routine came from the fact that the Banks children were so large for their age growing up that they weren’t allowed to play in football until they got older. That’s where basketball and jump rope came in, laying the groundwork for Aaron to be agile and crafty with his footwork.
Lamont described his kids as a goofy bunch. When he had to bring them with him to work on his contracting jobs, he’d leave them with masking paper and tape to come back to now-mummified children, wrapped up and sometimes sliding around the room in rolling chairs.
That dynamic set the foundation for Aaron. It was a competitive, but goofy family that prioritized work ethic.
Lamont said he rarely had to worry about his son. In high school, Aaron was proactively helping other students who found themselves in trouble. He was part of a program at El Cerrito called the Culture Keepers, which sought to provide help to students who were struggling, via mindfulness practices.
That allowed students to feel like they could get help and reach out to their peers without the fear or uncomfortability of talking to a school administrator. As his high school football coach Kahn — who will start as principal at Redwood High School next year in Castro Valley — put it, it was difficult not to accept help from Aaron.
“It’s really hard [to say no] when the biggest, most physical athlete on campus is giving you that olive branch and saying, ‘Hey, let’s take a walk, let’s talk about it, tell me what’s going on. How are you feeling?’” Kahn said. “He’s such a supportive person in so many capacities.”
That continued at Notre Dame, where Lamont said his son quietly built a bond with a young, neuroatypical fan, spending time with him on the sidelines, giving him autographs, gloves and other memorabilia.
Kahn’s bond with Banks continued while he was at college. His son, Theo, was the first baby Aaron — a bit hesitantly, asking Kahn, “you’re trusting me with this?” — ever held. Whenever he got home from school, Kahn said Aaron always checked in with his family.
He said Aaron has a relationship with him and his wife, and that Theo, bless his heart, brags that Aaron is his best friend.
“He’d show up, grab some sandwiches, watch a movie or two,” Kahn said. “I remember watching the women’s NCAA tournament when Notre Dame went off a couple years back. It was just fun to have him at the house hanging out. He always wants to stay connected to the people who put on for him.”
And as a protector, well, Kahn does not recommend poking the “Dancing Bear” — the nickname his college offensive coordinator Chip Long gave him. He took a page out of the Zach Randolph book.
“I wouldn’t mess with his quarterback or his backfield,” Kahn said. “Because, when I talk about him not being a bully, he’ll bully bullies.”
Room full of alphas
It was at Notre Dame where Lamont says his son became the man he is. He enters the NFL with a draft class of four other Notre Dame senior offensive linemen in Liam Eichenberg (Round 2, Pick 42 – Miami), Robert Hainsey (Round 3, Pick 95 – Tampa Bay) and Tommy Kraemer (undrafted free agent – signed with Detroit).
That group learned from McGlinchey’s class as freshmen, and will be challenged to match what that group has already accomplished in the NFL. Banks came into Notre Dame under a group of seniors that were, as Long called them, “a group of alphas.”
There was McGlinchey, Quenton Nelson (arguably the best interior offensive lineman in the NFL), Alex Bars (starting right guard for the Bears), Sam Mustipher (starting center for the Bears) and Hainsey, who was starting as a freshman.
All Aaron had to do was take over for Nelson, who, again, might be the best interior offensive lineman in the NFL. But he’d spent that first year being able to learn from Nelson and Bars, so, when Bars got injured against Stanford in Week 5 and his opportunity came, he wasn’t harrowed by the pressure of slotting into a starting spot as a redshirt freshman on an undefeated team.
After a game during their freshman year, Lamont said he met Nelson and asked a favor of the now three-time All-Pro guard.
“I said man, would you please look out for my son?'” Lamont said. “He says, ‘Man, I’m gonna take him, and I’m going to show him as much as I can. And you can best believe’ — and he put his arm around Aaron’s shoulder — ‘I got him.’ And you know what? I knew that kid was telling me the truth. And he never failed him.”
It’s that part of Banks’ experience that he, and everyone around him, could feel shaping him. Those offensive line rooms were especially close-knit, in part due to the culture of Notre Dame and the way Hiestand hand-picked his offensive linemen, but also because they all came in at the same time and grew together.
“Them dudes were down for each other and that’s what makes the difference,” said Lamont. “To me, that’s why my son became the man that he is.”
That’s not a gimmick. As the 49ers went through the draft process, McGlinchey, who was one of the few 49ers players still around the team facility at that time, was stumping for his Notre Dame teammates.
Kyle Shanahan said McGlinchey begged the 49ers to grab another golden domer, and was understandably ecstatic to see that come to fruition. Asked if he was really campaigning for his teammates to the extent Shanahan said he was, McGlinchey told KNBR: “Absolutely.”
“It wasn’t just Banks, it was the rest of the Notre Dame haul, too,” McGlinchey said. “I was excited about all four of those guys with Liam Eichenberg, Tommy Kramer and Rob Hainsey. The four of those guys, I played with, I knew them, I know what is coached at that school, I know what they look like, I know who they are as workers, I know who they are as teammates. And I think the sky’s the limit for all of them and especially for Aaron. And so I made sure that we were going to get one of them.”
Not the right fit? ‘That criticism is crazy to me’
That’s all well and good. Aaron Banks, the local kid, comes home and gets to play with his former Notre Dame teammate on a team that’s ready to compete now and for the future. Everything looks bright.
