Part 2 of my interview with former All-Pro center Tom Banks. We discuss the Cardiac Cards and his teammates. Yes, there will be a Part 3, as we spent another 25 minutes on the phone again on Friday!
Q: Let’s talk about the Cardiac Cards and the offensive line. You guys set an NFL record by allowing only 8 QB sacks in 1975 and you also blocked for the NFC’s leading rusher that season, Jim Otis.
Banks: It was a great offensive team. We had great receivers, Metcalf and Otis in the backfield, plus Steve Jones was the third back who came in on short yardage situation that gave us some real power. The main thing was Jim Hanifan put this group together. It was my sixth year, Dan’s fifth, Conrad’s fourth, Bob Young had been around awhile, and Jim developed Roger Finnie to take Ernie’s (McMillan) place and it was just a really good offensive line. We started running the ball consistently up the middle and we had outside ability so it really opened up the passing game so much because they had to play the run first. When you have to play the run, you can’t pin your ears back and rush the passer. The main thing is we worked to get that running game better every day. You know, people talk about wanting to emphasize running the ball effectively, but it comes down to one thing. You’ve got to get down and dirty every day. And it’s hitting, and now I don’t think they put pads on during the week, but that’s the only way to do it.
Q: Talk about some of your fellow offensive lineman. You mentioned Bob Young earlier. How about Conrad Dobler?
Banks: Conrad got cut in training camp in 1972 and we reminded him of it all the time. He was a defensive lineman in college and had no experience playing offensive line. He had no technique. He tried to do things the way the coaches told him, and he didn’t do very well, so they let him go. We had some injuries and he came back a couple of weeks later. He decided he was going to kick somebody’s ass every day. And that’s what he did! (laughing) Our defensive guys hated him. They hated practicing against him. Conrad’s theory was “I tried it your way and it didn’t work, now I’m going to try it my way.” And he knew one thing. “If I kick this guy’s ass across from me, someone’s going to pat me on the back and say good things about me.” And that’s what he did.
Q: Your view on Dobler’s relationship with Rams Hall of Famer Merlin Olsen.
Banks: (Laughing) It was great! With all due respect to Merlin, he was in the Pro Bowl like 12 times, he was a great, great player. But he messed with the wrong guy when you start talking about Conrad. And Conrad ran him out of the game the next year after the playoff loss (1976 regular season game). Olsen took himself out of the game, and you don’t do that. I don’t care who you are playing against, but you never leave the game unless you’re hurt. And he raised his hand and told them to come get him. Conrad and I still talk about it. I tell them all the time, man they are still talking about you in Los Angeles (laughing).
Q: How is Conrad doing these days? I know his wife, Joyce, passed away earlier this year.
Banks: He’s had a hard time dealing with Joyce’s death but like I tell him, you’re a tough guy Conrad, and all of us have so much respect for everything he did. He wanted to make sure that his kids weren’t burdened by Joyce’s physical problems and he wanted to make sure he was there to take care of them. I’ve got so much respect for him taking that position and following through with it.
Q: You’ve mentioned Dan Dierdorf a few times throughout the interview. Thoughts on the Hall of Famer?
Banks: Well, Dan and I were not only teammates for ten years, but our lockers were right next to each other. I’ve always had so much respect for Dan. Not just for his ability, but the kind of person he is and the way he could focus. You know, when he put that helmet on it was all about taking care of business. To me he was the greatest drive blocker I’ve ever seen. I mean coming off the ball, especially short yardage/goal line situations.
Q: Roger Finnie was obtained from the Jets in 1973 and took over at left tackle. Thoughts on Roger?
Banks: You know, Roger was a great guy. Unfortunately, he passed away 6 and a half years ago. He had been a defensive lineman on the Jets and our defensive guys were going to let him go. But Coach Hanifan liked Roger’s footwork and the way he was coachable, and Jim said let me have him before you run him off and I will see what I can do. And of course, he became a pretty good player for us. He and Bob Young worked well together.
