If William Banks never plays another down of football in his life, he’ll never forget his last play.
Neither will any fans of Georgia Southern.
On a third-and-2 in the waning minutes in one of the Southeastern Conference’s most intimidating venues, Banks broke loose for 53 yards against the Florida Gators to set up the go-ahead touchdown in an upset that will resonate as much as any of the Eagles’ six national championship wins.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better ending to my career than that run,” said Banks, the former Augusta Christian star who walked on at Georgia Southern four years ago.
It was a classic underdog moment for both Georgia Southern and Banks, beating Florida 26-20 in The Swamp in the school’s last game before making the leap to college football’s top level in the Sun Belt Conference. Prior to Saturday, the Eagles had been 0-20 against programs in the division formerly known as I-A.
“It really felt like a dream at first, but after waking up a few times I guess it’s real,” Banks said three days after rushing 11 times for 94 yards and a touchdown in the upset.
It was a remarkable game for the Eagles and Banks, who only got cleared to play on the eve of the game after passing his final concussion protocol test in modified contact drills at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Banks had suffered a concussion two weeks earlier against Western Carolina and had already missed the Elon game the week before.
“When he got hurt, the trainers told him that day, ‘You’re done,’ ” said Eagles coach Jeff Monken. “They meant you’re done for the day and he took it that you’re done for the year and your career. I think he was really down in the dumps about it. I told his dad if he’s symptom free and passes all of his tests they give him to make sure there are no lingering signs of concussion by this past Saturday, he could be cleared to play in the game against Florida.”
Banks passed but was still withheld from practices all week as part of the seven-day protocol. He had not undergone any physical activity for two weeks.
“I didn’t want to miss the game,” he said. “It was the last game of my career and one of the biggest teams I’ve ever faced as far as size and conference play. I really wanted to contribute for the team.”
BANKS DIDN’T START at fullback, but his offensive coaches noticed the way the Gators were playing defense might create some opportunities for the fullback they call “Tick.”
At the end of the third quarter, Banks scored on a 3-yard run to give the Eagles a 20-10 lead. He promptly went to the sidelines and vomited, which was caught on camera and turned into an Internet GIF.
“Something had to give and that was it,” Banks said with a laugh. “I guess I can’t really be embarrassed about anything for the rest of my life. I’m all over the Internet throwing up on the sideline.”
Eagles fans felt similarly queasy after the Gators rallied to tie the game at 20-20 with 5:41 remaining. Hopes for that elusive upset looked dimmer as Georgia Southern prepared for a crucial third down at its own 33. The Eagles decided to give the ball to their 5-foot-9, 201-pound fullback on an off-tackle dive.
“Just hoping he could find a crease to get us 3 yards and a first down,” Monken said.
Banks more than delivered, breaking through the line and going 53 yards to the Gators’ 14 before getting dragged down.
“Just thinking before the play starts to get the first down more than anything, hold onto the ball and keep the drive alive,” Banks said. “I got the ball and sure enough the back side opened up again. The hole kept opening up and up and I was thinking this could bust open for a long run. So I tried to get on my horse and go as fast as I could, but those guys are pretty fast and they got me 53 yards down the field. There was so much going through my head that I just wanted to hold onto the ball and get the victory.”
IN A SEASON WHEN Georgia Southern was ineligible to win the Southern Conference title or advance to the postseason because of its decision to leave for the Sun Belt in 2014, the finale in Florida was the crowning statement they sought to deliver.
“We kind of treated it as a bowl game, being the last game of the year and being a BCS opponent,” Banks said. “This isn’t the playoffs, but we’re going to treat this as our first BCS bowl. It was a goal to beat Florida and be the first win over a BCS school. We definitely had it marked on our schedule.”
In some ways, the result against last season’s Sugar Bowl participant was more indelible than any other in the program’s storied history.
“I think it gave the whole football team and that senior class something they’ll remember for the rest of their lives and something that they’ll be remembered for,” Monken said. “This is the first FBS victory in our program’s history and something really special for this team.”
Said Banks: “There’s a lot of what-ifs or could-haves (about the playoffs). But I don’t really know if there’s a better way to end my career. Just such a huge win. That’s a victory in Georgia Southern history that many people will remember for years to come.
“I remember how big it was when Appalachian State beat Michigan. People still remember that today and don’t remember who won the I-AA national championship that year. People are always going to remember this game.”
It was fitting that a former walk-on delivered such key plays in the outcome.
“We have survived and excelled as a program because of guys like him,” Monken said of Banks. “They’ve been here since the beginning of the program in 1981 and guys showing up and trying out. Ever since, we’ve built it on the backs of some great walk-on guys. ... We’ve got a wall full of guys with stories like that. William is one of those guys who made a difference in our program and were fortunate he came to school here and wanted to be a part of it.”
The kid from Augusta Christian couldn’t have dreamed it up any better.
“When I came in I had big dreams and a lot of doubters,” Banks said. “That’s about as good as it will get right there the way we finished it. I couldn’t ask for a better way. That’s a dream come true.”