Banjo Dueling for Roster Spot
by Mike Conklin
August 25, 2013
It didn't make headlines when the Packers signed Chris Banjo off of the NFL scrap heap less than a month ago.
By that time, training camp had already started. There were plenty of other stories more interesting than the latest camp body brought in for a look.
Of course, nobody knew at the time that the player with the funny name would become one of the pleasant surprises of training camp for the Packers. And most were not aware of the long and winding road he traveled before reaching Green Bay.
The Jacksonville Jaguars cut Banjo the day before their training camp opened. Before that, he had already been turned down by the Raiders and Steelers after attending their rookie tryout camps last year. He ended up spending 2012 out of football.
Despite earning several honors and accolades as a four-year starter at Southern Methodist University, Banjo didn't pique the interest of many NFL scouts. Standing under 5'10" and running a 4.50 40-yard dash, he didn't offer the measurables that fit the ideal profile teams look for in their safeties.
When he found himself spending that long year without football, Banjo kept the faith.
He needed a job, so he took a position as a recruiter for a staffing firm. Banjo was determined that working full time to make ends meet would not stop him from chasing his dream. He would regularly wake up at 4:30 in the morning to go work out, and would work out again in the evening. Day after day, month after month, he kept grinding.
His hard work finally paid off.
When SMU held its Pro Day earlier this year, Banjo went back and tried again. This time around, he was able to improve his timed speed. He later said that multiple teams clocked him "in the mid-4.3's" that day. It was a big step.
That impressive display led to other workouts in front of scouts, and eventually Banjo was invited to Jacksonville's rookie tryout camp. After having gone through the same process unsuccessfully the year before, he was able to draw upon his experience. During that three day tryout, Banjo stood out among his peers. The Jaguars had invited 18 players to that tryout, but Banjo was one of only two players signed to a contract.
He spent the next three months with Jacksonville, but as training camp approached Banjo's journey to the NFL took a sharp detour. When the Seahawks released another safety the Jaguars liked, they claimed the other player off waivers. At that point Banjo was expendable, and was let go shortly thereafter.
A few days later, the Packers called.
Training camp had already started by that time, and to most observers the transaction seemed like little more than adding another camp body. Banjo knew the odds were against him, and set out to prove otherwise. Over the following weeks, he started to emerge as something of a surprise player who was putting himself in contention for a possible fourth safety position.
"Banjo has shown up," said his position coach, Darren Perry. "Some guys are just natural football players and I would put him in that category. He has a good football mind."
Having a good football mind is something that has been said about Banjo before, going back to his college days. He was always studying film and preparing mentally for games.
"He's knowledgeable," said current Arizona Cardinals and former SMU cornerback Bryan McCann. McCann was asked about Banjo back when they were teammates in college. McCann was an upperclassman when Banjo was a freshman, and he was impressed by what he saw from the young defensive back at the time.
"He knows the game, because he watches a lot of film. I think he watches more film than anybody on the team. He's always in the film room.
"A lot of times I go up there to get in some film, thinking I'm doing extra work, and Banjo's already there. We didn't have to tell him any of that. That was just him."
In addition to earning the respect of his teammates, Banjo also made an impression on his coaches. SMU started a tradition where a certain jersey number would be awarded to the one player who best represented the program as an ambassador. The tradition was established to honor Jerry LeVias, a former SMU great and the first black scholarship player in the Southwest Conference.
In 2009, Chris Banjo was the first player ever awarded that honor. It was quite a statement about a player entering only his sophomore season.
Banjo went on to start all four of his seasons at SMU, and emerged as an inspirational team leader. His secondary coach, Derrick Odum, spoke in glowing terms during Banjo's final year on campus.
"He does everything right for us," said Odum. "(He's a) great leader for us in the weight room, on the field, and in the classroom.
He's such a great young man, (with) great leadership, that they all gravitate toward him naturally. And when he speaks to them, they all listen and take it to heart."
Banjo may have the character qualities the Packers like in their players, but ultimately it is his play on the field that will determine whether he will remain with the team two weeks from now. And in that regard, Banjo has been opening some eyes.
In two of the three preseason games thus far, he led the team in tackles. In Friday's game against the Seahawks, he showed versatility by playing well in different facets of the game. He was able to play the run (he was one of the few Packers defenders able to slow down Christine Michael, tackling him twice), in coverage (stopping a receiver for a four-yard gain on 3rd-and-5), and on special teams (a must for any bubble player trying to make the team).
Will it be enough to earn him a roster spot? His chances may not be great, but he has played his way into the mix.
If there is anything for which Packers General Manager Ted Thompson may have a soft spot, it may be an undrafted free agent out of Southern Methodist University.
After all, he was in that position himself 38 years ago.
We just couldn't resist...
And on a final note, here is more on Chris Banjo's story...
Photo Credit: Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel