Warren Bankston, Steelers Fullback, 1969-1972
First, can you let readers know what you’ve been doing with yourself these days?
After four years with the Steelers and then six years with the Raiders, I moved back to Louisiana to be near my mother and two brothers. I have been in several different business opportunities as an employee, such as Tulane University Athletic Dept., then, a company that makes shrimp processing equipment, but in 2000, I got an entrepreneurial bug. I am now the Managing Member of two LLC’s, one dealing with a Hospital Disinfectant, and the other in commercial property that we own and sell as the market demands.
I now have four children and seven grandchildren. One thing on my bucket list that I accomplished: I learned to fly a single engine land plane, got my license, and then quit flying after a year or so.
As a multi-sport star in college,what made you decide to play professional football – especially when the pay at that time was not exactly stellar?
My initial plans were to enter law school, but as my college athletic career developed, I started receiving a lot of correspondence from pro teams around the league, and the final question from them was always, “Would you play for the (fill in the blank) if we drafted you?” My answer was always “Yes”. The window of opportunity is always open after one’s playing days to do other things, so I thought if I were drafted, there’s no way I would want to wake up one day and say, “Oh my goodness, here I am at 64 years old, and I may have been able to play in the NFL.”
I don’t regret the decision even though I only made $20,000 my first year, finishing up with $65,000 my last year in 1978. Because of playoff money, I did make more than the base salaries I mentioned. But you know…money was not the issue. Regrets (later on in life when it’s too late) of not playing were the issue. To me, $20,000 was about $19,900 more than I was used to.
For the record, I only played football at Tulane, except for one track meet when I threw the javelin…and won !! But, I was a four sport letterman in high school, earning fourteen letters, with the highlight being the State Champion in Class AA javelin throw.
Then, all the State Champions in Louisiana in the different classes threw against each other for a true State Champion…I threw against Terry Bradshaw, and you might have guessed it, he threw for a national record of 244 feet+ that stood for quite some time. Who would have known we would be teammates just 5 years later in 1970?
The Steelers were a team still struggling when they drafted you. How did you feel getting drafted by a team with such a long history of losing?
Coincidentally, the Steelers were NOT one of the teams contacting me after my senior year. Go figure. When I was drafted by them in the second round along with Terry Hanratty (I was the third pick, we had two in the second round), I didn’t know much about the Steelers. I didn’t research their records or anything like that. I was just blessed and excited to be chosen.
After playing in the Blue-Gray game and the Senior Bowl, I knew I was a decent prospect for the NFL, and my secret thoughts were always, “Please let me be drafted by the New Orleans Saints.” They had just entered the league in 1967, so I figured I had a decent shot at making the team. I am a home boy deep down, and I just wanted to be near family.
A fun fact: When my hometown paper in Hammond, LA wrote the story about my being drafted, they misspelled Steelers…they had Pittsburgh Stealers.
You came on board for Chuck Noll’s first year. What was that first year like- how did you see the team adjusting to Noll?
Coach Noll was dedicated, focused and committed to building a winner. We worked hard, and many of the older players were cut to make room for about 12-14 rookies (Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, etc.) He ran a tight ship and was not extremely approachable, but if you could play, you were there for the long haul.
I later found out that he was proficient in Spanish, could fly an airplane, was an expert in wines, cooking, knew electronics fairly well, and more. He was well-rounded in many matters. When we went 1-13 that first year, we invented ways to lose games. It was pathetic, but Chuck never waivered. He was in a rebuilding mode, and he stuck to it. The remaining three years after 1969, we went 5-9, 6-8, and then 11-3, playing Miami in the AFC Championship game. Unfortunately, we were their 16th victim in their famous 17-0 season. The rest is history. Four Super Bowls under Chuck’s leadership in twenty-three seasons.
I have so much respect for him, and I hope he is doing well. One of the coaches, Lou Riecke, our strength coach at Pittsburgh, recently told me that Chuck’s health was not good. I send my best wishes to him via this interview.
How did Coach Noll handle that first season – how was he so successful at turning the team around?
Simply put, he knew what he wanted to do by setting a high standard of professionalism for himself and demanding the same from the players and coaches. After the 1972 season, the seeds had been planted, and the players responded with desire, dedication and determination. Once you know you can win, it is just a matter of performance on the field-execution-that wins games. None of the coaches suited up. Their job was to prepare the players, mentally, physically, and psychologically. They did a great job.
Chuck used to say two things I remember: First, “if you want to know who lost the game, go look in the mirror.” Second, “luck is preparation meeting opportunity.” He would lose his temper occasionally, but his demeanor was business-like, straightforward, consistent and honest. No sucker punches and no withholding the facts. He told us like it WAS.
When you came to the team as a rookie – how did you prove yourself to your coaches and teammates?
