THERE WERE PLENTY OF REASONS FOR JOHNTHAN BANKS TO SAY HE WAS LEAVING. HERE was a cornerback tabbed by some experts to be an early-round selection in the NFL draft, sitting across from his head coach in Starkville and weighing whether to play his senior season or turn pro. Fifteen miles away, in Pheba, was the apartment where his girlfriend of four years, Mallory Mosley, lives with the couple's infant son, K.J.
Leaving school would have meant a chance for Banks to become what he calls "a man of my own," to provide for his girlfriend and their son in the way a student-athlete cannot. It would have ensured that his son would never have to grow up the way Banks did, seeing his family members often struggle to make ends meet. When it came time to give coach Dan Mullen an answer, Banks indeed thought about Mallory and K.J., but instead of the future, he focused on the present: He told a thankful Mullen that he would be sticking around Starkville. His reason? "If I went to the NFL," says Banks, "I couldn't see my little boy grow up."
There was also the allure of staying home for the self-described "good ol' country boy" out of the sleepy town of Maben (pop. 871), a 25-minute drive from Davis Wade Stadium. Raised by his grandparents after his father died in a car accident when Johnthan was eight years old and his mother moved to Starkville, Banks grew up riding horses through town and tossing a football to himself in the streets. He was an avid Mississippi State fan who, as a teenager, made the trip to see the Bulldogs play whenever he could, usually with a dozen or so friends, and imagined himself one day taking the field as the school's quarterback.
Banks did what he needed to do to follow that dream. He became a versatile star at Maben's East Webster High, scoring 16 touchdowns as a junior tailback, then accounting for 17 scores as a quarterback while also being named second-team all-state at linebacker during his senior season. His play earned him a scholarship offer from then Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom, who envisioned using Banks, with his 4.5 speed, as a receiver. But by the time Banks arrived on campus, things had changed. Mullen had replaced Croom, and after secondary coach Melvin Smith, a holdover from Croom's tenure, showed Banks around campus, Banks was caught off-guard with a bit of news. "He told me I was coming in there to play corner," Banks recalls. "That kind of shocked me."
Luckily for all involved, Smith's new charge took to the secondary quickly, first shifting to free safety as a true freshman in 2009 and earning a ball hawking reputation with a pair of two-interception games, including two pick-sixes against Tim Tebow. The next year Banks made a smooth transition to cornerback, starting 12 of 13 games. Last year he ranked third in the SEC in passes defended (14) and tied for fourth in interceptions (five). Now with Banks poised to become the next Bulldog to represent the program in the pros, his larger-than-life likeness is emblazoned on a highway billboard.
But for one more fall he will remain in Starkville. He'll ride his four horses back in Maben at every opportunity and stop by his grandmother's house daily. Mallory and K.J. came to April's spring game and plan to be at Davis Wade often to see Banks play his final year as a local star. "I'm looking forward to him coming to watch me do what I do," Banks says. And as he wanted, he'll get to watch K.J. too.