Banks: You know Ernie McMillan, you talk about making the ultimate sacrifice. Here’s a Pro Bowl right tackle; you know, Dierdorf was drafted in the second round to play left tackle, but it didn’t work out. The footwork is so different between right tackle and left tackle. But, Ernie said hey, I think I can do that. Let me play left tackle and have Dan come over and play right tackle which is what he was used to. So, Ernie was the captain for all the right reasons. I mean, he taught me so much. Just by being Ernie, I learned a lot about being a professional player.
Q: The Big Red played a memorable game against the Redskins on a late Sunday afternoon in 1975. It became known as the “Phantom Catch” game. Mel Gray caught a controversial TD pass from Jim Hart on fourth down late in the game. One of the officials ruled it an incompletion, but the call was eventually overturned and the Big Red went on to win in overtime. What are your memories of this game?
Banks: I learned a long time ago that there’s nothing I can do about the officials, so as soon as they started arguing I went to the bench to get some water. They officials went at it for a while. But whether it was a catch or not, by today’s rules it’s not, but in those days I think there’s some argument there. But the main thing was we beat them!
Q: The playoff loss to the Rams in 1975. It was a disappointing ending to the season to say the least.
Banks: We just got beat. Of course, we put it on them the next year, but it didn’t mean much since it was a regular season game. I really felt like the Rams had more experience as far as being a playoff team and we were just learning. It was disappointing for sure because we felt like we had such a good team, but they took it to us, I think McCutcheon had over 200 yards rushing, we couldn’t stop him.
Q: The Big Red played the San Diego Chargers in Tokyo during the 1976 pre-season. I’ve read some pretty colorful stories from other players about the flight to Japan. What is your story?
Banks: It was a unique trip. A good break from training camp. We played an exhibition game in Arizona and flew to San Francisco, I think, and stayed the night. The next morning, we get on a plane to Tokyo. Well, they took us to the airport like three or four hours early and what are a bunch of guys going to do? We went straight to the bar! (laughing) So, everybody’s drinking, telling stories, having a good time. We get on the plane and everything deteriorated pretty quickly. And you know, it wasn’t a charter plane, I think there were some regular passengers on there. We had seats all the way in the back. It was a long trip and I had too much to drink. Had a good time! (laughing)
Q: Wasn’t Bill Bidwill’s wife on the plane?
Banks: Bill’s wife and her mother were on the plane. I was sitting in the back where people had to walk past me to get to the bathroom. My whole thing was everyone had to have a toast with me before I let you go to the bathroom. And I’m pulling my southern charm on these two ladies (laughing) but I actually got a toast with them and we all laughed and giggled before they went back to their seats. I was later told by Coach Hanifan that Billy wanted to send me home, but his wife and mother-in-law stepped in and told him that I was a perfect gentleman! (laughing)
Q: There was a Monday night game in 1976 played in monsoon like conditions in Washington. What was it like playing in those conditions, especially playing center?
Banks: We set a record for the most total fumbles I know that! I’ve got a great picture of me on the sidelines at the end of the game with my foot up on my helmet, pissed off at the world. It was all over the papers the next day and my good old country boys called me the next day and said “Man what are you so pissed off about?” I said, “We’re getting beat, you can’t figure that out?” (laughing). Anyway, it’s one of my favorite pictures. But, you know, it was just one of those days, it rained so much and that was a lousy field to start with. And they didn’t have very much drainage. It just wasn’t very good conditions. It just kept raining and raining. The good thing is that you can’t get hurt on a field like that. But it was frustrating. Getting the ball to Jim was very difficult.
Q: The ’76 team won ten games and missed the playoffs. The ’77 team started 7-3 and then you played the Dolphins at Busch Stadium on Thanksgiving Day. The Big Red lost 55-14 and the game would become known as the Thanksgiving Day Massacre. What happened?