I actually laugh when I think about my rookie year. Here I was a second round draft choice from a hot and humid area in Louisiana. I was approached by a sportswriter who asked how I would use the unusual hot muggy weather in Latrobe to my advantage. I responded, “Well, I feel sorry for those guys from cold weather states. I played in New Orleans and it is OPPRESSIVE down there. This will give me a decided advantage, and I intend to take full advantage of it.” I was the first one out (for three days no less) with heat prostration.
After I returned, I felt really good, but I was not playing well, for whatever reason. Maybe I was overwhelmed by the level at which I was playing, I don’t know. But for some reason, the Steelers kept me, and as the statistics show, I was average at best. After Rocky Bleier returned from his injuries in the war, he and I became roommates and developed a great friendship. He became an inspiration to me, which lasts until this day. However, I do have one small complaint: in his book, Fighting Back, he acknowledged my rubbing his injured foot quite often, but when the movie was made, I was not part of it. I still tease Rocky about that, but he said they “consolidated” the characters. Whatever !!! LOL
Who took you under their wing as a rookie and helped mentor you – and how did they do so?
No one did. Earl Gros was from LSU, and as a fellow fullback and a fellow Louisianian, we were friendly, but it’s every man for himself trying to make the team. After the season starts, everybody is a mentor and MOST of the guys are friendly. A few exceptions here and there, but that comes with any organization. I will say the two most likeable players on the team (to me) were Andy Russell and Ray Mansfield. They were both outstanding players and great human beings. Joe Greene was the consummate professional, on and off the field.
Who were the characters and leaders on those teams – and how did they do so?
One of the all time characters I played with was John “Frenchy” Fuqua. He was hilarious and one heck of a player. He would come into training camp out of shape, breathing hard and tired just warming up…you get the picture, but when he lined up for action, he was a lightning bolt. I asked him how he did that, and he said, “Say Banks, I just eat six big black olives before each practice.” I asked him what would happen if he couldn’t get six big black olives, and he said, “Then I just eat twelve little black olives.” Then, he would laugh that certain way that only Frenchy could do. He also would win the dress-off competition each year, by wearing big hats, robes, etc. He was one-of-a-kind.
Some of the leaders on the teams were Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Mel Blount, Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Ray Mansfield, Andy Russell, but the most respected player of all was Dick Hoak. There are others through those years, but these guys stand out. By the way, none of them were RAH RAH guys. They just led by example.
Who were some of the toughest guys you lined up against – on other teams and in practice – and what made them so?
Joe Greene made a yellow streak grow down the middle of my back !! Another teammate that would whack you was Mel Blount…big, rangy, fast, with an attitude. The only other player I ever truly feared was Dick Butkus. Legend has it, that he would tear off his grandma’s arm if she played on an opposing team. As it turned out, he gave me two concussions in the same game. I don’t remember much of the game, but I never forgot him…who would forget him?
Chicago also had two great defensive backs, but I think they played when I was with the Raiders: Doug Plank and Gary Fencik. Both were very aggressive and loved contact at full speed. Jack Tatum was like that. Another great defensive back was Larry Wilson with the St. Louis Cardinals…he could have easily been a linebacker had he been bigger. Goodness, he was like a man possessed. He was awesome.
As a player who came into the league as a fullback, how do you feel about the new pass-happy, little-used fullback NFL?
Well, that’s a good question. Most fullbacks today are short and stocky, and become lead blockers for folks like Pierre Thomas with the Saints, as an example. Every now and then, a fullback catches a flare pass, or a short out pattern, but the game has changed ever since the 49’ers introduced their flair for passing, but then, why not? Great QB’s, such as Joe Montana, Steve Young, Terry Bradshaw, Bret Favre, Aaron Rodgers, Dan Marino, Drew Brees, and many many others have taken the art of passing to the next level.
Players (receivers) are much taller, athletic and anxious to have the ball. It’s been an evolution from “three yards and cloud of dust”, (featuring the likes of Larry Csonka, Jim Brown, John Riggins, Franco, Bronco Nagurski, and again, many more), to a “let’s give ’em a thrill” with the passing game. With kickoffs now going out of the end zone, the thrill of kickoff returns has negated one aspect of an exciting moment, but the passing game is here to stay and keep the thrills alive and well.
How difficult was it for you to have been traded to the Raiders in 1973? It seemed to work out well for you too, as you became the team captain and won a Super Bowl as well?
When I got the call from Chuck that I been traded, I didn’t sleep for three weeks!
I had gone through the entire 1973 training camp and all of the pre-season games as a fifth year Pittsburgh Steeler. I had been moved to tight end that year, and fortunately, I had a pretty fair game against the Minnesota Vikings (as a Steeler). The Raiders had an injury and traded for me based on that performance and they were opening their season against the Vikings. When I left the next day for Oakland, I was greeted by a coach that told me that I would be practicing twice a day for a couple of weeks — to catch up. Remember, two-a-days had been over for weeks, and here I was on the field by myself with one coach, teaching me a complex Raider system, that took nearly two years to master.