But it’s all got to happen on the field, and there has already been some criticism of Banks, or at the least, his fit with the 49ers. That criticism seems only slightly insane given that he hasn’t even had a day of training camp under his belt, but hey, if you don’t get your takes in early, you can’t claim you were right later.
The criticism of Banks is that he isn’t a good zone blocking fit, and would fit better in a power or gap system. Again, he’s yet to start training camp, let alone play a preseason snap, let alone play in a regular season game.
Those critiques seem tethered more to the fact that the 49ers have had Mike Person and Daniel Brunskill at right guard, who weren’t as massive as Banks, and had solid short-area quickness in zone runs. Basically, the criticism goes, Banks, at 6’6″ and a listed 325 pounds, is very large, and very large guys tend to not move as well as smaller guys.
Some of that, too, is based on scheme. Notre Dame started to run more zone blocking runs under under offensive coordinator Tommy Rees in 2020 than under Long. Long said he thinks some of the criticism may stem simply from the fact that Banks was asked to gap block often in his offense.
But you don’t get the nickname “Dancing Bear” for being heavy on you feet. Long gave him the nickname in practice one day as a compliment to his agility for his size and flexibility. At that time, Banks was playing tackle, too, and proficiently.
It is patently impossible to watch Banks’ tape and come to the conclusion that he doesn’t move well, or is incapable of fitting into a zone system.
If you have questions about Banks’ athleticism, let’s amend that. He was a back-to-back North Coast Section champion at El Cerrito in basketball, and helped El Cerrito to its first-ever NCS football championship in 2013, too. You see him in the clips below working in the post, showing off baby hooks with either hand, up-and-unders, spinning out of the low block, facilitating off the dribble, and blocking a couple of shots.
When you see his high school football tape, you feel simultaneously awed and bad for the kids he was facing. He played both offensive and defensive tackle, and it’s on the defensive side where you really see that explosiveness and short area quickness.
But there are a couple plays on this reel at offensive tackle that are pure bulldozer material. In the first clip, he sends a kid to his back with ease, and that kid stays there for… a while.
The second play is etched in Lamont Banks’ mind. As he remembered it, his son drove another player for about 25 yards, but it was a fuzzier memory for Aaron.
When draft day rolled around and media were looking for tape of Aaron in high school, Kahn obliged. And there it was, just as Lamont remembered it; Aaron Banks literally driving another player straight back from his own 38-yard-line to the other team’s 42. Only a mere 20 yards (0:48 mark in the video below).
Still, there’s that criticism out there, and even if Banks is perfect from the moment he sets foot on the field, there will be new critics with new criticism. It’s the name of the game when you’re playing professional sports.
McGlinchey was criticized as harshly as anyone last season, and acknowledged his role in that, in what was an immensely difficult season for the 49ers behind the scenes.
But criticizing a player who has yet to take the field? McGlinchey said he can’t understand that especially for a guy he described as a “nasty player,” who has obvious, above average athleticism.
“Just because someone’s size is what it is, doesn’t mean he isn’t a scheme fit,” McGlinchey said. “Kyle Shanahan is as good — and so is John — at identifying talent and things that fit within our ballclub. If people truly believe that about Aaron Banks, they’re obviously not watching film, they’re obviously not watching football and they obviously don’t really know what they’re looking for because no matter how big he is, no matter how he looks, Aaron can move. Aaron is an exceptional athlete. You watch him in space, you watch him coming off the ball, he’s a perfect fit for what we do and the more he’s coached here and the better that he gets to unleash his athletic ability and fine tune that technique, he’s going to be a force for us.
“To critique a guy and question an offensive coach who has proven time and time again that he’s always right, is pretty astounding to me. I don’t know how people could do that… That criticism is crazy to me.”
One area that Aaron excelled at Notre Dame was as a blocker in the screen game. Long told KNBR that he would actively look for Banks in practices and games and try to run screens to his side.
“He’s one of the best screen offensive linemen I’ve ever seen, being able to get out in space and stay on defenders and he’s just so massive and so talented, with his athleticism,” Long said. “Every time I’d try to run a screen I’d always go, ‘Where’s Banks? Run it to him,’ because he’d always be able to get it going.”
To some extent, Aaron said he understands the criticism. People who haven’t seen him play will see his size and assume, as a bigger player, that he won’t move as well.
He shot back at that criticism, but made clear he’s not concerned with those opinions.
“Obviously coach Shanahan had a vision and saw something he liked and I hate to say it like this, but sometimes people who write these articles haven’t played the game, and aren’t in and out of the facility every day to see what these coaches see,” Banks said. “I don’t give a damn what these people say, if they’re talking bad or talking good. If it’s not going to make me better, or help me be a better player, or do whatever I need to do on the field, then it doesn’t matter.”
We’re still about three months away from the start of the NFL season and Banks’ debut, but Kahn said his growth as a person and player, and homecoming is already meaningful to other kids growing up in the Bay.
“It’s awesome to see in the Bay Area so many Black and brown men continuing to grow,” Kahn said. “Because I think that’s a hard narrative sometimes that we have to push and so to see Aaron on the platform that he is now, I think, is a message to so many young Black and brown kids that hard work, potential, taking in advice, coaching and mentorship, actualizing potential, anyone can do it… it’s different for every person, but he’s such a beacon of light.”