Banks: The Thanksgiving game was terrible. We couldn’t stop them, we couldn’t score… nothing worked. I don’t have a really good way to explain what happened. You know they had a really good defense, A.J. Duhe, Bob Baumhower, and the entire crew. You know, I’ve said many times that Bob Baumhower should be in the Hall of Fame. He was that good of a nose guard, He was dominant. I couldn’t block him I know that. They had a whole crew on defense that were all coming together. They played a terrific game against us, and their offense, Griese, he couldn’t miss a pass that day. It was a very dominant performance on both sides of the ball. I can’t really explain the rest of the season. We lost the last four games. It’s like we ran out of gas.
Q: Before we leave the Cardiac Cards era, let’s talk about some of your other teammates. Your quarterback, Jim Hart.
Banks: Good quarterback. We had a lot of fun with Jimmy. He said something one time that he got hit, and it hurt. I said, hell Jimmy, you’ve got to be an athlete back there, come on! (laughing). I said we get hit every play up here come on (laughing). We used to give him all kinds of grief about that kind of stuff. When we kept them off of him, he was a fine quarterback, but it could effect his game. You know we went through a period there in ’75, I think it was seven in a row where he didn’t get sacked and I believe there were five games in a row where he didn’t get touched. Now think about that for a second. He didn’t get touched. This was the 70s man, there weren’t any rules about protecting quarterbacks. We were able to extend our arms, but couldn’t hold. Now they let them hold. And you know, I keep thinking, do these guys have no pride or what? Man, it’s ridiculous! That’s no blocking! (laughing)
Q: Tell us your thoughts on the Hall of Famer Jackie Smith?
Banks: Great player, terrific guy to be around. I always admired Jackie about the way he approached the game and, gosh, talking about leaving it on the field, he was just the ultimate warrior. I just loved playing with Jackie. He looks like he could still play. Have you ever seen him sing the National Anthem? I saw him sing at the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame a few years ago. Oh, my God, I couldn’t believe it! I mean this man can do anything! He’s superman!
Q: The fullback, Jim Otis.
Banks: Jimmy knew how to follow his blocks well and he never fumbled. It was one of the things we loved about him. He was a good guy to block for. He was low to the ground and he knew what we were trying to do as far as blocking and it worked well. We had a lot of confidence to Jim.
Q: There’s a great photo of Jim Otis and the offensive line on the sideline in Chicago after Otis broke the 1000 yard mark in 1975.
Banks: (Laughing) That’s a great photo! You know I have a great story about that. Jim breaks a run and passes a thousand yards. So we get back to the huddle and then I walk up to the line to grab the ball, and the official takes it from me. I’m like “What the hell are you doing? He just broke a thousand yards!” (laughing) He said, “Well he can’t have this ball,” and I said “Give me the damn ball!” So, I took it from him and walked to the sideline and gave it to Jim. He wasn’t going to give me the damn ball! (laughing) I couldn’t believe it!
Q: You played most of your career with Mel Gray, the speedster out of Mizzou.
Banks: Mel’s always been one of my favorites. You know he never backed down from anybody. I saw him go after Dick Butkus one time. He missed his man intentionally to take a shot at him. (laughing) You know that’s why Dick only played nine years, because every offensive player in the league was after him! He was the dirtiest son of a b*tch I ever saw. I’d love to take a shot at him now, but I don’t know who the hell would get me up off the floor! (roaring laughter)
Q: How about the all-time leading scorer in Cardinal history, Jim Bakken?
Banks: I’ve got to tell you, I never gave much thought about kickers one way or the other (laughing). They’ve got one job, come kick the damn ball and get off the field. Now Bakken, was really more of a player than just a kicker. He ran the scout team for us, he was a QB, he was an athlete. We could always count on Jimmy.
(Part 3 will cover Tom’s final few years in St. Louis, his USFL days, and retirement)