I never became a starter for either team, but the Raiders acknowledged my special teams play, and I was elected by my teammates as special teams captain my last four years with them. It was honor to walk out with Willie Brown and Gene Upshaw for the coin flip. They let me call the coin flip, and in case you didn’t know, I got every call right the entire season we won Super Bowl XI. The next year, I got them all right except for the AFC championship game against the Broncos. We lost the game…I still take the blame.
My mom didn’t go to Pasadena for our SB victory. She said the next year, Super Bowl XII, was in New Orleans. I told her that we would be a target for every team, and that we MIGHT not make it to New Orleans. She replied, “Well, who could beat y’all? I laughed. The rest is history. I should have gotten the coin toss correctly in Denver. My mother was widowed when I was a freshman at Tulane. My dad had also played in Pasadena on January 1, 1932. They went in at 11-0, but were beaten by USC, 21-12. That record held until 1998 when Tulane went 12-0. Mom passed away on June 7, 2004, never having seen her baby boy play in the Super Bowl, although she did see a couple of games during my 10 years in the NFL.
What are some of the best memories you’ve taken away from your playing days in Pittsburgh?
Playing football in Pittsburgh was a great experience. Not only did I have a chance to be in the pros, but the Steeler players who were ordinary and those who are now in the NFL Hall of Fame will burn in my memory until the day I am no longer here. To be a very small part of the Steeler legacy is awesome, although I do tell folks that the Steelers didn’t become great until they traded me away !!
The Immaculate Reception was the highlight of my time there. What a play! Hollywood scriptwriters couldn’t have come up with anything better than that. Having friends such as Rocky Bleier, Bob Adams, and others– all leaving an indelible mark on me for their courage, friendship, sense of humor and a host of other great qualities.
Another memory I cherish is the first pro game against the Detroit Lions when I scored the winning touchdown in a 16-13 victory, the ONLY game we won the entire year. Playing against the mighty Miami Dolphins in the AFC Championship game is a great memory. That season and that game was the beginning of the powerhouse teams produced by the Steelers over the years under Chuck Noll.
The Rooney family was so very special. The “Chief” (Art Rooney, Sr.) would call us into his office, give us tickets to the Pirates games, and visit with us as if we were his own kids. Playing at Three Rivers Stadium was a bit rough on the body (hey, artificial turf has come a long way), but now that the stadium is gone, no one can take away the electricity that the great fans of Pittsburgh brought each week.
Remembering the Steel Curtain signs, and later the Terrible Towels, sports writer Myron Cope, Jim Boston (who signed me to my first contract), Dan Rooney, Art Jr., the great coaches, our trainer, Ralph Berlin, and the many assistants and office personnel who worked tirelessly to make the Steelers into a feared and respected organization. To all involved: JOB WELL DONE. For those people that I have not called out by name, forgive me. All of you were special.
Any last thoughts for readers?
No team, in my opinion, has ever made a mark in the NFL like the Steelers have. Once a down-trodden franchise, the Steelers introduced a great head coach, who knew how to build a winner. The seasons are not always winning ones, regardless of the coach or franchise…look at the Raiders over the last decade or so…but the Steelers are an organization that will always bring fond memories to those who know and love sports.
The sentiments I feel for the Steelers…well, I also feel for the Raiders. John Madden was fun to play for, the players were kids dressed up as adults (hee hee), and the fans were in the same league as the Steeler fans. Al Davis was all of the things you read about…maverick, Just win Baby, commitment to excellence. He spent much of his life dedicated to the sport in different capacities.
One thing most people don’t know is how he never forgot the players who retired. We had many events that he invited us to and he always footed the entire bill. Never seeking publicity about it, most people don’t know how generous he was. I saw him a year ago in November 2010. We had a memorial service for George Blanda. It’s hard to believe that when George was in his first pro season in 1949, I was only two years old…and lo and behold, we wind up as teammates. When I came home from George’s memorial service, I told my wife that Al did not look well, and that he may not be with us much longer. He may not be missed by all, but for those of us who knew him, even though he was a peculiar guy, he was devoted to those who wore the Silver and Black. I will always be grateful for the opportunity to play there.
For those readers who are parents or grandparents of aspiring athletes, just remember that until the game gets on the college level or higher, it’s just a fun game to play and watch. Enjoy the fun. Let the kids be kids. For the kids who want to be an athlete, here’s what I think it takes: time devoted to practice and learning the game, respect for authority, the three D’s (desire, dedication, determination), athletic ability to whatever degree, being a team player (you can’t do it alone), good health, and a competitive nature and a passion to play. There’s probably more, but I am done.
And when you don’t know what to do, or which direction to go, read Proverbs 3:5-6.