BRITISH COLUMBIA

Diminutive Tiger-Cats returner Brandon Banks makes his mark in game of giants

11/26/2014 03:46 EST | Updated 01/26/2015 05:59 EST
VANCOUVER - At six foot five and 325 pounds, Peter Dyakowski fits in nicely when it comes to the supersized world of pro football.

Caterpillar would have a hard time moving the Hamilton Tiger-Cats offensive lineman.

But the big man couldn't help but be envious of pint-sized teammate Brandon Banks on the trip out to the Grey Cup.

"I like being a big guy but we were flying out on the plane (Tuesday), we were eating our dinner and all the O-lineman were like this," said Dyakowski, mimicking eating in a scrunched-up position.

"And Brandon's sitting back, enjoying a nice relaxed dinner in this giant chair that he gets to sit in, with all the space in the world. I guess sometimes he's got a leg up on us."

Banks is listed at five foot seven and 153 pounds. But pressed by reporters, the kick returner/receiver known as Speedy or Speedy-B admits to some poetic licence.

"I've always been the smallest guy and I honestly probably weigh 149 pounds," he said after practice Wednesday at B.C. Place Stadium.

While it is home to all body types, the Canadian Football League is still a game of giants. Reporters scattered when a passing play neared the sideline Wednesday. The Hamilton players, wearing shoulder pads and helmets, were not going at full speed but still managed to make like a thundering herd.

Amidst the blunt instruments, Banks cut through like a scalpel. An elegant runner, he can change gears in an instant — like a car with a nitrous oxide system.

"I just feel any time I touch the ball, I have the possibility of going the distance," he said.

He did that twice on electric punt returns last weekend — three times if you count a 78-yard runback for a score that was called back due to a penalty — in Hamilton's 40-24 Eastern final win over the Montreal Alouettes.

Banks had five punt returns for a playoff-record 226 yards. His two TD returns — which covered 93 and 88 yards — also tied a playoff mark. The North Carolina native had three carries for 35 yards and four catches for 33 yards to finish with 294 total yards.

His second TD return was a marvel as he left Als players twisting in the wind.

"It was almost like Casper the Ghost because it looks like we were just grasping for air and he wasn't there," said Montreal coach Tom Higgins.

"Brandon Banks is absolutely a special player. He just has a gift," said Ticats slotback Luke Tasker. "That's all there is to it."

With kickers penalized for punting the ball out of bounds other than within the 20-yard line, it is hard to escape Banks.

Is his size an advantage, he was asked?

"It has its pros and cons," he said. "Because when I get hit, it don't feel good.

"But it does have a little bit of advantage. I've got a little bit of wiggle with me to get away from bigger guys."

One opponent he relishes seeing in his sights is the kicker — usually the last man to beat, a pylon in opposition colours.

"That's the best thing. That's like Christmas morning for me," he said with a laugh.

Banks, 26, spent three years as a returner for the Washington Redskins but came north last year after the NFL team did not tender the restricted free agent an offer.

"I don't think I got a fair shake," he said of his time in the NFL. "I don't think I got an opportunity to show my wide receiver skills."

NFL rule changes also reduced the role of a returner on kickoffs.

"But everything happens for a reason," said Banks, who is due to become a free agent after Sunday's championship game. "I'm glad to be here."

It has all added to the size of the chip on Banks' shoulder. He has been doubted at every level of football.

Hamilton coach Kent Austin says he continues to be surprised by what Banks can do on the field.

"He's really, really competitive, and he plays with a lot of confidence, you know. But some of the things that he does on the field, yeah, obviously you can't coach. We're just lucky to have a guy with that kind of talent.

"Now, that being said, I don't think he's going to surprise Calgary. I mean, they're really good on defensive special teams. They cover well. And we've got a big challenge in front of us to continue to hold blocks and give Brandon a chance.

"But he's just a really talented young man that's always had to overcome the 'I'm not big enough' talk, and 'too small to play, not strong enough,' all of those things, yet he continues to break tackles, make plays, and gets the ball in the end zone.

Edmonton's Tony Tompkins was the last man to return a kickoff for a TD in the Grey Cup, rambling 96 yards in the Eskimos' 38-35 win over Montreal in the 2005 championship game in Vancouver.

Toronto's Jimmy (The Jet) Cunningham returned a punt 80 yards for a TD in the 1996 Grey Cup when the Argos defeated Edmonton 43-37 in Hamilton.

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